What expectations do we have as a reader when approaching an unknown text?

Every time we sit ourselves down with an unknown text we automatically have some expectations concerning what we’re about to read. We always look at texts through glasses coloured by our experiences and our education. Those “glasses” make it possible for us to find meaning in what we are reading. But sometimes our expectations can be a hindrance too, and if this is the case, we end up with a sense of frustration or find ourselves feeling that we didn’t catch the essence of the text – despite having read it thoroughly from end to end.

We expect because we read in English and have a text written in English in front of us, that we automatically understand the text and are able to pull the essence out of it the moment we put our eyes on it. But just because the words are English it doesn’t necessarily mean that the content makes sense to us. Academic literature about neurons might as well be written in Greek if you do not hold the adequate knowledge about the subject prior to reading about it. What is needed in such a situation is a prior understanding of the texts contents.

High expectations require prior understanding

I’ve worked with many adults about to start higher education. One group in particular stands out to me. It was a group of women about to start with further education and training at their current workplace out of necessity or because their employers requested it. These women usually read fiction, novels and magazines. Now suddenly they were handed textbooks about occupational psychology. But they didn’t know the subject in advance and their teacher did not invest the time needed to introduce them to the topic they were about to study. Instead they were simply told: “And before we meet again, I’d like you to read the first five chapters.” Those poor women! How on earth were they supposed to figure out what they were reading like that?

The expectation that we understand things the first time we are introduced to them is wrong unless it’s a topic close to the heart for the individual. That is why it is recommendable that you gain some prior understanding about the topic and text before you start reading.

Change your focus from 100% to 60-80%

If we believe we can or should be able to refer 100% to an unknown text after reading it just once, then we are wrong. It is an unrealistic expectation to us as readers. But if on the other hand, we are able to approach just 60-80% of the text with a critical and analytical mindset, then that is a high level of understanding after a single reading. Then we are able to use that to single out the parts of the text that demand a more thorough read-through.