Activate your preunderstanding – and get more out of your text

There are numerous components, methods and strategies that we either consciously or unconsciously utilise when reading everything from social media posts and news articles to non-fiction and fiction. These elements are inherent parts of reading comprehension that we are taught from an early age to help us better memorise and understand what we read.

Our reading comprehension is also influenced by other factors such as word decoding, vocabulary, and linguistic and cognitive awareness. Similarly, it is also characterised by motivation, attention and, not least, preunderstanding. Preunderstanding is an important prerequisite for both our reading comprehension and reading technique.

Comprehension strategies and reading techniques

Reading techniques, also known as comprehension strategies, are the mental activities we use while reading. We use them to better process information and acquire the desired knowledge. In many ways, it’s a mental balancing act, where the goal is to utilise our resources in the best possible way so that we don’t burn out before the text is finished.

In schools and universities, you will often be introduced to strategies such as Overview reading, Skimming, Speed reading, Study reading and SQ4R (“Survey, Qustion, Read, Respond, Record and Review”). These strategies are not exclusive to academia, as many of the same mechanisms can be transferred to other disciplines and everyday experiences.

For example, during overview reading, we typically read the preface, introduction, headings and conclusions and then skim selected parts of the text. What’s special about these reading techniques is that we get a sufficient picture of the content without going in-depth. The purpose is to better select relevant parts of the text. It is also to ensure that we use our resources appropriately. If all texts are given equal amounts of attention, we risk becoming tired quickly/ One of the causes of this fatigue is in our brain, and in this context, we can talk about two systems:

  • System 1 – Autopilot (unconscious tasks)
  • System 2 – Manual (conscious tasks)

We use System 2 for complex and novel tasks that require active awareness, where System 1 handles the unconscious and intuitive tasks. In this way, System 1 is our autopilot and System 2 is our manual control.

When we skim texts and simply read headlines, conclusions and prefaces, we are on autopilot, using our resources to get an overview rather than understanding the text as a whole. Once we’ve found the relevant parts of the text to focus on, we switch to System 2 to get a deeper understanding of the content. From here, we start using other strategies that focus more on close reading.

Fluency as a reading strategy

When we close read a text, we consciously use an increased amount of mental energy to make sense of the content. Similarly, when reading about a completely new and unfamiliar topic, we spend more resources on understanding everything from technical terms to new concepts as well as themes and main ideas. While reading, we also spend mental energy on word decoding and text comprehension, among other things, though this – depending on vocabulary and reading speed – might not require much.

Study reading is a close reading technique where we read each word carefully and often repeat entire paragraphs, as well as investigate difficult and new words/terms. It’s a thorough technique, but is not the most appropriate when the task is to get an overall view of the text.

Close reading requires a high level of awareness while reading. As we’ve seen above, increased concentration and awareness can quicky drain our mental energy. It’s therefore important to find and use a reading technique that makes the reading itself effortless, so we can use our energy on what’s important: Reading comprehension.

Fluent reading, also known as fluency, is a technique that provides a framework for reading with a surplus of reading comprehension based on three dimensions:

  • Word decoding
  • Automation
  • Prosody

The goal of fluency is that we learn to read texts faster and more fluently, so as to easier understand what we read. With fluency, it’s especially important to mention that it’s not about reading fast for the sake of speed itself. We don’t create value by reading fast if we don’t make sense of the text at the same time. For this reason, all of the three dimensions are relevant to look at.

When we learn to decode words correctly, we can better read texts automatically without the need to stop along the way. We read the words with our automatic pilot (System 1), as we know the meaning and pronunciation of the words. Therefore, we don’t need to activate System 2 as much as we would if we had to be aware of each individual word. With prosody, we learn to read texts expressively, but prosody is mostly relevant when reading aloud. In relation to silent reading, it is not as relevant.

When we learn and eventually master fluent reading, we can read texts faster with increased comprehension, but it takes practice. A beneficial exercise can be repeated readings of the same text, where we get better at decoding and automatization is put in place. Studies have shown that the learning and experience gained from this exercise transfers to other and new texts.

However, as we read new texts and relate to new areas, there is one area of reading comprehension that becomes particularly important: preunderstanding.

Introduction to preunderstanding

With preunderstanding, also known as prior knowledge, we add a fourth dimension of fluency, as our existing knowledge of the topic, content and genre, among other things, can determine what we get out of the text. To begin with, preunderstanding can be categorised into two aspects: having a broad or deep knowledge of a topic or subject area. In relation to history, for example, a broad knowledge can mean that you have a general knowledge of most historical trends and periods, whereas a deep knowledge means that you have a thorough knowledge of, for example, the Middle Ages or the Han Dynasty. It is relevant to mention that one does not exclude the other.

Preunderstanding is not without its challenges, such as distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant prior knowledge. Another pitfall could be if we fail to activate our preunderstanding or create relevant associations with the content of the text. Relevant here is the cognitive schema theory. A cognitive schema is a memory structure and mental frame of reference located in our long-term memory, which we, for example, activate when we read about a topic we already know about. These schemas are based on past experiences from similar experiences and situations, which we use to better understand our current situation and adjust our expectation. For example, the name “Churchill” will likely trigger our knowledge of World War II, as we know that Winston Churchill was a central figure during the war. In terms of reading, the schemas help us create an overview of the text and to recognise, understand and have appropriate expectations of the content and the text’s the key features.

As mentioned, cognitive schemas are built on our past experience, and one of the key elements of preunderstanding is our own and the authors’ socio-cultural backgrounds. As readers, we are strongly influenced by our social environments and cultures, and as such, we encounter texts with our prior experiences, knowledge and needs in the back of our minds. This pre-understanding is considered by German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer as our horizon of expectations. Similarly, literary works are also influenced by the social environments, cultures and times of the authors, which Gadamer refers to as the horizon of understanding. During reading, an exchange between the horizon of the text and the horizon of the reader takes place in a hermeneutic circle, where the understanding of the text rests in the fusion of the two horizons.

There are ways to improve and increase our preunderstanding of the topic. This could be trough engaging with the topic outside of the text through documentaries or discussions with others. Repeated readings are also an option. As mentioned earlier, this is an inherent part of fluent reading, where you can gradually increase your awareness of the topic by re-reading selected paragraphs and texts. Finally, preunderstanding can be activated and enhanced by asking probing questions while reading, which can increase our attention and help us make the relevant associations.

Preunderstanding is an important part of reading comprehension as it allows us to better understand the themes, elements and main ideas of a text. Armed with this understanding, we can better process the new knowledge, draw conclusions and inferences about the content while reading, and possibly patch up gaps where the specific text would otherwise appear deficient. In conclusion, the more we already know about the topic, the better we can potentially read new texts and the more we can gain from them.

Preunderstanding in relation to fluent reading

When we activate and utilise the relevant preunderstanding, we can potentially gain even more from the text when using fluency as a reading strategy. With our preunderstanding, we can read texts more fluently, as we can better systematise our new knowledge, fill in any gaps in the current text and, not least, draw conclusions about the content. At the same time, we will have a greater knowledge of technical terms, main ideas and themes that will help us better understand what we are reading. Finally, it can help us make deeper meaning of the text’s content, so we can potentially get more out of the reading material.

Read more about preunderstanding here.


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