26 January 2005

DEVELOPING READING SKILLS
Dr.A.Sreekumar Menon

Psychologist, Specialist in Management Science and Author of Award Winning Management Books

Reading is a complex skill, which is usually acquired at school. After graduation, people may not generally make conscious effort to cultivate and practice good reading habit or to improve upon the reading habit, which one has already acquired.

There are other media like speaking and listening, cinema, T.V. etc. which are more dynamic and which compete with the time people would like to spend on reading, although much of the information and knowledge, which we acquire in our day to day life and those which stay in our memory for longer time are acquired through reading. Tests of retention have shown that after a three day interval, people recall 10% of information received by seeing and 65 percent of information, though reading.

There are different types of readers. Some take to reading as pastime i.e., for enjoyment or entertainment. They take to reading for its emotional appeal. Some read the materials attentively for the sake of being informed or for acquiring new knowledge about the world around us. Others read for improving their understanding or general awareness of events. Knowledge is power. Appropriate actions often require understanding of the events and situations.

Some persons do not practice reading. They don’t read systematically and regularly for developing current awareness or to keep abreast of current developments. How many of us are using reading as a tool to acquire knowledge and understand a situation? Very few, perhaps. The reason being that reading like others is an art and needs some skills and practice.

In our modern life, we are flooded with information. The percent age is rightly called as an age of information and knowledge explosion. In order to cope up with this knowledge explosion, we would develop proper reading skills-which can be learned through guided practice – practice applying the knowledge of what constitutes good reading or how to achieve functional efficiency in reading.

Managers and administrators use reading and writing as tools of communication in their work. They prepare memos (memoranda), circulars, letters to outside clients, prepare reports of progress of development projects etc. These writings may take the form of instructions from above, instructions to their subordinates, communication to their colleagues and reply to applicants etc. They can develop a close familiarity with their work and the work that is going on in other department/office, by reading and understanding the written communication systematically.

Daily several circulars come to the office. Officers glance through them and mark them to the concerned Case worker/Assistant. They may not care to read, understand and keep track of the information that is flowing in and out of their tray. They may think that it is the duty of the Case worker to read. The Case worker may neatly file the circulars and stack them in their steel almirahs for ever. Sometimes, when information is required on a particular matter, they may vaguely remember that particular information is available in such circular. When they seek that information, their staff may or may not be able to trace it or lay their hands on it.

The Assistants draft letters. Some officers sign the letters without going through them personally. While the typed matter is before them, they ask the Case workers about the contents of the letter and sign at the place, shown by them. Thus, these officers are not in touch with what is going on in their offices and they are at the mercy of their subordinates. As there is very little understanding of the matters that are processed in the office, the work pertaining to a section is at a stand still and the officer can give no reply, if the Assistant dealing with that section is on leave.

If the officers should have control over the administration, they should continuously develop awareness of the development through systematic reading and understanding of circulars and other communications and build up body of information. In other words, development of good reading skills is a quality of good and efficient administrators. They should work against the normal apathy towards reading and develop a good reading habit. If one has all the information on his finger tips, so to say, he is more confident in his work and is able to have better control over his subordinates. Reading with comprehension or understanding, which needs conscious self-discipline keeps one mentally alert, keeps away from the boredom of office routine, develops intellectual curiosity (the desire to know) and even the tendency to innovate, in addition to improving one’s, writing skill.

Not all our reading is to be carried out with the same objectives or at a uniform speed or in same depth of comprehension. For instance, an Administrator, who is studying a professional matter, say project document is likely to be concentrating intensively on the subject matter. On the other hand, he may only glance through certain circulars to get a bare understanding of the matter contained in them. Or he may look at the matter in a given subject and mark for the concerned Assistant. Alternatively, he may read the circulars carefully and make a mental note of the summary of the information contained in the circular and consolidate it with the information acquired on the subject before. His knowledge of the subject makes him more interested in reading the circulars containing information on the same subject. One may casually glance through a written material sticking to specific items that interest him for example: to find out who are the players in a cricket match and the score.

Some people do selective reading i.e., to answer certain questions, or searching for specific items of information, while ignoring the rest.

Some people read for enjoyment. For instance, we are absorbed in a story. We may or may not remember the story later. We may not think of the moral behind the story or about the message, the author wants to convey. As a rule, one should develop the habit of concentrated reading.

There are different modes of reading such as the following:

1. Skimming: This is a method of reading extensively and superficially. It is effective in selecting references required at once or getting a very general outline of the substance of a passage.

For a longer report or book, skimming may begin with a quick glance through a table of contents, a list of chapters or headings and sub-headings. It may continue with a search for the main themes and ideas, picking out key passages.

2. Scanning: A lot of our reading is of this kind. Filling of reference is an example. The identify of the reference is known to the reader and he is looking for it in a written record.

When the reference is found in logical sequence either alphabetical, numerical or chronological, spotting out the required material is easy. On the other hand, scanning a random series of references/materials is more arduous task.

3. Comprehending the full meaning of the material in depth as found appropriate.

4. Reading for study which demand intense attention and effort for comprehension.

5. Critical Scrutiny: The reader asks questions, meanings, challenges statements and inferences, seeks further information from other sources and compares it with other writings on the subject. For example:
One makes critical scrutiny in the following cases:
- appraising the financial feasibility of a project for sanctioning loan (processing loan applications)
- reading a project proposal for giving comments.
- going through progress report pertaining to a project to assess how satisfactory is its implementation.

Effective reading involves a combination of speed as well as comprehension, both at the optimum levels. The saying ‘I am a slow reader, but I really remember, what I read’ has been disproved time and again.

An efficient reader reads with reasonable speed without sacrificing comprehension or understanding. How do you rate yourself as a reader? Do you read 200 words per minute, which is poor 250 words per minute, which is average or 400 and above which is excellent.

Rapid reading is not hurried reading. The objective of rapid reading is to read faster, read better and to reduce the time taken to read any particular material consistent with comprehension. Putting it differently, it means reading efficiently more matter within a particular time without impairing comprehension.

Reading consists basically of eye movements and the activity of the brain. While reading, the eyes move along a line of print, in a definite rhythm, making a series of stops (called fixations about the same number of times on each line, pausing about the same length of time at each fixation and swinging back to the next line, like the carriage on a Typewriter. In other words, the eyes fix for an instant on one point, take in the impressions, jump to the second point, fix for the impressions from the page, jump forward to a third, fix there and so on.

When we read passage made up of words, we start at the left of the line of print and move to the right in a series of short jumps, each of them lasting only a few hundredths of a second.

At the end of each line, there is necessarily a longer jump back to the start of the next line, but in the whole process nine-tenth of the time goes in fixations and less than one tenth in movements.

During each fixation, eye takes in impressions of individual word or a group of words. The number of impressions of words which eye cam take in, in a single glance (fixation) is called span of comprehension. More is number of words, wider the span. The pause for each fixation is called the ‘speed of comprehension’ – that is the time the brain take to sense the meaning of the words within the span. The process by which brain interprets the meaning of words is called perception. From these we understand that the reading efficiency depends upon-
i) span of comprehension or perceptual field,
ii) speed of comprehension of perceptual speed,
iii) number of fixations and
iv) speed of moving ahead (forward)

Reading improvements can be made by eliminating the time wasted in making untrained eye movements and accustom the brain to take in at a glance a larger group of words.

Our ability to take in maximum number of words at a single glance and sense their meaning can come by practice. For this we can follow the following exercise.

We should start the following exercise by finding out what our present speed is-
Read the pages of book that interests you for exactly three minutes. Read with the purpose of comprehending and at the same time with as much speed as one can. At the end of the three minutes, determine rate per each minute, by getting an average number of words in a line multiplying by the number of lines one has read and dividing by three. Test one comprehension by finding out how many major points in the passage one can recall, immediately after reading.

On the second day, repeat this with increase in speed.

Initially, emphasize speed, not worrying about comprehension. That will come later. Test periodically the level of comprehension. If it falls too low, concentrate a little more on meaning. Interest and motivation and very essential.

Other Factors which slow down Reading
The following are some of the other factors which slow down reading. These are:

1. Regression: is looking back every now and then at something already read. It is like stepping backwards after every few meters, hardly a way to move ahead quickly. The more regressions (moving back) one makes, the slower one’s reading. Regression may be because of:-
- fatigue
- habit
- lack of concentration with other matters
- lack of confidence
- preoccupation with other matters
- actual missing of meanings of some words or phrases
- poor memory due to lack of attention
- because of the nature of reading material –long winding sentences (sentence structure with too many subordinates clauses attached to main sentence).
- Weak vocabulary (too little knowledge of the material being read)

Regression affects both reading speed and comprehension. It affects speed as it increases the number of eye movements. In order to check this, one should be attentive and keep forcing oneself to move ahead.

If passages seem vague or hazy in meaning, one should move on. These can be clarified later or one may come back to them at the end, when one has general meaning. When one practices this technique, his comprehension will suffer a bit, but when the habit of moving forward is firmly established, he will gain. We should postpone looking up unfamiliar words, till reading is over. Jumping back and forth from dictionary to reading interrupts comprehension. One should check the unfamiliar words and look them up later.

2. Vocalization: Another factor which breaks the speed of reading is vocalizing (Pronouncing the words to ourselves as we read). In the beginning, we are taught to pronounce words, even letters. Traces of this habit often persists. Vocalizing even at the lip level reduce reading speed. To see if we do this, we put a finger over own lips as we should keep a memory jogging finger on our lips we read.

Vocalizing at the voice box level is far more common and much less obvious. This can be checked by placing out thumb and fore fingers lightly on our throat at each side of our vocal box. We may feel faint movements, to rid of this, we should attend to the meaning part of the passage rather than structure of sentences.

The principal remedy for vacalisation is to understand that we are reading for meaning and ideas and not for words. After a while when we realize that the meaning of words become less and less dependent on the sounds of words, we cease to vocalize. Some children who are not interested in studying, read louder to make a show of studying and to escape from the notice of their parents.

3. Lack of vocabulary and familiarity with sentence structure:
Vocabulary means knowledge of the words, their meaning and their correct usage in a sentence. Adequate vocabulary may also help to avoid vocalisation and facilitate silent reading

4. Word-by-word reading: This relates to the span of perception already referred to. Word-by-word reading shows narrow span of visual perception.

Without special training, many people do word-by-word reading. Word-by-word reading reduces speed and comprehension of reading. We should learn to group words into thought units instead of proceeding word-by-word.

To word-by-word reader the following sentences goes like this:
The/office/boy/put/the/mail/on/the/desk.
We should learn to break it into unites of thought like this.
The office boy/ put the mail/ on the desk.

When we break the words into units of thought, we are widening our eyes span, in addition to widening span of apprehension.

Widening of eye span also helps to eliminate the tendency to ‘margin-reading’ and some regressions. Tendency to margin reading is tendency of our eyes to go to far end of the margin, instead of the first letter of the line, when returning to a new line of print, thus wasting time.

We should develop sensing of larger thoughts, units, which are coherent and meaningful.

Examples:

More firms are using computers for record keeping
More firms/are using/computers/for record keeping
More firms/are using computers/for record keeping.

For record keeping, they have usually tended to have code numbers to identify goods of manufactures and their raw materials.

For record keeping/they have usually/tended to have/code numbers/to identify goods of manufacturers/and their raw materials.

For record keeping/they have usually tended to have/code numbers to identify goods/of manufacturers and their raw materials/

For widening the eye span, the following exercise may be practiced.

Prepare and structure the sentences as follows:
More firms are
Using computers
For record keeping they
Have usually tended to have
Code numbers to identify goods
Of manufacturers and their raw materials
Different companies have introducted into their jobs
Differing systems of suitable cards and numbers

Take a card and mark arrow lines as shown






Cover all but the opening line with the card; lower the card at a constant speed down words between the group of words on either side Try to read each line, while focusing your eye on the arrow mark. Try to take in extra letters every time, the line gets wider. This becomes increasingly difficult as the lines widen and you will experience a stronger urge to switch your eyes to the beginning of a line and read across three or more fixation. At some stage you will find you have reached your eye span.

- Bird watching without binoculars.
- Spotting our things at a distance
- Trying to read the Number Plates of cars, as they speed up
- Trying to locate things at a distance
- Star watching
- Watching cricket match from the gallery
- Practicing dancing- Bharathnatyam, Kathakali etc, involving eye movements help widening eye span.

5. Failure to understand the structure of the Paragraphs:
A paragraphs in English is a unit of thought description or analysis. It opens with a statement of theme, progress by filling out or qualifying the theme and closes with re-instatement in final form. Where logic of paragraphing is understood, the reader is likely to comprehend faster and fully. Not all paragraphs are logically constructed, but many will still have key words or pharases which are repeated several times in writing. If these are quickly picked out, the reader will improve his speed.

6. Preparing summary of the material as an aid to improve reading efficiency: Preparation of précis of the passages, preparing summaries and notes of what is read contributes to reading efficiency. Those who practice these do retain better grasp of the material for a longer time than people who do not take notes.

For an untrained note taker, taking notes involve a race against time in which he tends to fall further and further behind. He finds himself at the end with an almost illegible scrawl to decipher. Headings and sub-headings with space left for amplification and major points should be noted down. One should re-read the notes as early as possible. This means the same day in order to fix the subject in one’s mind, clear up ambiguities and correct the notes here and there.

It pays to discipline oneself to a system and to have a note book or a pad. Vigilance is needed not to blur the distinction between the record of what is being read and common ideas and comments added by the not taker.

After attending some meetings, you may have to prepare writeups/notes as review or report to be handed over to a third party.

In conclusion, let me reiterate some of the guidelines which may be of help in improving reading efficiency.

1. Knowing why we are reading.
2. Cultivating the practice of picking out the main ideas in a passage
3. Adapting the methods of reading to the nature of the matter in front of you and to the objective.
4. Getting the physical setting right
5. Reading in silence
6. Reducing eye movements to a minimum.
7. Keep forcing yourself to move ahead.
8. Making a practice of locating key words and phrases
9. Practicing concentration.
10. Adding to your vocabulary
11. Learning to distinguish the characteristic structure of the passage of writing.

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