May 13, 2008

What is reading?

In April the Pew Internet Project in conjunction with the National Commission on Writing released Writing, Technology and Teens. One of the important points this study made is that there is a reciprocal relationship between different forms of media as electronic conventions seep, spring and even surge onto the printed page. The question then becomes what is writing?

A parallel question is what does it mean to read text? A short history lesson reveals that the definition has included:

  • the recitation of famous documents or poems,
  • being able to sound out words on a page,
  • the recognition of sight words,
  • the comprehension of novel text,
  • achieving fluency, and, more technically,
  • the ability to decode written language, etc.
    (Pearson, 2001; Stahl & Miller, 1989; Wolf, 1988).

 

These different definitions serve to remind us that the context is important. For example, as Wolf (1988) notes the historical context is important since up until WWI and the introduction of technologies, knowing portions of the Gettysburg Address was sufficient.

However, much of the concern about reading is more complex. It concerns genre (e.g., literary reading vs. graphic novels), form (instruction manuals vs. email), duration (sustained vs. non-continuous), purpose (e.g., functional vs. supplemental), motivation (e.g., voluntary vs. required) and medium (print vs. electronic text). In application, this concern sometimes has the effect of adding a social context when it values one type over another such as Austin before blogs.

Lastly, there are the outcome measures such as comprehension, retention or application in an authentic activity that are central. That is, what is the effect of the text on the individual, what goal is served, etc. And, as you may well ask, the goal of this post is to remind us that what it means to read — like what is means to write — is complex. There just isn’t a simple answer.

(For an amusing take on the history of reading, check out this Norwegian comedy show clip – with English subtitles – of a medieval help desk.)

References:

1. Pearson, P. David (2001). “Reading in the Twentieth Century” CIERA Archive Tech Report #01- 08. Ann Arbor, MI: CIERA.
2. Stahl, S.A., & Miller, P.D. (1989). Whole language and language experience approaches for beginning reading: A quantitative synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 59, 87-116.
3. Wolf, D.P. (1998). Becoming Literate: One Reader Reading. Academic Connections, 1-4.