What is reading? Very simply, reading is trying to make sense of a sentence, paragraph, essay, article, or book. It’s trying to understand what’s in the writer’s mind. And the key to making sense of what we read is in the chunks – groups of words – not individual words.
You read more than you know
We read – try to make sense of – many things in life. We do it automatically. We read people’s faces to see whether they’re happy or angry. We read situations so we know how to act: we act differently at the scene of an accident than we do when we walk into a party with friends or into a cathedral during a religious service.
Trying to make sense of things is natural. Unfortunately, many try to do it unnaturally when they read print because they reduce reading print to only recognizing words. Let me give you an example.
Last year I asked one of my students if he had any trouble reading an article we planned to discuss. He said “no.” He told me that he knew most of the words and had looked up the few that he didn’t know. However when I asked, he couldn’t tell me the main idea of the article. For him reading was recognizing words, not making sense of, or understanding, the article.
Making sense of what you read – it’s in the chunks
Good readers do not read word by word. Why? Because meaning comes in groups of words, sometimes called chunks. And if you want to make sense of what you’re reading, you need to read – to recognize and understand – the chunks.
Let me give you a simple example; look at this sentence:
I left my iPhone at home when I went to the doctor.
This sentence consists of three meaningful chunks:
I left my iPhone (what I did)
at home (where I did it)
when I went to the doctor. (when I did it)
If you want to understand the sentence, you have to understand each chunk and how it works together with the others to describe what I did. You can’t do that if you are simply trying to recognize words. You have to be able to read – make sense of – the chunks, quickly and smoothly.
Developing the chunking habit
There are two methods you can use to improve your ability to make sense of what you read – and what you hear – by paying attention to chunks and not just words.
1. Read very easy books, stories, or articles.
You cannot make sense of what you read if you read slowly, word by word. This is especially true if you have developed the habit of translating English words into your first language while you read.
The best way to correct this problem is to read things that are very easy – that you can understand in English without using your first language (or a dictionary). As your reading speeds up, slowly increase the difficulty of what you read.
2. Listen and read at the same time. If you hear and see the text at the same time, you’ll begin to develop a “feel” for chunking. Again, begin with easy.
Today there are many good sources for reading and listening at the same time. Here are a few suggestions:
- ESL Podcast – subscribe to the learning guide and read it while you listen to the dialogue and to Dr. McQuillan talk about it (intermediate).
- VOA Special English – read the stories and listen to the audio at the same time (intermediate).
- TED presentations – exciting presentations on many different subjects by great speakers. Listen to the presentation and read the interactive transcript. Warning: some speakers have strong accents; avoid them for now (advanced).
- Academic Earth – try Dr. Paul Bloom’s Introduction to Psychology class; listen to the video and read the transcript at the same time (advanced).
Some of my students have used audio books and listened to them while they read the print version of the book. You can find audio books at many different levels of difficulty. Here are some articles to help you get started:
- The power of reading and listening
- Finding books for intermediate readers
- Helping battered English learners
Developing a new habit takes time. Changing your reading habits certainly will. So be patient. As you begin to read faster and more smoothly, slowly increase the difficulty of what you read. But don’t try to rush it; it won’t work.
References: Nishizawa, Yoshioka, Fukada (2009) The impact of a 4-year extensive reading program; Smith (2007) Reading FAQ.