Ideas on education, the English language, and the teaching profession.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Art of Reading

Many people often make the mistake of considering reading some sort of skill that can be learned and known forever after. Like fixing a flat tire on a bicycle or operating a dishwasher, they think that they can simply do the activity without having to really think about it. If reading really was such a simple activity that a person could know how to perform after the first or second grade, schools could easily do away with the ten years English classes that students still have to take afterwards. Unfortunately, reading is not such a simple activity that one can simply “know how to do.” Rather, reading is an art comprised of many separate skills, and it requires incessant practice and training to sufficiently master it.

Mastering reading does not arrive quickly to even the most talented reader. Every student must start as a beginner learning the sounds of letters and identifying words before they even start reading actual stories or articles, let alone whole sentences. A person cannot skip steps in this learning process, or they will struggle greatly in understanding what they see on the page. For this reason, beginners of reading start with short books with short words that rhyme (this helps a person learn the right pronunciation of words), short simple sentences to accommodate slow readers, an easy story with very few details or ideas, and big pictures to reinforce the meaning of the text. Once a reader can get through these simple books, they can progress to longer books with bigger words, longer sentences, and fewer pictures. These books will also require the reader to learn new skills that go beyond vocabulary and phonics (sounding out words) because these books will do much more complex things with language, compositional structure, and ideas. Highly advanced levels of reading will feature dense books that often manipulate and push the boundaries of language to present very complex ideas and challenge the reader to use many techniques for understanding. Getting to this point in reading which is necessary for college or professional studies, usually requires many years of practice and instruction.

When failing to understand that reading is an art, readers develop an attitude that they can avoid the practice and instruction necessary to improve and still somehow read more challenging texts. They might learn the basics and enjoy his picture books, but they will stop at that point, thinking they have learned enough. Once they are asked to read classic literature as a young adult, they will find out the hard way that they cannot do it. They will not understand many of the words, they will find it hard to follow the ideas and the story, and they will generally get very little meaning or enjoyment from the book. Although years have passed, and these readers are technically older, their minds have not grown, and they read at the same level they did when they were much younger. They will either have to change their reading habits (or lack thereof) and catch up, or suffer from ignorance for the rest of their lives.

A reader must learn many different skills to sufficiently understand and remember what he reads. For example, a beginning reader must first identify the correct pronunciation of words and the roles of punctuation marks like a beginning artist learns about lines and shapes. In understanding more complex fictional texts, a reader must learn different skills like outlining basic events in a story, identifying a character’s qualities, determining word meanings from context clues, finding the purpose behind certain sentence structures, examining details to see what they suggest, or seeing the relationships between certain characters. Students have to learn many more of these reading skills, especially when they start reading classics and various pieces of nonfiction. Learning them will not be fun or easy at first, but it will enable the reader to have much more fun reading once he has mastered them. The reader will then feel like an artist using colors, paints, and perspective to make something beautiful and unique instead of miserably drawing ugly stick figures; he will feel like a musician who can finally make beautiful music that he and other people like instead of making his audience cringe in disgust and ultimately embarrassing himself.

Eventually, all mature readers will be able to understand and work with all the different genres in literature. Most texts do have the same basic skills in comprehension, yet each genre emphasizes a specific set of skills for analysis. Both fiction and nonfiction have different genres within them that determine how a reader approaches the text. For example, a reader will look for the thesis, the outline of the argument, and the types of evidence used if he reads a persuasive speech; whereas he will look for plot, characterization, and stylistic elements if he reads a novel. A reader will certainly have a preference for one genre over others like an artist who prefers painting landscapes in an impressionist style over painting human figures in realistic style, yet having experience with all genres will still assist him in better understanding his owned preferred genre of reading and enable him to evolve intellectually. Moreover, many skills in reading will overlap genres; for instance, techniques used to interpret a poem also help in finding the argument in a persuasive essay.

At a very basic level, reaching a point of mastery in reading requires a good deal of instruction and constant practice. After a period of time, the lazy but talented reader will quickly come to nothing because reading demands work like any other artistic discipline. A violinist cannot play a fancy concerto without practicing for many hours, nor can he teach himself to play a concerto. Similarly, a reader cannot read a tragedy of Shakespeare without having read anything before, nor can he teach himself to read Shakespeare without the assistance of some kind of teacher. The brain functions like a muscle and thrives with rigorous discipline. It becomes stronger and has more endurance with regular use, but it becomes slow and weak upon neglect. Due to their lack of practice, many readers have a very hard time concentrating or understanding more difficult works of literature despite having attended ten years of English classes.

In essence, like all other arts, reading is primarily a process of creation. The painter creates paintings; the sculptor creates statues; the musician creates pleasant sounds; the poet creates poems. The reader creates ideas. Unlike watching television or playing a video game where the idea is already constructed and rendered on the screen, reading words on a page requires a person construct an idea, often with many more parts and intricacies, in his own mind. For this reason, watching a movie adaptation of a novel does not equal reading the novel; the mind does not actively construct anything but passively watches a screen, and the movie itself can only show a fraction of the ideas contained in the book.
On a practical level, reading triumphs over other arts because mastering the art of reading allows a person to learn anything. For this reason, schools heavily emphasize strong reading skills for all grade levels since it applies to every subject and is absolutely necessary for college studies and employment training. The art of reading also allows a certain freedom to the master, for what he reads provides new ideas that he can choose to use or not; the poor reader has fewer ideas to choose from and often lets others think for him while the strong reader can think for himself and be his own leader. When one cannot read and learn different things on his own, he sacrifices many things he can enjoy in life such as what he does for a living or understanding why life works the way it does. Therefore, all people must not simply learn the act of reading but master the art of reading and truly broaden the horizons of their existence.

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