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About the Way We Learned to Read (Slowly)
Gary L. Bertrand

            We first learned to recognize the letters of the alphabet, and then we learned that the letters can be assembled into words.  We learned to relate the sequences of letters to the sounds of spoken words.  Somewhere along the way, we  learned that the sequences of letters can be recognized as words, without having to go through them letter-by-letter.  When reading text with familiar words, we can recognize words that are misspelled, with letters transposed, or even with some letters omitted.

            In the early stages of reading  we read aloud, strengthening the relationship between written and spoken words.  This also allowed teachers and parents to evaluate our reading ability, and to help us over difficult spots.  This tie between the written and spoken words became so strong that we had to go through a process of learning to read silently.  Most of us went through a stage of “moving our lips”, being careful not to allow the sounds to escape.  This was fairly obvious, and we soon learned it was the mark of a poor reader.  We then learned to mentally “hear” the words, so that our lips didn’t move - a process known as “sub-vocalizing”.

            We learned that in order to remember something, we had to go over it repeatedly – saying and/or hearing the words over and over again.  When we applied this principle to reading we developed the habit of reading and re-reading the same sentences – “backing up” as we read.

            The net result of all of this is that we slowly learned to read, and we learned to read slowly.  Vocalizing or sub-vocalizing while reading limits our reading speed to our speaking rate, a terrible burden for some of us Southerners.  Relating the text to speech also makes us conscious of pronunciation and cadence, distracting us from gathering information directly from the written words.  There is a tendency to go back over the words and to “read it better”, perhaps to impress a long-ago monitor, but also because we think that will help us remember what we have read.  Vocalization is inherently tied to one-word-at-a time, an unnecessary limitation on our reading ability.

            The first step to learning to read more quickly is in convincing ourselves that it really can be done.  After that, it is simply a matter of growth.  The two hardest steps go hand-in-hand:  taking a “bite” of several words at a time and avoiding sub-vocalization.


The Exercises

Number/Letter Recognition:
The first step is understanding what a “bite” is.  This begins with the exercise in Number/Letter Recognition.  A random sequence of numbers or letters is flashed on the screen for a fraction of a second.  It is impossible to read the characters sequentially in the short time that they are displayed.  You must grab the group as a single bite, then reflect on what you’ve seen so that you can type the characters and compare them to the actual sequence.  The program allows you to reduce the time that the characters are visible and/or increase the number of characters.  This is a good exercise in concentration as it forces you to widen your eyespan, and it begins to give you an idea of what is possible in reading rapidly.

Name Recognition:
This is similar to the previous exercise but instead of random sequences of characters, names which may or may not be familiar to you are flashed on the screen.  This involves a much larger bite than the previous exercise, but is perhaps easier because the names (just words) are somewhat familiar.  This can be used in a sequence of two or three names, to gain experience in moving your focus in large jumps, and to gain confidence in “digesting” one bite while you are moving on to the next.

Reading and Retention - Level I:
This begins to address “normal” reading, with some measure of comprehension.  It presents a statement concerning a list of items, shown on the screen for a short period of time.  You are then asked a question regarding the list.  The time of exposure and the number of items are controllable, so that you can increase your speed and work on comprehension.

Reading and Retention - Level II:
This continues with “normal” reading, but leans to the type of reading that relates to studying.  In this case, we are often searching for specific information in the text at hand.  The common technique here is to quickly scan the entire text to see what information is there, then to re-read in more detail to obtain the specific information.  The primary goal here is increase speed while maintaining retention.  A secondary goal is to shift the gathering of information from the detailed reading to the initial scan.

Reading for Speed:
This is the common device for helping you learn to avoid “backing up” while reading, and to try to force you to read more quickly.  A gray area descends over the text at a  fixed speed, and you must read quickly enough to stay ahead of it.  Work on concentrating on the material while taking the text in larger and larger bites.

On Your Own:
Try to incorporate these techniques in your normal reading.  Newspapers are a good resource here.  There is not much pressure to thoroughly understand the material, the material is not likely to contain many unfamiliar words, and the width of a column is such that most beginners can quickly learn to take it in two bites – and a single bite is not an impossible goal.

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