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The art of reading: An introduction to reading and reading comprehension

Reading is a natural part of everyday life for many, and although we are not born as readers, we rarely give this ability a second thought. Whether we read news and articles or film reviews and social media posts, reading has become an integral part of our lives. It’s also one of the acquired skills in our educational toolbox that we learnt in the early days of primary school.

For some, reading is a game where you visualise the words and immerse yourself in magical worlds, and for others it’s a simple necessity for everyday life. For a third group, sometimes poses a challenge. Reading is therefore an interesting field to work with, because how do we deal with a phenomenon that many consider a natural part of everyday life? To analyse it many researches separate reading (as decoding) and comprehension.

In this article, we take an introductory look at the two phenomena and how they work separately and as a whole.

The art of reading and reading techniques

Reading, and the ability to read, is individual, but what many of us have in common is that we don’t think about how we read. But what if it could be done differently? Maybe even better? Over the years, a host of researchers, counsellors, teachers and educators have worked hard to develop reading techniques that aim to improve reading and reading comprehension. But aren’t the two the same thing? Surely reading is also understanding what you read? Well, not quite. While reading, a number of reactions occur in the brain, and you may find yourself suddenly thinking about that exciting party on Saturday where you were talking to that cute girl/boy. But what was their name, and did you ever get their number? Or you might start thinking about the exciting video game that you were playing on your Xbox the other day. You were in the middle of an intense quest to uncover a monstrous plot against the emperor, but who could be behind such an atrocity?

Why do our thoughts so often get derailed when reading? One of the most common reasons is boredom, but are you really bored when you read? Not necessarily. For some, racing thoughts occur when, for example, the subject matter is too complex to comprehend. In these situations, you simply decode the words, but the context and meaning remain a mystery. In essence, while reading, a situation can arise where our brains are not stimulated and suddenly we find ourselves thinking about completely different things while we inattentively read on without really understanding or relating to what we are reading. If and when this happens, many of us will jump back to the point in the text where we feel the chain broke, and start reading slower and more thoroughly.

Since childhood, we have learnt that slow reading is the same as thorough reading. Over time, we have also acquired an inner voice that reads along, so to speak. But is slow reading necessarily thorough reading, and is the inner voice a help or a hindrance? Today, there is a plethora of reading techniques, methods and advice in every conceivable form that you can use to improve your reading. On the education platform EMU, for example, you can find four techniques suitable for high school and college students.

The four techniques are Overview reading, Skimming, Speed reading and Study reading. Each focus on different elements, with skimming emphasising reading only headlines and conclusions, and speed reading teaching you to scan words and sentences without use of the inner voice. Aalborg University shares three pieces of advice suitable for academics in particular, emphasising the importance of reading space, prioritising and selecting reading material, and reading with curiosity and motivation.

Reading comprehension and reading comprehension strategies

There are a number of techniques and methods that aim to help us read more efficiently and potentially faster, but what about reading comprehension and what is it? In an article written by Lene Storgaard Brok and Søren Eefsen, it is described as follows:

“The goal of reading is to be able to understand what you read. Understanding what you read is a complex cognitive and linguistic process that involves the reader actively interpreting the written message based on the knowledge with which the reader encounters the text.”

In essence, reading comprehension is about understanding what you read. However, this is a simplified version, as the reality is more complex and multi-faceted. Reading comprehension depends on both the sender and the receiver. In this context, we’re mainly looking at the receiver, but it’s worth briefly mentioning the role of the sender. A rule of thumb in communication is that if the receiver does not understand the message sent, the sender has not communicated it in a proper way. This is a simplistic statement and reality is not so black and white, but the message remains quite clear: It’s always a good idea to keep the receiver in mind when a sender wants to convey a message. A practical example is that you shouldn’t write in an academic language with heavy use of technical jargon if your audience isn’t familiar with the subject matter.

With that in mind, we can take a look at the role of the recipient or reader. Despite the aforementioned, reading comprehension is very much about the reader’s activity while reading and, not least, preunderstanding. An optimal case is where the reader actively seeks meaning from the text: For example, they ask questions about the text and are curious about its meanings and messages. Being passive, on the other hand, increases the risk of the brain’s escapist train of thought. Another level of reading comprehension depends on preunderstanding, as the reader always meets the text  armed with their own knowledge and understanding of the world.

To help readers with reading comprehension, a number of reading comprehension strategies have been developed that can be implemented into reading habits on their own and/or through teaching. Merete Brudhold and Pernille Sørensen wrote the book, The Fantastic Four of Reading Comprehension (2016), which is based on Lori Oczkus’ four key elements of reading comprehension: Predicting, Questioning, Clarifying and Summarising. The tools can be seen as a kind of reading journey, where you begin by predicting the content of the text. This involves thinking about the elements you expect to get out of the text. As you read, you curiously ask questions and create mysteries that you then endeavour to solve. When you’ve finished reading a chapter, it can help to summarise the text in your own words at the end. In this way, you encourage yourself to actively engage with the text, which in the long run can contribute to increased reading comprehension.

A few final words

The above is just a brief overview of the vast world of reading, and when we dive beneath the surface, we suddenly see a colourful world of possibilities. In the next article, we will look at reading and especially reading comprehension as concepts, phenomena and research fields. Our primary focus is on the role of the reader, but it is important not to underestimate the importance of the sender. It is certainly a balancing act, but in conclusion, it can be argued that reading comprehension is a symbiotic relationship between text and reader.

Read more about reading comprehension here.