Updated: Apr 7, 2022
Recently, I’ve been doing some thinking about what “being able to read” really means. It may seem like a simple concept, but that probably means that by all intents and purposes, if you are reading this right now, fluently and comprehensively, then you would probably be labeled as a “good” reader.
However, what does that really mean? And what does the ability to read really entail? Here are 5 rules about reading I think that no one really talks about, but should.
#1 – Written language is a human invention. Therefore, unlike spoken language, for the majority of people, reading is a skill that has to be directly taught. Perhaps, if you are one of those “good” readers, it is hard for you to even remember how you got so good at reading. You can even skim over passages easily and still understand the main points. More than likely, you have the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds in your language, you learned how to translate this ability to written form piece by piece, and you practiced practiced practiced. However, this skill should not be taken for granted. Because not everyone who is taught directly and who practices becomes a “good” reader. Just like not everyone who is taught how to play the piano becomes a good piano player. With any learned skill, it depends on a combination of elements; what teaching method is used, how much support does the child receive, how skilled is the teacher, etc.
Notice I didn’t blame not being able to be a good reader on the child.
#2 – Reading is more than just being able to decode/read/memorize words. I realize I am in a field that studies language and communication, so sometimes I take for granted that people understand what it really means to read. But, then you have folks coming out with grand ideas like “Your Baby Can Read“! OMG. So, I feel I must explain that reading does not just mean being able to decode/say the words that are written. If that were the case then being able to say this:
would count as knowing how to read.
Maybe you were able to say the words, but did you understand what you read? Perhaps if you know the Korean language you did.
The point of language, be it spoken, signed, gestured, or written, is communication. Therefore, being able to read is an act of communication. It’s not just about being able to say the words, but about comprehending what you are reading.
#3 – Reading is culturally and linguistically based. Most often, when you do see written language, especially the written language in books and newspapers, it is usually the mainstream language and dialect that is being used. For children who are immersed in a language or dialect that is not the mainstream, rarely will they see, if ever, their variety of spoken language in written form, especially in a school setting.
Now, this is not to say that a child should learn to speak the mainstream dialect before learning how to read it, because language learning (in most cases) is not the issue here. But, I do think the fact that their cultural and language background is different should be taken into account.
Another aspect of reading that is hugely important is that of interpretation and background knowledge. Different cultures (and I mean differences between nationalities, ethnicities, races, classes, even generations) use different vocabulary words, different pronunciation of words, different grammar, different syntax, different sounds, different intonations when speaking, and have different backgrounds and experiences and all of this influences the interpretation of what you are reading. To me, this is one of the greatest issues in the educational reading gap. Too often we hear about African American and Latino children being “poor” readers of mainstream American English or having low proficiency in reading of mainstream American English. More often than not, people link this difference in reading achievement as a difference in cognitive ability. Unfortunately, cultural and linguistic differences don’t seem to be taken into account when being assessed on reading in a culture and dialect/language that is not their own*.
#4 – With that said, reading isn’t simply mapping the way we speak onto written symbols. It is an altogether different way of communicating than the way we naturally speak. Words written on paper rarely resemble the manner in which we speak. We say “um”, and “like”, and repeat phrases, and stutter, and forget words, blend words together, and do all sorts of things that do not resemble a very linearly written sentence. So, even if a child does speak the mainstream dialect, reading is still a skill that most be learned and practiced.
#5 – Correcting a child’s reading does not always improve his reading. Sounds strange, right? However, too many studies have shown that when teachers correct a child’s reading of how to pronounce words, or corrects the grammar and syntax of sentences, be this due to dialect differences or other language differences, it does not improve the child’s reading ability, it makes the child less confident, confused, and/or overly dependent on the teacher’s corrections. For a classic dialect example, let’s say a child reads the word “pen” and pronounces it as “pin.” From the child’s perspective he has said the word correctly, because that is how he pronounces “pen” in his dialect. But, the teacher, unaware of this dialect difference, may feel the need to correct his pronunciation to “pin.” In this case, the teacher is not correcting the child’s reading, but correcting the child’s pronunciation, two very different things.
The act of reading is not a simple one. It is important to remember that reading 1) is a learned skill that must be taught directly, 2) is a form of written communication often presented in the mainstream dialect and language of the majority culture, and 3) due to a variety of reasons, may not be learned in the same way or to the same degree as others.
So, for those of us who find it easy to read and even easier to read in the mainstream dialect, well then, I guess we are privileged in that sense.