views updated May 08 2018


beginning reading
banu Öney

ed bouchardtom trabasso

content areas
cynthia hynd

suzanne hidi

learning from text
marilyn j. chambliss

prior knowledge, beliefs, and learning
p. karen murphy
patricia a. alexander

teaching of
jane hansen
marcia invernizzi
jenesse wells evertson

value of reading engagement for children
anne cunningham


Beginning reading encompasses acquisition of the multiple acts, skills, and knowledge that enable individuals to comprehend the meaning of text. Reading is a complex psycholinguistic activity and thus beginning reading is a lengthy and complex process whereby the learner acquires expertise in the various perceptual, sensory, linguistic, cognitive, metacognitive, and social skills that are involved in literate behavior. Through this process the child gains functional knowledge of the purposes, uses, and principles of the writing system.

Experiences before Formal Reading Instruction

Although a large portion of literacy acquisition occurs within the context of formal reading instruction, literacy-related awareness and knowledge start developing long before formal schooling, through pre-reading activities and interactions with print in the home and environment. The accomplishments before formal schooling prepare the child for later school-related literacy development.

There are important differences among children's early literacy experiences. Some children are exposed to a wide array of early literacy experiences. They are frequently and regularly read to, they are exposed to oral and written language activities such as playing on the computer or playing word games, they experience the functional use of print materials in their home and preschool environments, and they have model adults who value reading and use reading in various purposeful ways. In 1990 Marilyn J. Adams estimated that children from these mainstream homes are exposed to thousands of hours of pre-reading activities before they enter first grade. In contrast, there are children who are never or rarely read to, live in homes with few books, are rarely exposed to rich oral and written language activities, and interact with few adult models who use reading and writing for their own purposes. These two groups of children differ widely in their awareness and knowledge of literacy-related concepts.

Concepts about print. Through repeated interactions with literacy materials and activities children develop an awareness of the nature and function of text. Social routines practiced during one-on-one book reading between parents and children facilitate children's acquisition of concepts about print. Very early on children learn about the way books are handled, the differences between pictures and print, the directionality of print, and the characteristics of written-language-like routines. Shared book reading allows children to develop a sense of story structure where characters, the setting, and the plot make up the story. By observing adults' functional use of literacy, children also learn the different purposes of different literacy activities such as writing a grocery list versus writing a letter. So, by the time they are four years old, children also learn quite a lot about the nature of print, including the names and sounds of some letters, and will pretend to "write" by scribbling as part of play activities.

The acquisition of the concepts about print is important, and several studies have shown that such awareness predicts future reading achievement and is correlated with other measures of reading achievement. Thus, the development of concepts about print early in life seems to create the foundation upon which more sophisticated skills are built.

Language development. Spoken language develops naturally and effortlessly within the context of social interactions in a community. With the exception of those who have some physical challenges all children can produce and comprehend spoken language naturally early in life. They exhibit developments in phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and vocabulary. Engagement in literacy activities provides children with added opportunities to experience and experiment with language. Book reading, for instance, offers multiple opportunities for the child to use language at a more abstract and complex level than would be possible through spoken language experiences. Children learn to have a decreased reliance on immediate context for communication. This decontextualized language is the language that they will need to rely on in most school activities later on. Early literacy experiences also set the ground for growth in meta-linguistic skills. Children learn to think about, play with, talk about, and analyze language in addition to using it effectively.

Phonological awareness. Alphabetical writing systems are based on the representation of speech sounds by letters. In order to understand the alphabetic principle, children need to be aware that the spoken message can be broken down into smaller units such as words, syllables, and phonemes. Phonological awareness is the awareness of and the ability to manipulate phonological segments such as syllables, phonemes, and other intrasyllabic units such as onset-rimes in words. When phonological awareness refers to children's sensitivity to the phonemes in words, it is called phonemic awareness.

Tasks in which children are asked to isolate, segment, blend, or combine phonological segments have been typically used to assess phonological awareness. Phonemic segmentation and phonemic manipulation tasks yield particularly strong predictions of and correlations with beginning reading acquisition. There are also studies on phonemic awareness that point out that there is a bidirectional relationship between learning to read and phonemic awareness.

While studies on children's early experiences with print converge on the conclusion that these experiences and phonological awareness facilitate and set the ground for further development in the acquisition of reading, other research has investigated the relationship between IQ and reading achievement. These studies conclude that IQ is only weakly related to early reading achievement.

Instruction in Reading

Children are immersed in formal instruction in reading once they enter kindergarten. Children come to school with different levels of awareness about print, and they encounter in school new expectations, new routines, and new experiences that dramatically broaden their concept of literacy. For children whose language and literacy experiences are closer to those in the school setting, this transition to school is relatively easy.

Understanding the alphabetic principle. Before formal instruction in reading begins, children can already recognize certain words, especially those occurring frequently in their environment, such as Coca-Cola or McDonald's. Nevertheless, a 1984 study by Patricia E. Masonheimer and colleagues investigating the features to which children attend to when they recognize these words showed that when the words were presented without the contextual cues, such as logos, most children up to five years of age failed to correctly identify them. Other studies also suggest that young children recognize words based on selective parts of the printed word. Thus, before formal reading instruction has begun, most young children cannot grasp how the writing system functions.

A dramatic change occurs when children are exposed to systematic reading instruction. Before they begin to decode independently, children start using the phonetic values of letter names in identifying words. Although this is not yet an efficient word recognition strategy, it is a big step toward using the systematic relationships that exist between speech and the printed word. Full decoding becomes possible when children begin to use the full array of letters in words and map them unto phonemes, thus demonstrating an understanding of the alphabetic principle.

Productivity and automaticity in word recognition. It is not possible to characterize children's reading as productive unless they can recognize words that they have not encountered before. As children experience a growing number of letter patterns during reading, they gradually accumulate a large number of orthographic representations. Thus, instead of using single letters for word recognition they begin relying on letter strings and their corresponding phonologies. This growing knowledge of letter sequences and spelling patterns gradually allows readers to process words quickly and easily.

Every time a reader encounters a spelling pattern and attends to the particular sequence of letters in it, the pattern acquires more strength and is thus recognized faster and more efficiently during the next encounter. If on the other hand instead of focusing on the entire sequence, the reader's concentration is focused on resolving a single letter, or if one or some of the letters in the sequence cannot be correctly identified, the sequence may not be remembered as an entity. As the young reader's knowledge of the relationships between spelling and sound grows, this knowledge allows the child to form stronger associations between visual and phonological representations. Through experience with words in print, especially those of increasing complexity, word recognition becomes an automatic psychological process, enabling the reader to gain increasing levels of fluency. Thus, differences in exposure to print lead to differences in reading skill.

Comprehension. Reading comprehension is a complex skill that requires an active interaction between text elements and the reader. Since comprehension of text is the ultimate goal in reading, understanding comprehension processes is critical to the study of beginning reading.

Children beginning to read already have a well-developed system for oral language comprehension. By the end of preschool most children have well-developed vocabulary and world knowledge as well as morphological, semantic, and syntactic processes that make oral language comprehension possible.

There is considerably less research on comprehension processes in beginning readers, compared to studies on word processing. One of the consistent findings in comprehension research is that compared to more skilled comprehenders, unskilled comprehenders are also less skilled in decoding. In fact, during the early stages of beginning reading, text comprehension is limited to children's skill in decoding. Until decoding processes are rapid and efficient, high-level comprehension processes are severely limited. There is now converging evidence that for both children and adults, difficulties in comprehension are related to difficulties in decoding as well as to problems with working memory.

Besides being better at decoding, skilled comprehenders also have better global language skills than less skilled comprehenders. Studies have shown a causal relationship between vocabulary and comprehension. There is evidence showing that vocabulary instruction leads to gains in comprehension and improvement on semantic tasks. It is also clear that both direct and indirect instruction in vocabulary lead to comprehension gains.

Skilled comprehenders also have better meta-cognitive skills than less skilled comprehenders. Skilled comprehenders are aware of how well they are comprehending and use various comprehension strategies that guide them as they attempt to understand text.

Young readers benefit from cognitive strategy instruction. Instruction in cognitive strategies usually involves helping students be aware of their own cognitive processes in reading. Usually a teacher either models the use of comprehension strategies or guides the students in the use of strategies. Many approaches to cognitive strategy instruction allow readers to practice their newly acquired cognitive strategies with the teacher until the readers master their use.

In short, beginning reading instruction needs to focus on children's acquisition of letter-sound relationships, as well as comprehension strategies to assure that both word recognition and comprehension skills can develop simultaneously.

See also: Children's Literature; Language Acquisition; Literacy, subentry on Emergent Literacy; Literacy and Culture; Literacy and Reading; Reading, subentry on Teaching of.


Adams, Marilyn J. 1990. Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Clay, Marie M. 1979. The Early Detection of Reading Difficulties, 3rd edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gough, Philip B., and Juel, Connie. 1991. "The First Stages of Word Recognition." In Learning to Read, ed. Laurence Rieben and Charles A. Perfetti. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Liberman, Isabel Y.; Shankweiler, Donald; Fischer, F. William; and Carter, Bonnie. 1974. "Explicit Syllable and Phoneme Segmentation in Young Children." Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 18:201212.

Lomax, Richard G., and McGee, Lea M. 1987. "Young Children's Concepts about Print and Reading: Toward a Model of Reading Acquisition." Reading Research Quarterly 22:237256.

Masonheimer, Patricia E.; Drum, Priscilla A.; and Ehri, Linnea C. 1984. "Does Environmental Print Identification Lead Children into Word Reading?" Journal of Reading Behavior 16:257271.

Medo, Mary A., and Ryder, Randall J. 1993. "The Effects of Vocabulary Instruction on Readers' Ability to Make Causal Connections." Reading Research and Instruction 33:119134.

Palinscar, Annemarie S., and Brown, Ann. 1984. "Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension-Monitoring Activities." Cognition and Instruction 2:117175.

Paris, Scott G.; Saarnio, David A.; and Cross, David R. 1986. "A Metacognitive Curriculum to Promote Children's Reading and Learning." Australian Journal of Psychology 38:107123.

Perfetti, Charles A. 1985. Reading Ability. New York: Oxford University Press.

Share, David L. 1995. "Phonological Recoding and Self-Teaching: Sine Qua Non of Reading Acquisition." Cognition 55:151218.

Snow, Catherine E., and Ninio, Anat. 1986. "Contracts of Literacy: What Children Learn from Learning to Read Books." In Emergent Literacy: Writing and Reading, ed. Elizabeth Sulzby and William H. Teale. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Stanovich, Keith E.; Cunningham, Anne E.; and Freeman, D. J. 1984. "Intelligence, Cognitive Skills, and Early Reading Progress." Reading Research Quarterly 19:278303.

Stanovich, Keith E., and West, Richard F. "Exposure to Print and Orthographic Processing." Reading Research Quarterly 24:402433.

Sulzby, Elisabeth, and Teale, William H. 1991. "Emergent Literacy." In Handbook of Reading Research, ed. Rebecca Barr, Michael L. Kamil, Peter Mosenthal, and P. David Pearson. New York: Longman.

Banu Öney


From 1997 to 2000 the National Reading Panel (NRP) carried out a review of research-based knowledge about reading and instruction, especially in the early elementary grades. The research topics relevant to early reading and instruction that the NRP concentrated on were phonemic awareness instruction, phonics instruction, fluency, vocabulary instruction, text comprehension instruction, teacher preparation, and comprehension strategies instruction.

The group that focused on text comprehension instruction located more than 500 studies on the teaching of comprehension instruction. Using scientific criteria such as whether a study of a strategy instruction included a control group, they found that just over 200 of these studies were conducted sufficiently well to be confident that the conclusions based on them are scientifically trustworthy.

Comprehension strategy instruction fosters active reading. The strategies are designed to guide a reader to become more self-aware of one's self-understanding during reading, to become more in control of that understanding, to create images related to contents, to make graphic representations, to write summaries, and to answer or to make up questions. Depending on what type it is, a strategy can be implemented before, during, or after the readingof a text.

Skilled readers may invent strategies that help them understand and remember what they read. Most readers, however, do not spontaneously invent these strategies. Unless they are explicitly taught to apply cognitive procedures they are not likely to learn, develop, or use them. Readers at all levels, in fact, can benefit from explicit comprehension strategy instruction. A teacher begins by demonstrating or modeling a strategy. In some cases, the instruction is reciprocal or transactional, meaning that the teacher first performs the procedures and then the students gradually learn to implement them on their own. The process by which a student adopts the strategya process that is called "scaffolding"is often a gradual one. Readers are first able to experience the construction of meaning by an expert reader, the teacher. As readers learn to take control of their own reading by practicing and acquiring cognitive strategy procedures, they gradually internalize the strategies and achieve independent mastery.

History of Comprehension Strategy Instruction

Interest in reading comprehension strategies began to grow as a part of the new scientific understanding of cognition that emerged in the latter decades of the twentieth century. In 1978 Walter Kintsch and Teun A. van Dijk observed that a reader is an active participant with a text and that a reader "makes sense" of how ideas based on the text relate to one another by interpretive interactions between what the reader gleans from the text and what the reader already knows. They proposed that a reader actively builds meaning as mental representations and stores them as semantic interpretations held in memory during reading. These representations enable the reader to remember and use what had been read and understood.

In a landmark 1979 study Ellen M. Markman wondered whether readers would detect obvious logical contradictions in passages they read. She gave readers a passage about ants that indicated that when ants forage away from their hill they emit an invisible chemical with an odor that they use to find their way home. The passage also indicated, however, that ants have no nose and are unable to smell. Would readers notice that the passage did not make sense? Would they recognize that they did not understand the passage? What would they do? Her disturbing finding was that young and mature readers alike overwhelmingly failed to notice either logical or semantic inconsistencies in the texts. What instruction would help readers to be more conscious of their understanding and to learn strategies that would over-come these comprehension failures?

At about the same time Dolores Durkin observed reading instruction in fourth-grade classrooms over the course of a school year. For many student readers, fourth grade is a transition year from "learning to read" to "reading to learn." In a 1979 article Durkin reported that there was very little comprehension instruction in the classrooms. Teachers assigned questions and told students about content. But in seventy-five hours of reading instruction Durkin observed that year, teachers devoted only twenty minutes, less than 1 percent of the time, to teaching readers how to comprehend and learn new information from reading. Her studies and the others cited above anticipated an intense interest in helping students learn strategies to comprehend and learn from reading.

In the 1970s and early 1980s investigators generally focused on teaching an individual strategy to help readers construct meaning. There were literally hundreds of studies of individual comprehension strategies. One example is Abby Adams and colleagues' 1982 research applying the SQ3R (survey, question, read, recite, and review) technique to fifth-grade classrooms. SQ3R is a text pre-reading graphic organizer instruction developed in 1941 for World War II military personnel undergoing accelerated courses. It is considered a "text previewing" comprehension strategy instruction in that it guides readers to look for the meaning before reading the text. In this instruction, readers learn to use the text's headings, subheads, introductions, and summaries to construct graphic schemata of the text content. As did many of the other comprehension strategy instruction researchers, Adams and her colleagues obtained positive results, finding that students with the pre-reading instruction performed significantly higher on factual short-answer tests than did control group students.

Generally, many types of individual comprehension strategy instructions appeared to be successful in improving readers' ability to construct meaning from text. With the observed success of various individual strategy applications, there were several reviews of this growing body of scientific literature. In 1983 P. David Pearson and Margaret C. Gallagher categorized cognitive strategies by what teachers do to teach the strategies, and Robert J. Tierney and James W. Cunningham's 1984 review subdivided the cognitive strategies into pre-reading, during-reading, and post-reading activities.

With the success of individual strategy instruction in improving reading comprehension measures documented by research, focus shifted to using combinations of strategies to facilitate text comprehension, primarily in experimental situations rather than in natural classrooms. Among these was a very influential 1984 study of "reciprocal teaching" of comprehension by Annemarie S. Palincsar and Ann L. Brown. Reciprocal teaching is a method that in volves the gradual release of responsibility for carrying out a strategy to the readers. It combines teacher modeling and student practice on four cognitive strategies: prediction, clarifying, summarizing, and question generation. Students who received this instruction showed marked improvement on a number of comprehension measures.

Success of teaching multiple strategies led to the study of the effectiveness of preparing teachers to teach comprehension strategies in natural, classroom settings. Two approaches are noteworthy, namely Gerald G. Duffy and Laura R. Roehler's 1987 direct explanation model and Rachel Brown, Michael Pressley, and colleagues' 1996 transactional instruction approach. Direct explanation emphasizes teacher-directed problem solving, whereas transactional instruction, similar to reciprocal teaching, employs teacher-directed actions with interactive exchanges with students in classrooms. Both direct and transactional approaches to training teachers have produced positive results.

Strategies that Work

The NRP identified twelve categories of comprehension instruction that have scientific support for the conclusion that they help readers to construct meaning and thereby improve reading comprehension, including two categories involving the preparation of teachers in cognitive strategy instruction. These strategies stimulate both audio and visual perception, activate memory and semantic processing, enhance perception, engage syntactic knowledge and processing, teach narrative structure, and promote reasoning. The strategies of active listening, comprehension monitoring, and prior knowledge use all serve to promote listening and awareness of one's thinking or "inner speech," a process emphasized by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the 1920s. Mental imagery, mnemonic, and graphic organizer instruction, on the other hand, make use of readers' visual imagination and memory. Vocabulary instruction increases word and semantic knowledge and problem solving. Question answering and question generation require the access of what is known or understood and the prediction of future events. Story structure and summarization instruction create awareness of the organization of ideas and what is important. Finally, multiple strategy instruction combines the use of several of these processes together in flexible and appropriate ways. Research conducted in the late 1990s also suggests that teachers can learn to integrate these kinds of strategy instructions in classroom settings and that peers working in cooperative learning situations can effectively tutor each other in comprehension strategies.

Active listening. To instruct active listening, teachers guide readers in learning to listen while others read. The listening reader follows the text as another student reads aloud. The teacher may also pose questions for the readers to answer while they listen. Active-listening training improves listening and reading comprehension. It increases a reader's participation in discussions, engenders more thoughtful responses to questions, increases memory for the text, and focuses the reader's attention and interest on material. For example, in Gloria M. Boodt's 1984 study of training critical-listening strategies with fourth-grade to sixth-grade remedial readers, there was a gradual increase over the eighteen weeks of the study in students' willingness to participate in group discussions and provide more thoughtful responses to direct questions. Overall, four studies of this strategy met NRP scientific criteria. The students in the active listening studies ranged from first grade through sixth grade; they improved in critical listening, critical reading, and general reading comprehension.

Comprehension monitoring. One can learn to listen to one's own reading and to monitor one's own comprehension. Instruction in comprehension monitoring during reading helps readers manage their inner speech as they read. Self-listening and self-monitoring of one's own understanding during reading promote more careful reading and better comprehension.

To teach comprehension monitoring, a teacher, when reading aloud to a class, demonstrates the strategy by interrupting her own reading to "think aloud." She articulates to the class her own awareness of difficulties in understanding words, phrases, clauses, or sentences in a text. When a text poses potential comprehension breakdowns, such as unfamiliar concepts or logical inconsistencies in a passage, the teacher might look back in the text to try to solve a problem, restate the text content in more familiar terms, or look forward in the text to find a solution. After observing a teacher model the comprehension monitoring strategy, readers are encouraged to carry out the same proceduresfirst with teacher scaffolding and then on their own. Eventually the student readers take responsibility for recognizing comprehension difficulties and for demonstrating ways to overcome them (e.g., by guessing and looking back or reading forward in the text).

The teaching of comprehension monitoring is very effective. The NRP found twenty studies of comprehension monitoring instruction with readers in grades two through six that met scientific criteria. In them, readers who were taught to self-monitor comprehension improved one of the following: their detection of text inconsistencies, their memory for the text, or their performance on standardized reading comprehension tests.

Prior knowledge. Prior knowledge instruction is designed to assist readers in bringing to mind their own knowledge that is relevant to understanding the text. A teacher can activate prior knowledge by asking students to think about topics relevant to the passage, by teaching the requisite relevant knowledge, by using pre-reading activity on related but better-known topics, by having the readers predict what will happen in the text based on personal experience, by having readers make associations during reading, and by previewing the story or text.

In fourteen studies with students spanning grades one through nine reviewed by the NRP, prior knowledge instruction helped readers improve on recall, in question answering, and in content area and standardized reading comprehension performance. For example, in a 1988 study, Teresa A. Roberts found that prior knowledge instruction had a positive effect on both factual and inferential comprehension performance with students in grades five and nine.

Mental imagery. Mental imagery instruction teaches readers to construct images that closely represent the content of what was read and understood. In 1986, after instructing less-skilled fourth-and fifth-grade readers in imagery training, Linda B. Gambrell and Ruby J. Bales had them read stories with inconsistencies like those in the 1979 Markman study mentioned above and instructed them "to make a picture in your mind to help determine if there is anything that is not clear and easy to understand about the story." Control students, that is, those without the imagery training, were simply asked to "do whatever you can do to help determine if anything is not clear and easy to understand about the story." The results were that imagery-trained readers were more likely to detect inconsistencies than the controls. In four studies with students in grades two through eight, the NRP found that mental imagery instruction led to modest increases in memory for the text that was imaged and improved reader detection of text inconsistencies.

Mnemonics. Like mental imagery instruction, mnemonic instruction teaches readers to use an external memory aid, but unlike mental imagery instruction, the mnemonic image can be one that does not necessarily closely represent the text. A teacher demonstrates how to construct a picture, keyword, or concept as a proxy for a person, concept, sentence, or passagesuch as using an image of a "tailor" to remember the name "Taylor." These keywords and images aid later recall. In five studies examined by the NRP, mnemonic instruction improved reader memory of the assigned keywords and recall for the passages read. For example, in 1986 Ellen E. Peters and Joel R. Levin gave mnemonic instruction to good and poor readers and then gave them passages about "famous" people. As compared to the control subjects, the mnemonic-trained students were more likely to learn and remember information about new concepts and people who were unfamiliar to them.

Graphic organizers. Graphic organizer instruction shows readers how to construct displays that organize one's ideas based on a reading of the text. Graphic organizers aim at creating awareness of text structures, concepts and relations between concepts, and tools to represent text relationships visually. They also assist readers in writing well-organized summaries. Diagrams, pictorial devices, and story maps can all be used to outline the relationships among text ideas. This instruction is useful for expository texts in content areas such as science or social studies.

In eleven studies reviewed by the NRP that used graphic organizers with readers in grades four through eight, readers generally benefited in remembering what they read, in improved reading comprehension, or in improved achievement in social studies or science courses. For example, in 1991 Bonnie Armbruster and her colleagues compared the effectiveness of a graphic organizer instruction that taught fourth-and fifth-grade social science students to visually represent the important ideas in a social science text. In contrast, the control students' instruction consisted of workbook activity directions recommended in the teacher's edition of the social science textbook. The fifth-, but not necessarily the fourth-grade students, who received the graphic organizer cognitive strategy instruction scored higher on recall and recognition measures than the controls who received the workbook activity instruction.

Vocabulary instruction. There are many studies on teaching vocabulary but few on the relationship between vocabulary instruction and comprehension. In the context of comprehension strategy instruction, vocabulary instruction promotes new word meaning knowledge by teaching readers semantic processing strategies. For example, students learn to generate questions about an unknown word by examining how it relates to the text or noticing how a word changes meaning depending on the context in which it occurs. The teacher may model being a "word detective," looking for contextual clues to find a word's meaning, analyzing words and word parts, and looking at the surrounding text for clues to a word's meaning. For instance, the word comprehension combines com, meaning "together" with pre-hension, meaning "able to grasp in one's hand." From this, an operational definition of comprehension can be constructed (e.g., putting together individual word meanings to grasp an idea).

In three studies of vocabulary instruction in a cognitive strategy context with fourth-grade students reviewed by the NRP, the instruction led to success in learning words, in use of word meanings, and in increased story comprehension. For example, in a 1982 study involving fourth-graders receiving vocabulary instruction, Isabel L. Beck and her colleagues taught the students to perform tasks designed to require semantic processing. These students performed at a significantly higher level than pre-instruction matched controls on learning word meanings, on processing instructed vocabulary more efficiently, and in tasks more reflective of comprehension. In the three NRP-reviewed studies, however, learning to derive word meanings did not always improve standardized comprehension performance.

Question answering. Question answering focuses the reader on content. Why or how questions lead the student to focus on causes and consequences. Question answering guides students and motivates them to look in the text to find answers. Instruction on question answering leads to improvement in memory for what was read, to better answering of questions after reading, or to improvement in finding answers to questions in the text during reading.

In a 1985 study, Taffy E. Raphael and Clydie A. Wonnacott trained fourth-grade and sixth-grade readers to analyze questions, distinguishing those questions that could be answered by information in the passage from questions that required prior knowledge or information not in the text. The results were that students who had received this instruction provided higher quality responses to questions than a control group of students. In seventeen studies examined by the NRP for this strategy, the results were usually specific to experimenter tests of question answering and were greater for lower-grade than for upper-grade readers and greater with average and less-skilled readers than with high-achieving readers.

Question generation. Teachers demonstrate this strategy by generating questions aloud during reading. Readers then practice generating questions and answers as they read the text. Teachers provide feedback on the quality of the questions asked or assist the student in answering the question generated. Teachers teach the students to evaluate whether their questions covered important information, whether questions related to information provided in the text, and whether they themselves could answer the questions.

The scientific evidence that question generation cognitive strategy instruction is effective is very strong. In 1996 Barak Rosenshine and his colleagues conducted meta-analysis of twenty-six question generation studies with students from third grade through college. Like individual experimental studies, a meta-analysis applies scientific criteria to obtain a quantitative assessment of an instruction's effectiveness. A meta-analysis differs from single studies, however, in that it obtains a quantitative impact of a particular strategy by looking at effectiveness across a group of studies. In addition to the Rosenshine meta-analysis, the NRP examined twenty-seven question generation studies with students from grades three through nine. Question generation instruction during reading benefited reading comprehension in terms of improved memory, in accuracy in answering questions, or in better integration and identification of main ideas. The evidence that it improved performance on standardized comprehension tests is mixed.

Story structure. Story structure instruction is designed to help readers understand the who, what, where, when, and why of stories, what happened, and what was done and to infer causal relationships between events. Readers learn to identify the main characters of the story, where and when the story took place, what the main characters did, how the story ended, and how the main characters felt. Readers learn to construct a story map recording the setting, problem, goal, action, and outcome of the story as they unfold over time.

Story structure instruction improves the ability of readers to answer questions, to recall what was read, and to improve standard comprehension test performance. The instruction also benefits recall, question answering, and identifying elements of story structure. For example, in 1983 Jill Fitzgerald and Daisy L. Spiegel found that instruction in narrative structure enhanced story structure knowledge and had a strong positive effect on reading comprehension with average and below-average fourth-grade students who had been identified as lacking a keen sense of narrative structure.

The NRP examined seventeen studies using story structure instruction with readers ranging from third grade through sixth grade. Story structure instruction improved readers' ability to answer short-answer questions and retell the story. In three of the studies, standardized tests were used for assessment. Story structure instruction led to improved reader scores in two of those studies.

Summarization. Teaching readers to summarize makes them more aware of how ideas based on the text are related. Readers learn to identify main ideas, leave out details, generalize, create topic sentences, and remove redundancy. Through example and feedback, a reader can be taught to apply these summarization rules to single-or multiple-paragraph passages by first summarizing individual paragraphs and then constructing a summary or spatial organization of the paragraph summaries.

In eighteen studies on summarization with students from grades three to eight examined by the NRP, readers improved the quality of their summaries of text not only by identifying the main ideas but also by leaving out detail, including ideas related to the main idea, generalizing, and removing redundancy. Further, the instruction of summarization improves memory for what is read, both in terms of free recall and answering questions. For example, in 1984 Thomas W. Bean and Fern L. Steenwyk examined whether training sixth-grade readers in rules for summarization developed in 1983 by Ann L. Brown and Jeannie D. Day would improve comprehension. They found that readers receiving summarization instruction either by rule-governed or intuitive-summarization techniques performed better than controls who were told to find main ideas but who had no explicit instruction. The summarizationtrained students significantly outperformed the control group in the quality of their summaries and on a standardized test.

Multiple-strategy instruction. Readers can learn and flexibly coordinate several comprehension strategies to construct meaning from texts. Palincsar and Ann L. Brown's reciprocal teaching method, described in 1984, instructs readers to use four main strategies during reading: generating questions, summarizing, seeking clarification, and predicting what will occur later in the text. Additional strategies may also be introduced, including question answering, making inferences, drawing conclusions, listening, comprehension monitoring, thinking aloud, and question elaborating. The teacher models strategies and, in some cases, explains them as they are modeled. Then the reader, either alone or as a leader of a group, applies the strategies.

The evidence indicates that demonstration and repeated use of the strategies leads to their learning by readers and improvement in comprehension. In 1994 Rosenshine and Carla Meister conducted a meta-analysis of sixteen reciprocal teaching studies with students in grades one through eight. Most of the readers were above grade three. Weaker and older readers benefited most from reciprocal teaching. In eleven studies of reciprocal teaching in grades one through six reviewed by the NRP but not covered by Rosenshine and Meister, reciprocal teaching produced clear positive improvement on tasks that involve memory, summarizing, and identification of main ideas.

Multiple-strategy programs that do not use reciprocal teaching mainly have the student practice strategies with modeling and/or feedback from the teacher. In explicit, direct approaches, the teacher always explains a strategy before the teacher models it during reading.

Teacher preparation for text comprehension instruction. Teachers have to learn strategy instruction in order to interact with students at the right time and right place during the reading of a text. Teachers also need to know about cognitive processes in reading and how to teach strategies through explanation, demonstration, modeling, or interactive techniques; how to allow readers to learn and use individual strategies; and how to teach a strategy in conjunction with several other strategies.

Four studies conducted in the late 1980s and 1990s indicated that teachers who learn multiple comprehension strategy instruction and use it in their classrooms improve the reading comprehension of their students, especially those who are below average in skill. Improvements occurred in subject matter learning and in performance on standardized reading comprehension tests. In 1996 Rachel Brown, Michael Pressley, and colleagues taught teachers to use transactional strategy instruction in a yearlong program where students made comprehension gains. Transaction instruction involves teacherdirected actions with interactive exchanges with students in classrooms.

Cooperative learning by peers. Readers may learn best when they are in social situations in which they are actively engaged with other learners who are near their same level of understanding. Cooperative learning involves readers reading together with a partner or in small groups. As they read aloud and listen to others, the teacher can guide them to use any of the various strategies for effective reading comprehension. At first the teacher may model reading through her demonstrated use of a strategy. Then the student readers carry out the demonstrated activities with a partner or in small reading groups. Readers take turns reading and listening, asking questions, answering questions, summarizing, recognizing words, predicting, and clarifying. The readers are encouraged to tutor each other on strategies. Group cooperative instruction has been found to promote intellectual discussion, increased student control over their learning, increased social interaction with peers, and savings in teacher time.

For example, in 1998 Janette K. Klingner, Sharon Vaughn, and Jeanne S. Schumm investigated the effectiveness of a cooperative learning approach designed to encourage culturally and linguistically diverse general education fourth-grade students to use strategic reading by employing various summarization and clarification procedures during reading. Students in the cooperative learning classes made greater gains in reading comprehension and equal gains in content knowledge than controls in measures that included a standardized reading test, a social studies unit test, and audiotapes of group work.

In ten studies on cooperative learning of comprehension strategies reviewed by the NRP, students successfully learned the reading strategies. Cooperative learning can also be effective for integrating students with academic and physical disabilities into regular classrooms. The social interaction increases motivation for learning and time spent by the learners on tasks.

Implications for Future Research and Practice

Instruction of cognitive strategies for reading comprehension has been successful across a wide number of studies for readers in grades three to eleven. Despite these successful demonstrations, there are many unanswered questions. Among these are whether certain strategies are more appropriate than others for readers of certain ages or different abilities, whether comprehension strategy instruction would improve performance and achievement in all content areas, whether successful instruction generalizes across different types of texts, and whether comprehension strategies work better if what is being read engages the readers' interests. Researchers also need to find out more about important teacher characteristics that influence successful instruction of reading comprehension, especially in regard to decision-making processes (e.g., knowing when to apply what strategy with which particular student[s]). Finally, there has been little research that directly compares different methods of teaching comprehension. More needs to be known about "best approaches" to comprehension instruction and the circumstances under which they are successful. How does one best develop independent readers who have the abilities to understand what they read on their own?


Cognitive strategy instruction does work to improve readers' comprehension performance. In her 2000 address to teachers, Carol Minnick Santa, president of the International Reading Association, noted that "teaching [comprehension] is a lot harder and more abstract than teaching phonemic awareness or language structures. Moreover, effective comprehension instruction demands extensive teacher knowledge." In 1993, after a five-year study of teaching teachers to implement comprehension strategy instruction, Gerald G. Duffy, a developer of the direct-instruction approach to cognitive strategy instruction, concluded that teaching students to acquire and use strategies requires a fundamental "change in how teacher educators and staff developers work with teachers and what they count as important about learning to be a teacher" (p. 244). Successful comprehension teachers must be strategic themselves, coordinating individual strategies and altering, adjusting, modifying, testing, and shifting tactics appropriately until readers' comprehension problems are resolved. For readers to become good reading strategists requires teachers who have appreciation for reading strategies.

See also: Literacy, subentry on Vocabulary and Vocabulary Learning; Literacy and Reading; Memory; Reading, subentries on Beginning Reading, Content Areas, Interest, Learning from Text, Prior Knowledge, Beliefs, and Learning, Teaching of; Reading Disabilities.


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internet resource

Santa, Carol Minnick. 2000 (February/March). "President's Message: The Complexity of Comprehension: Effective Comprehension Instruction Requires Extensive Teacher Knowledge." Reading Today. International Reading Association. <>.

Ed Bouchard

Tom Trabasso


Reading in content areas is also referred to as subject matter reading and disciplinary reading and embodies what educators call "reading to learn." These terms refer to reading, understanding, learning, and using content area, subject matter, or disciplinary texts such as texts in science, history, or literature, for the purpose of gaining, demonstrating, and possibly creating knowledge in that discipline. Proficiency in reading content area materials is influenced by: (1) the dispositions of individuals who read in the disciplines (including such influences as their levels of background and strategy knowledge, their understanding of the discipline, their attitudes and interest in the subject matter, and their ability levels); (2) the goals that students adapt for learning and the degree to which those goals are similar to the goals that their teachers have for their learning; (3) the structure, difficulty level, and tone of the texts; (4) the level of understanding required of the individuals (for example, memorization versus critical thinking); and (5) the form in which that understanding is displayed (such as written versus oral or recall versus recognition). Thus, reading content area materials involves complex processes.

Educators often state that "reading to learn" is different from "learning to read." When students learn to read, the focus is often on the pronunciation and comprehension of narrative texts. Comprehension of these narratives does not usually require expertise in literary criticism and interpretation, although teachers seek literal, inferential, and evaluative/applied understandings. Reading to learn, however, focuses on the understanding and use of largely informational texts in disciplines such as history and science and a mix of informational and literary texts in English. Reading to learn does require disciplinary expertise. When reading a literary text, for example, students benefit from knowing how literary critics think about and discuss literature as a guide to their own interpretation and discussion of that text. When reading a history text, students benefit from understanding the way that historians gather and interpret data and write about historical events. Reading to learn science requires a different set of understandings than reading to learn history, literature, or any other subject matter.

Level of background knowledge, interest, goals, and other student characteristics make a difference in how well students are able to understand and use the information in texts, but content area reading specialists disagree about the degree to which the approach to reading differs depending upon the discipline. Strategies for understanding and applying what is read will have some commonalties across disciplines; generally, however, the understanding of disciplinary texts is inextricably tied to understandings of the discipline.

In a 1997 article Patricia Alexander posited that disciplinary expertise is gained as a function of three interdependent influencesknowledge, interest, and strategy use. That is, as one increases, the others do as well. Alexander described three levels of disciplinary expertise. At the level of acclimation, knowledge is unorganized, strategies are general, and interest is extrinsic. At the level of competency, knowledge becomes organized (such as into processes in science), strategies become more specific, and interest becomes more intrinsic. At the level of proficiency, one may even create knowledge, strategies will not only be more specific but also become fluid and very efficient, and interest will be very closely tied to one's inner desires. Students may move from acclimation to competency because they get hooked on a topic and that hook helps them become more interested in other topics, because they develop strategies that help them learn more effectively, or because they may learn more and, thus, understand how better to use strategies for learning. In any event, knowledge, interest, and strategy use are tied to the discipline rather than being seen as general constructs.

Reading in Three Disciplines: History, Science, and Literature

Disciplines differ in their methods for creating and displaying knowledge. In addition, teachers in the disciplines expect students to understand those differences and to use them in learning information from texts.

The case of history. History texts are traditionally written as narratives that are sometimes interspersed with interpretation. For example, an event such as the Tonkin Gulf incident of the Vietnam War may be described sequentially, followed by a paragraph discussing the importance of the event in determining U.S. involvement in the war. Students often read historical texts as if they were "baskets of facts" to be memorized in sequential order, but this strategy is naive. Historians, when asked to read historical texts, read them differently. In a 1992 article Samuel Wineburg reported that historians read historical texts as arguments. When reading several historical documents, they engaged in sourcing (determining the expertise of the author and the source of the material), contextualization (determining when it was written and what surrounding influences there might be), and corroboration (determining whether or not the texts agreed).

The differences in the way students and historians read the documents can be attributed to differences in disciplinary expertise. That is, historians know the way that historical evidence is collected. They understand that there is the danger of bias in the selection process of that evidence. They also know that original documents are sometimes difficult to interpret. The documents are like pieces of a puzzle that must be assembled without a preexisting border, with the final picture being a creation of the historian. In interpreting those original documents historians are influenced by the time period in which they live, the political and philosophical approaches they have embraced, and past historical interpretations, to name a few influences. In addition, historians understand the power relations that exist among historians. They know what counts as good historical writing, model their own writing on that of others, and examine the writing of their fellow historians accordingly. Historians understand the elements of their discipline and thus read historical texts with a critical eye.

But the processes of selecting and interpreting historical evidence and writing about historical events is hidden from the reader of historical texts. In presenting history as a coherent story, this information is obscured. Therefore, it is up to teachers of history to call to the attention of students the elements of the discipline that will help them engage in reading history.

What are students required to do when they read history texts? Typically, students are expected to engage in several levels of understanding of history as a result of reading historical texts. These include a mastery of the "facts" of history. They include understanding consensual interpretations of history, such as understanding various historians' ideas of the causes and effects of important events. They also include students' engagement in thinking about these interpretations for themselves. Students in history classes are often asked to make comparisons and contrasts and to discuss possible cause-and-effect relationships that have not been made explicit in the texts. Students are also often required to synthesize information across several texts. For instance, they may be required to read Benjamin Franklin's writings and decide in what ways his ideas had embodied the principles of the Enlightenment. Sometimes students are asked to look at history from different perspectives. For instance, they may be required to read several versions of an event to consider how the context of those writings influenced understanding about it. Students sometimes are asked to engage in the gathering of and interpretation of historical evidence and to write their interpretations in report form, such as in a term paper. Finally, students are sometimes required to engage in thinking about the philosophical aspects of historical understanding. For example, they may be asked to consider whether important people create noteworthy events or whether noteworthy events create important people.

The tradition in history classes for demonstrating these various understandings turns increasingly toward essay writing as students move from naivete to expertise and from lower-level mastery of factual information to higher-level critical thinking and interpretation. Thus, students need to have a complex array of strategies for understanding historical texts and for demonstrating that understanding. These include strategies for remembering the facts of historical events, engaging in historical research, making comparisons and contrasts, synthesizing information across texts, writing essays, and thinking critically about the nature of history and historical writing. Whereas these strategies share common elements with strategies needed for other disciplines, they are, in the end, discipline specific.

The case of science. The hard sciences such as physics and biology rest on the assumptions of the scientific method. Scientists understand and use the scientific method in their search for "truth." They adhere to the principle of objectivity, understanding that their own biases and perceptual shortcomings may cause misinterpretations of evidence. Thus they engage in experimentation using controlled conditions whenever possible and rely on numerical rather than qualitative assessments of data as the main determinants of scientific principles. Yet, as scientists, they are still influenced by several constraining elements. The selection of research topic, the use of certain measurement devices, the importance assigned to various scientific findings, and the previous understandings of the research topic are all examples of constraints that are in part culturally and socially based. Which topics get studied and which findings gain acceptance in the scientific community are functions of power relations among scientists, of necessity, and of the veracity of the findings. As an example, consider that it took hundreds of years for the ideas of the seventeenth century Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei to be accepted by the scientific community, or that sterilization procedures were staunchly resisted by the scientific community despite evidence that such procedures were necessary.

Also in science, information is always partial and relational. Because the workings of the natural world are obscured for individuals by the limits of their perceptual and sociocultural understandings, scientific understandings are always in a state of flux. For example, the ideas about gravity and motion formulated by the English mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton (16421727) are functional on Earth but have become outmoded based upon newer conceptions of quantum physics. Scientists understand this flux; they have the disciplinary knowledge necessary to help them critically read and evaluate scientific texts. They also know what counts as written proof of a scientific finding. For example, they know that the reporting of a scientific finding in the journal Science requires adherence to certain traditional rules for scientific reporting and has been anonymously reviewed (refereed) by a group of distinguished scientists. They know that such a report counts more than the accounting of similar findings in a local, nonrefereed publication. Students, however, do not have the disciplinary knowledge necessary to make these evaluations. Skillful reading of science is in part dependent upon students gaining that disciplinary knowledge.

What are students required to do as they read science texts? Typically, they are required to master a knowledge base that represents the current understandings of the scientific community. These understandings involve the identification of various elements and their function in carrying out common processes. For example, students are required to identify the parts and understand the workings of the human digestive system. They are also often required to solve problems or to make predictions about processes based upon their scientific understandings. For example, a student who understands the path of a projectile and how it is calculated might be asked to determine the time it would take a projectile to reach the ground if it were launched at a certain speed at a certain trajectory from a certain height. In other words, students must be able to understand the vocabulary and concepts of what they read and apply that understanding in new contexts.

In trying to understand the processes of science, students may need to suspend their own ideas in favor of scientific evidence. In the study of gravity, for example, students often have erroneous conceptions of how gravity works based upon their intuitive but scientifically disproven assumptions. Students may believe that a heavier object will fall faster than a lighter one, when, in reality, weight or mass do not influence the speed of a projectile as it falls to Earth. Scientists know that weight has no influence because they have performed controlled experiments. Students must suspend their intuitive beliefs to learn the scientific information, and those who understand the assumptions of the scientific method will more likely engage in that learning than students who do not.

Science texts are often seen as difficult to understand. Students complain that concepts are not sufficiently elaborated, the material assumes a level of background information that exceeds theirs, the vocabulary is too dense, and the content is dull. Texts are even harder to understand when students begin their reading harboring misconceptions about the content that interfere with their understanding. Researchers have found that refutational text, or text that explicitly describes erroneous understandings and explains why they are erroneous, is more effective at helping students to learn counterintuitive ideas.

The procedures in science classes for demonstrating students' understandings are varied, including answering literal, inferential, and applied questions on multiple-choice tests; solving numerical problems; writing descriptive essays; writing field notes; making charts, graphs, and diagrams; and writing scientific reports. Students are required to have elaborative understandings of current conceptions of the working of the natural world, and they must have a number of strategies for learning at their disposal.

The case of literature. Literature has its own disciplinary traditions. Knowledge of the way that literary experts refer to such elements as genre, characterization, theme, conflict, symbolism, and language use is important. In addition, experts in literature often engage in various kinds of interpretation, for example, putting a feminist, Marxist, Freudian, or postmodern spin on the interpretation of a piece of literature. Experts in literature understand the different perspectives that are part and parcel of the field. They understand that literary criticism has evolved over time; that the relationship of the author, the text, and the reader and their importance in interpretation have fluctuated; and that arguments rage over what is important for students to read (the canon versus multicultural literature, for example). Students may not have this disciplinary knowledge but would benefit by it.

Students need to develop a common language with which they can discuss and write about their interpretations of text, and the tradition in literature classes is for the demonstration of disciplinary expertise to be in essay form. In addition, they are often expected to apply their knowledge of the elements of certain genres by engaging in writing literary texts themselves, such as in writing poetry or short stories. And they are sometimes required to write reports about authors or certain literary traditions. The strategies for engaging in these activities are quite complex, and, although they require literal, interpretive, and applied/evaluative thinking, the way in which this thinking is used is different from the way it is used in history and science.

The three disciplinesscience, history, and literatureare similar in that all require thinking at literal, inferential, and applied/evaluative levels. In addition, reading texts in these disciplines requires vocabulary knowledge and strategic effort. But the disciplines are different. For example, science is well-structured, history less well-structured, and literature relatively unstructured in relation to what is agreed upon as being "known."

Strategies for Reading Content Area Texts

When discussing strategy use, educators find it useful to make a distinction between teacher-generated and student-generated strategies. In both cases, however, content area specialists argue about whether general strategies can be used and applied across subject areas or whether strategies must be discipline specific. In reality, probably both ideas are true.

An example of a teacher-directed strategy is list-group-label. In this pre-reading strategy, the teacher solicits and makes a list of all the information students already know about the content of what they are about to read. Then, she directs the students to group the items in the list into meaningful groups and to label each meaningful group. From this activity, the teacher finds out what the students already understand and can, thus, be more effective in bridging any gaps between information in the text and student knowledge. In addition, the activity can be used to generate a list of questions that might be answered by the text. These questions would then make reading a more directed and interesting activity. The strategy can be applied across contents, but the lists that are generated and the way the lists are used might differ depending upon the discipline. For example, in a history class, groups may include events, policies, and people. In science they may include patterns of behavior or processes.

Regarding student-generated strategies, to be successful in classes in any discipline, students must read with the purpose of understanding and thinking about the information at deep levels, organizing the information into meaningful units, remembering the information, and displaying their knowledge in various ways. Strategies such as previewing, annotating, and outlining help students identify important information to study; strategies such as charting, mapping, and concept cards help students to organize material across sources in meaningful ways; strategies such as verbal rehearsal help students to remember and think about the material; and strategies such as predicting and answering exam questions help students prepare for displaying their knowledge. If students think at literal, inferential, and applied/evaluative levels, they will be more likely to truly learn new information. But even though all of these strategies can be applied across content areas, they will, in practice, be different depending upon the content of the material. Evidence that strategy use in one discipline can be transferred to other disciplines without explicit instruction in strategy modification is rare, and so it seems necessary that students should get explicit strategy modification instruction in each discipline.

In conclusion, the more discipline knowledge they possess, the more content knowledge they have, the more they are interested in the subject matter, the more familiarity they have with the way knowledge is created and structured in a particular discipline, and the more closely their goals for learning match disciplinary goals, the more likely it is that students will be able to adapt general strategies or create new ones to meet their discipline-specific needs for learning and applying the information in their content area texts.

See also: Children's Literature; History; Reading, subentries on Comprehension, Interest, Learning from Text, Prior Knowledge, Beliefs, and Learning, Teaching of; Reading Disabilities; Science Education; Science Learning.


Alexander, Patricia A. 1997. "Mapping the Multidimensional Nature of Domain Learning: The Interplay of Cognitive, Motivation, and Strategic Forces." Advances in Motivation and Achievement 10:213250.

Wineburg, Samuel S. 1991. "On the Reading of Historical Texts: Notes on the Breach between School and Academy." American Educational Research Journal 28:495519.

Cynthia Hynd


The powerful facilitative effect of interest on academic performance in general has been well established. For the purpose of this entry, the current conceptualization of interest is overviewed, followed by a review of interest research on reading.

The Conceptualization of Interest

Among the many conceptualizations of interest the most common are to consider interest as a state and/or as a disposition. It has also been demonstrated that interest has both cognitive and affective (emotional) components. Researchers also distinguish between individual and situational interest, with the former targeting personal interest and the latter focusing on creating appropriate environmental settings.

Individual interest has been viewed as a relatively long-lasting predisposition to reengage with particular objects and events. Increased knowledge, value, and positive affect have been connected with individual interest. Students bring to their academic experience a network of individual interests, some similar to and some incompatible with classroom learning. Social categories such as gender and race also function as individual interest factors that may affect classroom engagement.

Situational interest refers to a psychological state elicited by environmental stimuli. The state is characterized by focused attention and an immediate affective reaction. The affective component is generally positive, although it may also include some negative emotions. Once triggered, the reaction may or may not be maintained. Situational sources of interest in learning contexts may be particularly relevant for educators working with students who do not have preformed individual interests in their school activities.

Although differences exist between situational and individual interest, they are not dichotomous phenomena. First, both situational and individual interest include an affective component and culminate in the psychological state of interest. Such a state is characterized by focused attention, increased cognitive functioning, and increased and persistent activity. Second, investigators concede that both types of interest are content specific and emerge from the interaction of the person and aspects in the environment. Third, numerous researchers recognize that situational and individual interests may interact. In the absence of the other, the role of individual or situational interest may be particularly important. For example, individual interest in a subject may help individuals deal with relevant but boring texts, while situational interest generated by texts may sustain motivation even when individuals have no particular interest in the topic. In addition, situational interest may develop over time into individual interest.

It has been found that topic interest has both situational and individual components. Topic interest may have an especially significant role in reading and writing in schools because students usually have to deal with text on the basis of topics provided by teachers.

Interest and Reading Research

The most important questions raised in the literature on interest and reading concerned the influence of interest on readers' text processing and learning, the factors that contribute to readers' interest, and the specific processes through which interest influences learning. These issues are considered next.

The influence of interest on readers' text processing and learning. Up to the early 1980s, the prevalent view in educational research was that proficient readers process and recall text according to its hierarchical structure. Thus it was believed that readers could recall best the more important ideas at the higher levels of text structures. Since the early 1980s, however, research has shown that readers' well-formed individual interests and their situational interests (evoked by topics and text segments) contributed to their reading comprehension and learning. Several studies have demonstrated that personally interesting text segments and passages written on high-interest topics facilitate children's as well as college students' comprehension, inferencing, and retention.

Researchers have also demonstrated that interest affects the type of learning that occurs. Specifically, beyond increasing the amount of recall, interest seems to have a substantial effect on the quality of learning. Interest leads to more elaborate and deeper processing of texts. In 2000 Mark McDaniel, Paula Waddill, Kraig Finstad, and Tammy Bourg found that readers engaged with uninteresting narratives focused on individual text elements, such as extracting proposition-specific content, whereas readers of interesting texts tended to engage in organizational processing of information. Furthermore, their research suggests that text differing in interest may affect the degree to which processing strategies benefit memory performance.

Factors contributing to readers' interest. Another important educational issue is to increase the amount of interesting reading that students engage in. The bulk of the research in this area examined text characteristics that contribute to making reading materials more interesting. In his seminal 1979 paper, Roger Schank indicated that certain concepts (e.g., death, violence, and sex) can be considered "absolute interests" that almost universally elicit individuals' interest. In 1980 Walter Kintsch, referring to these interests as "emotional interests," distinguished them from cognitive interests, which result from events that are involved in complex cognitive structures or contain surprise. Subsequent research has suggested that a variety of text characteristics contribute in a positive way to the interestingness and memorability of written materials. Features that were found to be sources of situational interest include novelty, surprising information, intensity, visual imagery, ease of comprehension, text cohesion, and prior knowledge.

Text-based interest can also be promoted by altering certain aspects of the learning environment such as modifying task presentations, curriculum materials, and individuals' self-regulation. For example, in 1994 Gregg Schraw and R. S. Dennison were able to change the interestingness and recall of text materials by assigning for reading various perspectives on the same topic. In addition, research has indicated that presenting educational materials in more meaningful, challenging, and/or personally relevant contexts can stimulate interest. Modifying the presence of others in the learning environment can also elicit interest. For example, German researchers Lore Hoffman and P. Haussler demonstrated that mono-educational classes in physics can contribute to girls' increased interest in the subject area. Finally, Carol Sansone and colleagues in a series of studies showed that individuals can self-regulate in order to make tasks more interesting and subsequently to develop individual interest in activities initially considered uninteresting. Although these studies did not deal specifically with interest in reading, they indicated that interest in reading could also be increased by similar methods.

Specific processes through which interest influences learning. Gregg Schraw and colleagues suggested in 1995 that interest should be thought of as a complex cognitive phenomenon affected by multiple text and reader characteristic. A critical question is how the elicitation of interest leads to improved recall. One possibility is that interest activates text-processing strategies that result in readers being engaged in deeper-level processing. Suzanne Wade and colleagues reported in 1999 that the connections readers made between information and their prior knowledge or previous experience increased their interest.

Mark Sadoski and colleagues suggested in 1993 that interacting but separate cognitive systems (verbal and nonverbal) can explain the relationships among interest, comprehension, and recall. When verbal materials are encoded through both of these systems, comprehension and memory increase. The dual coding suggested by Sadoski and colleagues seems to account for the effects of some of the sources of interest that have been found to be associated with increased comprehension and memory, such as the processing of concrete, high-imagery materials. Nevertheless, some highly concrete and easily imaginable information is more interesting than other similar information. In addition, the informational significance of intensity, novelty, surprise, high personal relevance, and character identification reported in the literature to elicit interest do not seem to promote dual encoding prompted by concrete language and mental imagery. Another factor that has been associated with interest, reading, and increased learning is attention. Suzanne Hidi argued that interest is associated with automatic attention that facilitates learning. More specifically, she argued that such attention frees cognitive resources and leads to more efficient processing and better recall of information. In 2000 McDaniel, Waddill, Finstad, and Bourg reported empirical data supporting this position. Finally, as interest undoubtedly has a strong emotional component, this aspect may play a critical role in how interest influences learning. The effect of emotions on interest, however, is yet to be fully investigated in educational research.

See also: Effort and Interest; Literacy and Reading; Reading, subentries on Comprehension, Content Areas, Learning from Text, Prior Knowledge, Beliefs and Learning.


Alexander, Patricia A. 1997. "Mapping the Multidimensional Nature of Domain Learning: The Interplay of Cognitive, Motivational, and Strategic Forces." In Advances in Motivation and Achievement, Vol. 10, ed. Martin L. Maehr and Paul R. Pintrich. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Alexander, Patricia A.; Jetton, T. L.; and Kulikowich, Jonna M. 1995. "Interrelationship of Knowledge, Interest, and Recall: Assessing a Model of Domain Learning." Journal of Educational Psychology 87:559575.

Anderson, Richard C.; Shirley, L. L.; Wilson, P. T.; and Fielding, L. G. 1987. "Interestingness of Children's Reading Material." In Aptitude, Learning and Instruction: Vol III: Cognitive and Affective Progress Analyses, ed. Richard E. Snow and Marshall J. Farr. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bergin, David A. 1999. "Influences on Classroom Interest." Educational Psychologist 34:8798.

Harackiewiez, Judith M.; Barron, Kenneth E.; Carter, S. M.; Lehto, A. T.; and Elliot, Andrew J. 1997. "Predictors and Consequences of Achievement Goals in the College Classroom: Maintaining Interest and Making the Grade." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73:12841295.

Harackiewiez, Judith M.; Barron, Kenneth E.; Tauer, John M.; Carter, S. M.; and Elliot, Andrew J. 2000. "Short-Term and Long-Term Consequences of Achievement: Predicting Continued Interest and Performance over Time." Journal of Educational Psychology 92 (2):36330.

Hidi, Suzanne. 1990. "Interest and Its Contribution as a Mental Resource for Learning." Review of Educational Research 60:549571.

Hidi, Suzanne. 2000. "An Interest Researcher's Perspective on the Effects of Extrinsic and Intrinsic Factors on Motivation." In Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: The Search for Optimum Motivation and Performance, ed. Carol Sansone and Judith M. Harackiewicz. New York: Academic Press.

Hidi, Suzanne. 2001. "Interest and Reading: Theoretical and Practical Considerations." Educational Psychology Review 13 (3):191208.

Hidi, Suzanne, and Harackiewiez, Judith M. 2000. "Motivating the Academically Unmotivated: A Critical Issue for the 21st Century." Review of Educational Research 70 (2):151179.

Hoffman, Lore, and Haussler, P. 1998. "An Intervention Project Promoting Girls' and Boys' Interest in Physics." In Interest and Learning: Proceedings of the Seeon Conference on Interest and Gender, ed. Lore Hoffman, Andreas Krapp, K. Ann Renninger, and JÜrgen Baumert. Kiel, Germany: Institute for Science Education (IPN).

Hoffman, Leon; Krapp, Andreas; Renninger, K. Ann; and Baumert, JÜrgen, eds. 1998. Interest and Learning: Proceedings of the Seeon Conference on Interest and Gender, ed. Lore Hoffman, Andreas Krapp, K. Ann Renninger, and JÜrgen Baumert. Kiel, Germany: Institute for Science Education (IPN).

Kintsch, Walter. 1980. "Learning from Texts, Levels of Comprehension, Or: Why Anyone Would Read a Story Anyway." Poetics 9:8798.

Krapp, Andreas. 1999. "Interest, Motivation and Learning: An Educational-Psychological Perspective." European Journal of Psychology in Education 14:2340.

Krapp, Andreas; Hidi, Suzanne; and Renninger, K. Ann. 1992. Interest, Learning and Development." In The Role of Interest in Learning and Development, ed. K. Ann Renninger, Suzanne Hidi, and Andreas Krapp. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

McDaniel, Mark A.; Finstad, Kraig; Waddill, Paula J.; and Bourg, Tammy. 2000. "The Effects of Text-Based Interest on Attention and Recall." Journal of Educational Psychology 92 (3):492502.

Mitchell, M. 1993. "Situational Interest: Its Multifaceted Structure in the Secondary School Mathematics Classroom." Journal of Educational Psychology 85:424426.

Meyer, Bonnie J. F.; Talbot, A.; and Stubblefield, R. A. 1998. "Interest and Strategies of Young and Old Readers Differently Interact with Characteristics of Texts." Educational Gerontology 24:747771.

Renninger, K. Ann. 1992. "Individual Interest and Development: Implications for Theory and Practice." In The Role of Interest in Learning and Development, ed. K. Ann Renninger, Suzanne Hidi, and Andreas Krapp. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Renninger, K. Ann. 2000. "Individual Interest and Its Implications for Understanding Intrinsic Motivation." In Intrinsic Motivation: Controversies and New Directions, ed. Carol Sansone and Judith M. Harackiewicz. New York: Academic Press.

Renniner, K. Ann, and Hidi, Suzanne. 2002. "Student Interest and Achievement: Developmental Issues Raised by a Case Study." In The Development of Achievement Motivation, ed. Allan Wig-field and Jacquelynne S. Eccles. New York: Academic Press.

Sadoski, Mark. 2001. "Resolving the Effects of Concreteness on Interest, Comprehension, and Learning Important Ideas from Text." Educational Psychology Review 13 (3).

Sadoski, Mark; Goetz, Ernest T.; and Fritz, J. 1993. "Impact of Concreteness on Comprehensibility, Interest, and Memory for Text: Implications for Dual Coding Theory and Text Design." Journal of Educational Psychology 85:291304.

Sansone, Carol, and Smith, Jessi L. 2000. "Self-Regulating Interest: When, Why and How." In Intrinsic Motivation: Controversies and New Directions, ed. Carol Sansone and Judith M. Harackiewicz. New York: Academic Press.

Sansone, Carol; Weir, C.; Harpster, L.; and Morgan, C. 1992. "Once a Boring Task Always a Boring Task? Interest as a Self-Regulatory Mechanism." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 63:379390.

Schank, Roger C. 1979. "Interestingness: Controlling Inferences." Artificial Intelligence 12:273297.

Schiefele, Ulrich. 1998. "Individual Interest and Learning, What We Know and What We Don't Know." In Interest and Learning: Proceedings of the Seeon Conference on Interest and Gender, ed. Leon Hoffman, Andreas Krapp, K. Ann Renninger, and J. Baumert. Kiel, Germany: Institute for Science Education (IPN).

Schiefele, Ulrich, and Krapp, Andreas. 1996. "Topic Interest and Free Recall of Expository Text." Learning and Individual Differences 8:141160.

Schraw, Gregg, and Dennison, R. S. 1994. "The Effect of Reader Purpose on Interest and Recall." Journal of Reading Behavior 26 (1):118.

Schraw, Gregg; Bruning, R.; and Svoboda, C. 1995. "Sources of Situational Interest." Journal of Reading Behavior 27:117.

Schraw, Gregg; Flowerday, Terri; and Lehman, Steve. 2001. "Increasing Situation Interest in the Classroom." Educational Psychology Review 13 (3):211224.

Wade, Suzanne E.; Buxton, William M.; and Kelly, Michelle. 1999. "Using Think-Alouds to Examine Reader-Text Interest." Reading Research Quarterly 34:194216.

Suzanne Hidi


Text allows people to communicate their ideas with one another across time and space. Indeed, a large part of what each person knows comes from reading texts. People who never discover how to learn from text have strong constraints on what they can know and do. On careful reflection, however, learning from text is a more controversial topic than is readily obvious. Learning may be of higher quality when students experience the world directly rather than read about it. Fourth graders who construct electric circuits or twelfth graders who enact a mock trial may well understand more about the underlying principles of electricity or the judicial system than if they had read chapters from their science or social studies textbooks. As appealing as learning by doing may seem, it has its own limitations. It is unrealistic to assume that students would be able to acquire the understanding of electricity that the nineteenth-century German physicist Georg Ohm had or the understanding of the law that John Marshall, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835, had by repeating the same school activities even countless times. Through reading, students can experience the thinking of these experts and come to know some of what they knew or know without completing the same years of study or possessing equal amounts of academic insight. Successful learning depends on a close match among reader goals, text characteristics, reader proficiencies, and instructional context.

Reader Goals

People read for many reasons. A mystery lover reads a new novel to be intrigued and entertained. A cook reads a recipe to prepare a new dish successfully. A caller reads the telephone book to find a telephone number. The mystery lover, cook, and caller will have connected the words, sentences, and paragraphs of their texts together to be entertained, follow the set of prescribed steps, or locate the information they seek. In other words, they will have comprehended successfully. Nevertheless, they probably will not have learned much. The goal of the mystery lover is to be entertained, not to learn. While the cook and caller read to find information, this information probably will remain in the text where it can be accessed again when needed rather than become a part of each reader's knowledge.

Comprehension, memorizing, and learning require different processes and different amounts of effort. Walter Kintsch, a cognitive psychologist who has studied text comprehension and learning, has shown that children can comprehend, or recall, an arithmetic problem without being able to solve it correctly and that adults can recall a set of directions without being able to find a particular location. To comprehend, readers connect the separate ideas in a text into a coherent whole that resembles the text. They know the meanings of most words and are able to draw necessary inferences between sentences, paragraphs, and larger sections of a text. As they draw these inferences, they distinguish superordinate topics or ideas from details. If asked to recall a text soon after reading it, they will tend to remember the superordinate topics, but not the details.

Memorizing requires rehearsal and therefore more effort than comprehension. Readers who re-read a text several times, focusing attention on the superordinate ideas and some of the details, will be better able to reproduce what they have rehearsed, particularly if prompted. Memorization is often what students do when they study for an exam. If the test has multiple choice or true and false questions, memorization can be an effective strategy. Neither text comprehension nor memorization alone, however, will result in learning, according to Kintsch.

Kintsch found that children were able to solve a problem if they could apply what they know about arithmetic and life in general to imagine a situation that represents the details in the problem. He suggested that learning occurs when readers can use their own relevant knowledge to think about, perhaps rearrange, critique, and retain or discard the content in a text. Picture the master chef following a new recipe for a type of dish that she has cooked many times. Because of her knowledge about ingredients, preparation choices, cooking temperatures, and heat sources, this chef would notice any new features, critique the recipe, keep what she likes, and add to what she already knows about preparing the dish. Learning brings about a change in what readers know, understand, and can do rather than simply what they remember or comprehend.

Texts for Learning

Learning requires more from a text than comprehensibility. To be sure, comprehensibility serves as a gatekeeper. Readers who comprehend a text have a chance at learning from it. Those who fail to comprehend will learn little without substantial intervention from the teacher. Centuries of scholarship on the features of effective writing accompanied by decades of comprehension research have revealed the characteristics of comprehensible text. Organization is important. Coherent texts are easier to comprehend than incoherent, poorly organized texts. In coherent texts sentences and paragraphs are organized around clear subtopics, and the overall text follows a well-known genre, such as argument or explanation. If the text has introductions, transitions, conclusions, paragraph topic sentences, and signal words that highlight this organization, readers will comprehend it better than they will a text without these features. In addition to organization, comprehension is affected by familiarity and interestingness. Readers comprehend texts better that are maximally informative, neither too familiar nor too unfamiliar, and that include vivid details and examples to capture interest. As important as text comprehensibility is, however, it does not address what students will learn from their reading or whether they will learnanything at all.

What is worth learning? The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead saw in schooling the potential to teach important understandings that students could use to make sense of the chaotic stream of events that make up experience. In his 1974 book The Organisation of Thought, he warned educators, "Do not teach too many subjects, [and] what you teach, teach thoroughly, seizing on the few general ideas which illuminate the whole, and persistently marshalling subsidiary facts round them" (Whitehead, p. 3.) The difficulty, of course, arises in choosing the few understandings to teach.

Ralph W. Tyler, in his classic 1949 book Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction, proposed five types of important understandings. First, subject specialists believe that the major understandings should come from the design of the knowledge domains themselves. Second, progressives and child psychologists maintain that the goal of education is to produce well-adjusted adults and that student needs should guide the choice of understandings. Third, sociologists, aware of the needs of society, argue that the understandings should be based on whatever the pressing societal problems are; the goal of schooling is to produce good citizens. Fourth, educational philosophers point to important basic life values as a guide, because they believe that the goal of education is to produce an ethical populace. Fifth, educational psychologists explain that the understandings must be developmentally appropriate; the goal of schooling is to teach something. No curriculum could effectively incorporate everything worthwhile. Therefore, Tyler suggested that curriculum designers use their philosophy of education and what they know about educational psychology to decide which understandings to include from student needs, society needs, and the domain.

Besides being comprehensible and presenting valuable content, certain types of texts are intentionally instructional, designed specifically to enhance reader learning. Argument and explanation, two familiar genres, are particularly effective instructional text types. Both genres marshal subsidiary facts around general ideas, the optimal instructional approach for teaching important understandings according to Whitehead. Argument offers facts and examples to support a claim, or general statement. Twelfth graders studying the judiciary might read a text that presents details about court decisions in order to argue, "Through its decisions, the Supreme Court has a major influence on how the trials in lower courts are conducted." Explanation presents facts, examples, illustrations, and analogies ordered logically to guide a reader from an everyday understanding toward the understanding of an expert. Fourth graders might read an explanation of electricity that introduces the scientific model of electric circuits. The explanation could begin by describing the everyday experience of turning a light switch on and off. Next it could present the steps for building a simple circuit and examples of circuits that light lamps, houses, and entire towns. The explanation could display diagrams with arrows that show how electricity moves in each of the circuits. It could conclude with a description of the atomic model and accompanying diagrams. Text features can substantially affect student learning.

Reader Characteristics

In order to comprehend a text, integrate the ideas in the text with what they already know and understand, and then construct a model of the situation in the text, readers must be able to capitalize on a text's comprehensibility and instructional features. Reader knowledge is crucial. Readers who are familiar with a text's topic can rely on what they know to recognize important ideas and distinguish them from details. They can readily identify the meanings of familiar words in the text and can use what they already know to infer the meanings of unknown words. If they also know common text patterns and how they are signaled in introductions, conclusions, transitions, and topic sentences, readers can connect the separate ideas in the text into a coherent whole that resembles the text. Knowledge about arguments and explanations may be particularly important. Readers who expect to recognize and learn new ideas from reading these two genres will be far more likely to learn the ideas than readers who are oblivious to them.

But learning requires special reading strategies beyond what readers must know to be able to comprehend. In a 1997 article Susan R. Goldman, a cognitive psychologist, reviewed the extensive work on learning strategies, including some of her own work. She concluded that readers who explain and elaborate what they are reading and who have flexible comprehension strategies learn more from reading than readers who do not. The effective explainers actively search for the logical relationships among the ideas in a text. Thinking about the relationships reminds successful learners of related facts and examples from their own knowledge. These strategies lead readers to construct a model of the situation in the text closely intertwined with what they already know.

The Learning Context

Contexts that effectively promote learning from text set learning as the goal for reading, provide students with comprehensible and "learnable" texts, draw connections between student knowledge and reading, and support and promote student thinking about text. Students may read to complete tasks, to understand activities more fully, to teach ideas to one another, to figure out the important ideas in a text, and to prepare reports, arguments, and explanations. Each of these learning goals requires that readers connect the ideas in the texts to what they already know. Teachers can promote connections by brainstorming with the students, reminding them of relevant experiences in and outside of class, encouraging them to read from several related texts, and pairing reading and experiential activities. Learning also requires readers to search for the logical relationships among ideas in a text. Contexts that encourage students to formulate questions, summarize, explain, construct graphic organizers, and apply generic writing patterns teach students to seek out and identify the logical organization in a text. Because these strategies require conscious effort, successful learning contexts include time for students to reflect on the connections that they are making, the logical relationships that they are identifying, and whether they are successfully learning from the text.

The same instructional features that promote learning in general will also support successful learning from text. The text must be comprehensible and present significant content, however, and at least some of the instruction must focus on the ideas presented in the text. For fourth graders learning about electric circuits or twelfth graders learning about the judicial system, whether they learn from reading text will depend on the match among their goals for reading, the characteristics of the text, their reading strategies, and the entire instructional context within which their reading occurs.

See also: Children's Literature; Literacy, sub-entry on Intertextuality; Literacy and Reading; Reading, subentries on Comprehension, Content Areas, Interest, Prior Knowledge, Beliefs, and Learning, Teaching of; Textbooks.


Chambliss, Marilyn J., and Calfee, Robert C. 1998. Textbooks for Learning: Nurturing Children's Minds. Oxford, Eng., and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Goldman, Susan R. 1997. "Learning from Text: Reflections on the Past and Suggestions for the Future." Discourse Processes 23:357398.

Kintsch, Walter. 1986. "Learning from Text." Cognition and Instruction 3:87108.

Tyler, Ralph W. 1949. Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Whitehead, Alfred N. 1974. The Organisation of Thought. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Marilyn J. Chambliss


For most students, the process of learning is strongly dependent on their ability to make sense of linguistic information presented in either written or oral form. That is, for most students the process of learning is fundamentally the process of learning from text. The importance of text-based learning is as old as formal education. Yet, during the last three decades of the twentieth century, the concepts of text and learning underwent transformations that significantly influenced the nature of student academic development.

Traditionally, text has been viewed as the linear connected discourse typified by textbooks, magazines, or newspapers. This textual form remains a centerpiece of human learning and the source of most of the research in text-based learning. In the 1980s and 1990s other forms of text became increasingly important components in school learning. Specifically, students were also required to learn from the less linear, more dynamic, and more transient messages encountered daily in discussions and online. Thus, students must become conversant with all modalities of text if they are to learn effectively in the decades to come.

Moreover, when considering student learning, one must think beyond simple notions about the acquisition of declarative (i.e., factual) knowledge and procedural knowledge (i.e., knowing how to do something). Instead, learning is essentially the process of instigating deep and enduring changes in students' knowledge, beliefs, motivations, and problem-solving abilities. The focus in this entry is on the dimensions of knowledge and belief and their relationship to learning from text. As will become evident, learning from any text is a process inevitably intertwined with one's knowledge and beliefs, both in terms of the knowledge and beliefs one brings to the text, as well as the knowledge and beliefs one derives from it.

The Text

Not surprisingly, the process of learning from text depends significantly on the genre, structure, and quality of the messages students encounter in books, in discussions, and online. For example, students must deal with texts written to tell a story (i.e., narrative), those that convey information (i.e., exposition), and those that are some combination of both (i.e., mixed text). Each of these genres affects student learning in different ways. Further, some texts offer only one perspective on a topic or issue, whereas others present multiple, competing views. These varied structures have been shown to influence students' knowledge and beliefs differently. Finally, whether narrative or expository and whether onesided or multisided in perspective, texts can be comprehensible and coherent or difficult and inconsiderate of their audiences. Such qualities can facilitate or frustrate student learning.

Text genres. Research has shown that text genre influences student learning. Narratives, such as myths and novels, are expressions of actual or fictitious experiences. Because of their common story structure and overall appeal, narratives are often easier forms of text to process. Also in narration, interesting segments are often important ideas to be learned. This perhaps explains why most students learn to read using narrative texts.

In contrast, expository texts (e.g., newspapers, encyclopedias) present information that explains principles and general behavioral patterns. Many subject-matter textbooks employ exposition. They are characteristically dense with facts and concepts and are often considered to be rather dry in style. Also, interesting and important content are likely to diverge in exposition. While exposition becomes increasingly prevalent as students move out of the early elementary grades, students are given little explicit instruction in how to learn from such texts, which might help explain students' difficulties in learning from their course textbooks.

A mixed text, by comparison, possesses properties of both narration and exposition, as when textbooks incorporate personally involving information about central figures. Biography is one of the most common examples of mixed text. One problem with mixed texts is that students are often uncertain about what is factual versus what is fiction. Interesting and important content might also diverge in mixed texts as it does in exposition.

Argument structure. Within each genre, texts can be written to conform to particular text structures (e.g., essay or argument). Texts characterized by an argument structure, for example, often open with a claim about a topic and then follow with supporting evidence. This format closes with a warrant, restatement, or summary of the claim and supporting evidence. Texts with an argument structure are often employed to alter students' knowledge and beliefs, so studies employing various forms of argument structure appear in the literature on changing knowledge and beliefs.

In addition, a given text can have multiple arguments embedded in it. For instance, a substantive finding in the change literature is that texts presenting both sides of an argument and then refuting one side of the argument (i.e., two-sided refutational texts) are more likely to influence students' knowledge and beliefs than other argument structures. By comparison, texts that present only one side of the argument or present both sides in a more neutral fashion may be less likely to alter students' conceptions. Finally, the content or supporting evidence within a given argument also plays a significant role in learning. Students are more likely to believe and comprehend the argument if the supporting evidence comes in multiple forms (e.g., graphs, stories, and examples) or if the evidence includes personally relevant scenarios rather than consisting only of graphs and statistical data.

Textual quality. Among the multiple factors that contribute to text quality and subsequent learning are comprehensibility and text credibility. Simply put, when students understand the intended message in the text, text-based learning is more likely to take place. In a 1996 article Patricia A. Alexander and Tamara L. Jetton suggested that problems in text comprehension limit the acquisition of knowledge. Also, students must be able to judge the communication as coming from a reliable source. While students will likely judge textbooks as credible, this may not be the case for online materials, magazines, or newspapers. Text credibility is enhanced, however, when the message is judged as unbiased and if the author or communicator is perceived as an expert.

The Learner

In addition to the genre, structure, content, and quality of the text, characteristics of the learner also play an influential role in text-based learning. Specifically, learning from text is mediated by a number of variables including one's prior knowledge and preexisting beliefs.

Knowledge. Of all the factors relevant to text-based learning, none exerts more influence on what students understand and remember than the knowledge they already possess. This background or prior knowledge serves as a scaffold for obtaining new knowledge. The term prior knowledge, in effect, represents individuals' mental histories or their "personal stock of information, skills, experiences, beliefs, and memories" (Alexander, Schallert, and Hare, p. 317).

Moreover, both the accuracy and extent or depth of one's knowledge seem to be critical factors in learning from text. For instance, changing students' understanding about a rather well-defined concept (e.g., the speed of falling objects) is more difficult when an individual's prior knowledge is less sophisticated or runs counter to the scientific knowledge presented in the text. The use of a two-sided refutational text that specifically counters students' naive or ill-formed concepts has proven effective under such circumstances.

The amount or level of an individual's knowledge also plays an influential role in the learning. It is relatively easier to change individuals' ideas about a particular topic if they possess some, but not too much, relevant knowledge. Individuals who are or who believe they are quite knowledgeable about a topic may feel that they have less to gain from engaging with a text message on that topic. Indeed, several studies have found that readers' perceptions of what they know (i.e., perceived knowledge) is critical and possibly even more predictive of learning than the amount of relevant knowledge they actually display (i.e., demonstrated knowledge).

Beliefs. Like knowledge, beliefs play a fundamental role in what students learn from text. One's beliefs are idiosyncratic, the result of the accumulation of experiences over the course of one's life. Unlike knowledge, however, definitions of beliefs vary widely from philosophy to psychology to education. Most agree that beliefs generally pertain to psychologically held understandings, premises, or propositions about the world that are felt to be true. As such, beliefs have much in common with concepts such as attitudes, values, judgments, opinions, dispositions, implicit theories, preconceptions, personal theories, and perspectives. In fact, the word belief is often used interchangeably with these terms. Also, the valence of truthfulness often associated with beliefs seems to give them even greater importance within text.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects about beliefs and text is the degree to which one is aware of them. While students have many beliefs that guide their actions, these beliefs may reside at the tacit level, and students may be unaware of their existence. Indeed, researchers contend that beliefs are organized in such a way that certain beliefsthe more central onesbecome connected to other beliefs and are more resistant to change. Further, beliefs may be organized in clusters, allowing incompatible beliefs to be held apart in separate clusters and thus protected from each other.

The more embedded individual beliefs or clusters of beliefs become in one's belief system, the more difficult it is to change them. Nevertheless, when individuals are presented with causal explanations concerning people, objects, or events, they are likely to change or alter their beliefs, even if they are deeply embedded. It would seem that the reading and discussing of argument texts helps to bring embedded beliefs to an explicit level where they are more open to alteration. Finally, as is the case for changing or altering one's knowledge, belief change is more likely to occur when individuals read well-written, comprehensible texts. Certainly, the learning and processing of written or oral text is an intricate endeavor involving the interaction of the learner with the text.

See also: Literacy, subentry on Intertextuality; Literacy and Reading; Reading, subentries on Comprehension, Content Areas, Interest, Learning from Text, Teaching of.


Alexander, Patricia A. 1996. "The Past, Present, and Future of Knowledge Research: A Reexamination of the Role of Knowledge in Learning and Instruction." Educational Psychologist 31:8992.

Alexander, Patricia A., and Jetton, Tamara L. 1996. "The Role of Importance and Interest in the Processing of Text." Educational Psychology Review 8:89122.

Alexander, Patricia A., and Murphy, P. Karen. 1998. "The Research Base for APA's Learner-Centered Principles." In Issues in School Reform: A Sampler of Psychological Perspectives on Learner-Centered School, ed. Nadine M. Lambert and Barbara L. McCombs. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Alexander, Patricia A.; Murphy, P. Karen; Buehl, Michelle M.; and Sperl, Christopher T. 1998. "The Influence of Prior Knowledge, Beliefs, and Interest in Learning from Persuasive Text." In Forty-Seventh Yearbook of the National Reading Conference, ed. Timothy Shanahan and Flora Rodriguez-Brown. Chicago: National Reading Conference.

Alexander, Patricia A.; Schallert, Diane L.; and Hare, Victoria C. 1991. "Coming to Terms: How Researchers in Learning and Literacy Talk about Knowledge." Review of Educational Research 61:315343.

Axelrod, Rise B., and Cooper, Charles R. 1996. The Concise Guide to Writing. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Graesser, Arthur C.; Golding, Jonathan M.; and Long, Deborah L. 1991. "Narrative Representation and Comprehension." In Handbook of Reading Research, ed. Rebecca Barr, Michael L. Kamil, Peter B. Mosenthal, and P. David Pearson. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Murphy, P. Karen. 1998. "Toward a Multifaceted Model of Persuasion: Exploring Textual and Learner Interactions." Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland.

Pearson, P. David; Gallagher, Meg Y.; Goudvis, Anne; and Johnston, P. 1981. "What Kinds of Expository Materials Occur in Elementary School Children's Textbooks?" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Reading Conference, Dallas, TX.

Toulmin, Steven E. 1958. The Uses of Argument. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

P. Karen Murphy

Patricia A. Alexander


Reading instruction began in the United States in the early and mid-1600s with the ABC method exemplified by the hornbook, a paddle-shaped board on which were inscribed the alphabet, a few syllables, and the Lord's Prayer. Webster's Blue-Backed Speller replaced the hornbook, but instruction retained an emphasis on the alphabet and the Bible. Webster's remained at the center of reading instruction for more than a century and served mainly the upper class, as few others attended school. Those who did not attend received their education by being read to by those who did. Thus, a focus of instruction was on oral reading skills.

When the United States expanded westward, the widely dispersed people could not be serviced by a few who attended school, and everyone, those on the eastern seaboard and elsewhere, needed to learn geography and history. In 1842, in an effort to make learning to read easy for the diverse students who now attended school, Horace Mann introduced his word-to-letters approach, which employed the opposite sequence for instruction as the letters-towords approach (that of the ABC method and Webster's ). Eventually Mann's approach became the whole-word approach, where little attention was given to letters.

The most common texts during this time were the McGuffey Readers, 122 million copies of which were sold between 1836 and 1920. The selections not only taught history and geography but also praised the virtues of hard work and honesty. They were read orally in classrooms and were the only source of knowledge and literature for many Americans.

In 1875 Francis Parker entered the picture with his emphasis on silent reading for the purpose of greater understanding. The pronunciation of words while reading orally was no longer a sign of a good reader. When World War I began, however, 24.9 percent of the soldiers could not read and write well enough to perform the simple tasks assigned to them. Instruction needed to change, and John Dewey led the way with an emphasis on a child-centered curriculum designed to accommodate individual differences.

Discontent with the numbers of students who continued to experience difficulty in learning to read, however, led William S. Gray to move away from student-centered instruction to a model where all students received identical lessons. He developed basal readers and created the first manuals with instructional advice for teachers. His "Dick and Jane" series, launched in 1930s, consisted of passages with increasingly difficult words instead of selections of literature. His characters, drawn from successful, suburban families, became the symbols of reading instruction at the time when the United States was emerging from the depths of World War II.

In the 1960s many reading instructors, worried about the students who continued to experience difficulty, started to return to a version of the old ABC method; they placed great importance on the sounding out of words. Phonetically spelled words in reading instructional materials became increasingly popular. Selections became even further removed from the literature selections that were favored in previous decades.

Also in the 1950s and 1960s, the differences among students expanded dramatically, and the civil rights movement brought African Americans into the mainstream public schools. As always, the evolution of the nation influenced reading instruction; many students experienced difficulty, and the search for the best method of instruction continued. In 1968 Robert Dykstra conducted a nationwide survey to find the most effective means of reading instruction, but he concluded that teacher behaviors were more influential than any particular instructional method in determining student success as a reader.

A few years earlier, in 1965, Kenneth S. Good-man's report on miscue analysis practices started to influence instruction; teachers were no longer to correct every error a student made when reading orally. If an error did not affect meaning, it was considered a sign of good comprehension. In the late 1970s Dolores Durkin, in an effort to further refine comprehension instruction, observed in classrooms and found that teachers were not teaching students strategies to use in order to compose meaning as they read. Instead, teachers asked students questions to find out if they understood what they read.

Instruction in comprehension evolved as schema theorists studied the influence of students' previous experiences on their comprehension. Teachers started to focus more attention on the inferences students needed to draw between their prior knowledge and the texts they were reading. By the late 1990s dual emphases on phonemic awareness and composition brought both comprehension (the act of composing meaning) and skills (attention to the details of letters and words) to the forefront of reading instruction.

Research on Reading Instruction

The first research on reading instruction was in the form of surveys of teaching methods and was begun in the early 1900s. In 1915 the results of reading tests were first used to compare teaching methods, and in 1933 Gray used reading tests to measure improvements in several Chicago schools.

In 1963 researchers Mary C. Austin and Coleman Morrison surveyed more than 1,000 U.S. school administrators about reading instruction and found a high reliance on basal readers and ability grouping (separating students into reading groups based upon their reading achievement levels). They recommended that teachers use a wider variety of instructional approaches and more flexible grouping plans, as differences will exist in any group despite efforts to achieve homogeneity. This survey was modified and replicated in 2000 by James F. Baumann and colleagues, and the results were compared to the original. The results of the 2000 surveys showed that basals were being used in combination with trade books and that the predominant mode for instruction had become whole-class instruction. Thus, the 2000 survey hearkened back to the earlier study where the researchers found "teachers who ignore the concept of individual difference" (Austin and Morrison, p. 219).

Large-scale, systematic comparisons of various approaches to beginning reading instruction, using objective measures of outcomes, were conducted in the 1960s and 1970s. The U.S. Office of Education sponsored the Cooperative Research Program in First Grade Reading Instruction, finding that no one program or single instructional method was superior for all classrooms or teachers. Project Follow Through, a second government study of the same era, sought specifically to determine which instructional approaches worked best to foster and maintain the educational progress of disadvantaged children through the primary grades. Again, no one instructional approach was strong enough to raise reading test scores everywhere it was implemented.

The quest for the best methods of reading instruction has continued into the twenty-first century. In 1997 the U.S. Congress authorized a national panel to assess the effectiveness of various instructional approaches to teaching reading. The National Reading Panel (NRP) conducted a meta-analysis of the effects of scientific research (experimental or quasi-experimental research) on reading instruction. The NRP limited their review to the major domains of instruction deemed essential to learning to read by the National Research Council. These domains included alphabetics (phoneme awareness, phonics instruction), fluency (oral reading accuracy, speed, and expression), and comprehension (vocabulary instruction, text comprehension instruction, strategy instruction).

In the domain of alphabetics, the NRP reported that teaching children to manipulate phonemes in words was highly effective under a variety of teaching conditions with a variety of children. In addition, systematic phonics instruction produced significant benefits for students in kindergarten through the sixth grade. In the domain of fluency, the panel concluded that guided, repeated oral reading procedures yielded significant and positive impacts on word recognition, fluency, and comprehension across a range of grade levels. In the domain of comprehension, the panel concluded that vocabulary instruction led to gains in reading comprehension and that seven types of comprehension instruction were supported by the scientific research.

Another form of research in reading instruction consists of qualitative, descriptive research within classroom settings. It includes observational studies that link classroom procedures and interactions to student outcomes and teacher behavior. Such research has the potential to distinguish between the characteristics of an instructional method and how it is actually used. According to Rebecca Barr, descriptive research "complements the research on effectiveness by revealing how an instructional approach works and how teachers differ in using it" (2001, p. 406).

Classroom observational research linked critical features of the Project Follow Through studies to student outcomes. These studies revealed high correlations between the amount of time that students were engaged in academic tasks and their academic growth. The work of these researchers influenced much of the research on effective teaching practices conducted in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Ethnographic, sociolinguistic, and other descriptive studies of reading instruction view teaching and learning as responsive, interactive forms of socially constructed activity, and such studies capture a more complete picture of instructional contexts than research labeled scientific does. Qualitative, descriptive research has revealed that interactive learning produces more growth than instruction in which students are passive. Active engagement appears to be more important that the exact method of reading instruction.

Reading Instruction within the Overall Curriculum

Prior to the 1980s reading instruction barely existed within the content areas of the curriculum; reading was taught during times of the day called reading and/or language arts. Within the content areas, students were given textbooks and were expected to be able to read them. But because one textbook did not accommodate the reading levels of all learners, secondary teachers often used the textbooks to determine the content they would teach and delivered lectures accordingly. Elementary students often engaged in round-robin reading as their way of using the text. At all levels, students wrote answers to endof-the-chapter questions, so that teachers could assess their student's retention of the content.

During the early 1980s the textbook began to lose its position as the sole source of subject area knowledge. Teachers started to use manipulatives (small objects such as beans and buttons that students count and move about into various groupings) to teach math, hands-on activities to teach science, and community resources to teach social studies. They supported this instruction with a variety of children's literature, rather than a single textbook. Based upon a new view of reading largely influenced by theories on meaning-making in reading that Goodman and Frank Smith put forth, even the basal readers used to teach reading started to contain more natural-sounding language.

In the 1990s falling test scores and a new political climate forced a reexamination of reading instruction within the curriculum. Researchers, teachers, administrators, and government officials formed a set of national education goals called Goals 2000. They did not agree, however, upon the approaches needed to meet these goals. Various approaches, therefore, continue to influence the direction of reading instruction in the curriculum.

One of these approaches advocates the teaching of a specific body of knowledge found within state curriculum standards. Educators create these standards to reflect the content they believe is essential to the formation of a common knowledge, and teachers use these standards to guide their instruction. Teachers across grade levels work in collaboration to ensure that the content builds in a manner that allows students to use prior knowledge and make meaningful connections across the curriculum. Teachers access online resources and handbooks for a multitude of instructional suggestions.

Thus, reading instruction related to state-directed content involves the use of textbooks, trade books, computer programs, lectures, demonstrations, specific writing models, and hands-on activities, thereby providing students with opportunities to learn the material in a variety of ways. Reading materials on many reading levels address much of this content, and schools provide additional support to students who struggle. In these various instructional arrangements, students learn the reading and writing strategies they need in order to learn about and share knowledge.

Another approach to reading instruction across the curriculum focuses on the contexts present in the classroom, rather than upon a body of content. Researchers and teachers explore interactions among the learners, the teacher, the classroom, and the texts. These interactions lead to instructional arrangements unique to individual classrooms, in which the students use their own knowledge, interests, and personal cultures to make the curriculum meaningful and to create new understandings.

In 1998 Vivian Gadsden endorsed this contextual approach in response to the increasing diversity of classroom populations. In her collaborations with primary-grade teachers, the teachers incorporated a wide range of literacy experiences specific to the cultures of the students and involved students' extended families and community in planning the endeavors. These literacy events crossed the curriculum, becoming part of the family histories students wrote with family members. Students compared their histories to texts found in the classroom, building critical literacy.

Similarly, students in some urban high schools study U.S. history in accordance with their personal histories. They move beyond textbooks, using personal artifacts, historical documents, magazine articles, and photographs in their compositions. In these different grade level contexts, reading instruction involves learners in making connections among various texts, themselves, and the world.

Text-based and context-based approaches continue to define the role of reading instruction in the curriculum during the early part of the twenty-first century. New programs advocating a core curriculum, developed outside the classroom, arise at the same time that teachers and researchers develop new instructional arrangements based upon classroom contexts. In 1992 Judith A. Langer and Richard L. Allington urged researchers to reconceptualize reading and writing instruction within the curriculum, to abandon fragmentation of study, and to consider "the relative roles of content, skills, discipline-specific thinking, and the student in the instructional agenda" (p. 717).

Trends, Issues, and Controversies

Increased immigration in the early twenty-first century is bringing more changes to U.S. schools. In 1993 Kathryn H. Au wrote about the need for teachers to consider the various forms of literacy that are significant in the lives of students of diverse backgrounds and to include critical literacy in their instruction.

Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, brought the notion of critical literacy to his country in the late 1960s, and at the turn of the millennium his work began to influence reading instruction in the United States. It is becoming increasingly important for students to critique power relationships within U.S. society.

In 2002 Arlette Ingram Willis reported on her study of the complex relationships among literacy, knowledge, privilege, and power through the lens of one institution, the Calhoun Colored School in Alabama from 1892 to 1945. She showed how the school's white founders controlled the aspirations of the school's students. Willis acknowledged the failure of countless attempts to discover the best methods of reading instruction but implored educators to remember the relationship between knowledge and power. She urged literacy instructors to critically examine the ways by which they provide opportunity for all.

This call for complexity in instruction becomes even more complicated when the nature of research enters the picture. Of the three types of research on reading instruction, the scientific method has predominated since the early twentieth century. Increases in the quantity of experimental studies have paralleled increases in immigration and scientific advances, from the beginning (the Industrial Revolution) to the end (the Technological Revolution) of the twentieth century.

According to Barr, however, this methodology treats teaching as a unidirectional variable, "an activity introduced to observe its effect on some out-come" (2001, p. 406). While outcome-based research on reading instruction yields important information about the effectiveness of instructional approaches, it does not reveal how the instructional approach works and how teachers differ in using it. Observations are necessary to elucidate the reality that scientific methods are supposed to discover. Socioconstructivist approaches to research in reading instruction examine teaching and learning in an interactive context and allow interactions among the teacher, student, and text to be seen.

These approaches have their dangers too, for if all classrooms are unique, then teachers will never benefit from the generalizations made possible from broad-based conceptualizations of teaching that guide the critical decisions teachers make in providing instruction. Detailed descriptions are helpful when they show the day-to-day decisions teachers make when they select appropriate reading materials; achieve an effective balance of reading, writing, and word study instruction; differentiate instruction to meet diverse student needs; and empower students to take ownership of their own learning.

This call becomes complicated in the context of the standardized tests that influence reading instruction across the curriculum at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Given that many states use the results of the tests to determine school funding, teachers and school administrators often base the curriculum on the knowledge needed to answer specific items found within the tests. Teachers choose reading materials pertinent to the test content and focus reading instruction on retention of this material in the subject areas.

Educators use various kinds of reading materials to teach the above information, but textbooks occupy an important position in many classrooms. In 2000, however, Suzanne E. Wade and Elizabeth B. Moje reported on the lack of engagement of secondary school students in textbook reading. Wade and Moje advocated change and described classrooms that integrate the textbook with government documents, magazines, student-generated texts, novels, and hypermedia to provide students with opportunities to expand their perspectives on curricular concepts.

Also in 2000, the National Reading Panel reported on the lack of research into the use of technology in reading instruction in the curriculum. Given the workplace emphasis on accessing, processing, and communicating information via computers, and the increasing number of schools and homes with computers and Internet access, the roles of hypermedia and the Internet remain important areas for future exploration.

See also: Elementary Education, Preparation of Teachers; Language Arts, Teaching of; Readability Indices; Reading, subentries on Beginning Reading, Comprehension, Content Areas, Interest, Learning from Text; Teacher Education; Spelling, Teaching of; Writing, Teaching of.


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Mathews, Mitford M. 1966. Teaching to Read: Historically Considered. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Willis, Arlette Ingram. 2002. "Literacy at Calhoun Colored School, 18921945." Reading Research Quarterly 37:844.

Wilson, Paul T., and Anderson, Richard C. 1986. "What They Don't Know Will Hurt Them: The Role of Prior Knowledge in Comprehension." In Reading Comprehension: From Research to Practice, ed. Judith Orasanu. Hills-dale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Jane Hansen

Marcia Invernizzi

Jenesse Wells Evertson


Educators have become increasingly interested in the role that reading engagement or volumethe amount of print children are exposed toplays in the growth of academic achievement. In the early twenty-first century, it is believed that reading activity itself serves to increase the achievement differences among children. Children who are exposed to more literacy experiences early in their development are positioned to take advantage of the educational opportunities presented to them in preschool and elementary school. In contrast, children who are largely unfamiliar with print find themselves less able to take advantage of those same educational opportunities. This reciprocal relationship is observed in the social and cognitive contexts of school and home. A model of these effects in reading has been emerging in the literature. Reading engagement is thought to be deeply intertwined and a contributing factor to the escalating differences observed among children in their reading achievement. Thus, on the basis of available evidence, there appears to be a strong rationale for educators and policymakers alike to call for increased amounts of reading volume or engagement in young children as means to improve their reading achievement.

The Importance of Reading Aloud to Children

Reading aloud to children has been broadly advocated as an important educational practice in which to foster reading volume. Parents and teachers have been increasingly encouraged to read aloud to young children as a developmentally appropriate practice by professional societies such as the International Reading Association for the Education of Young Children. These reading experiences have been shown to provide a host of benefits to the young child. In addition to the socioemotional benefits of sitting in a parent's lap, many aspects of language and cognitive development are thought to be facilitated. For example, reading aloud to children has been found to facilitate the growth of vocabulary in preschool-age children and elementary-age students. Reading aloud has been shown to promote children's understanding of academic language of text, which differs significantly from oral language. This practice also introduces novel concepts of text structure and story grammar and provides an important avenue for learning about the world. One of the most commonly held beliefs regarding the value of reading aloud to young children is that such exposure will introduce them to the world of print and motivate them to seek out these experiences on their own. These outcomes are all important predictors of children's reading achievement, yet it appears the effects of reading aloud to children are limited to certain facets of language and literacy.

Does Reading Aloud to Children Teach Them How to Learn to Read?

A common hypothesis, held by many educators and parents, is that one of the primary benefits of reading aloud to children is the promotion of children's literacy development. Specifically, some researchers have argued that reading aloud to children is an effective and natural way for them to learn to read. Via a series of successive approximations while being read to, the young child will learn how to decode and recognize words. That is, the practice of reading aloud to children is thought to be an important mechanism (and for some the primary one) in learning to read and can explain individual and group differences in literacy growth among children. Although it makes sense intuitively that reading aloud should facilitate general literacy development, this hypothesis merits empirical investigation to understand under what conditions and for what readers reading aloud facilitates children's reading development. While it is difficult to isolate the literacy gains that accrue from reading aloud to children, one must attempt to compare this variable to the impact of other educational practices or experiences when inferring causality about certain practices.

Although many studies have shown a strong to moderate relation between reading aloud to children and their subsequent reading achievement, these studies failed to control for numerous mediating variables. The studies that attempted to tease apart the relative contribution of the time parents spend reading aloud to their children and determine the effect of this practice have demonstrated relatively low correlations when compared with other predictors such as promoting phonemic awareness (the ability to attend to the sounds of language and manipulate them) and letter-name knowledge (the ability to quickly name letters). David Share and colleagues' comprehensive study from 1984 indicted that parents reading aloud to their children made a weak indirect contribution to developing literacy and that children's phonemic awareness was a far more potent indicator. In the early 1990s Hollis Scarborough and her colleagues determined that other variablessuch as early language, interest in solitary book reading, and emergent literacy skillswere significantly more predictive of later reading achievement. The results of yet another large-scale study by Jana Mason suggested that when compared to other individual differences in children's abilities, reading aloud to children was a less direct and relatively weaker predictor of children's reading achievement. Parallel results have been observed through the examination of the contribution of teachers' reading aloud to their students and the students' subsequent growth in decoding and word recognition skills. Many of the studies demonstrate weak or moderately facilitative effects, whereas a few have even observed negative effects of reading aloud to children, which should be interpreted as largely owing to the displacement effect of reading to children instead of teaching them to read.

In the domain of children's beginning word recognition skills, the research is demonstrating that read-alouds by parents and teachers play a limited role. Yet when parents and teachers scaffold or help a child's attempts to read the words in a story (compared to reading the words out loud to the child), stronger effects are observed. The National Reading Panel Report in 2000 summarized the research demonstrating that the primary mechanism for acquiring fluent word recognition skills (e.g., letter knowledge, sound-symbol correspondences, decoding words and recognizing them automatically) is not through being read to but via methods that entail guided or direct instruction.

Guided Reading and Reading Aloud to Children

In addition to direct instruction, guided oral reading is emerging as an important form of reading volume, particularly for beginning readers. Guided oral reading encourages children to read text orally and includes systematic, explicit guidance and feedback from their parent or teacher. In 1999 Linda Meyer and colleagues juxtaposed the practice of teachers reading with children (guided oral reading) versusreading to them (read-alouds) as different mechanisms for increasing reading engagement. In contrast to reading aloud to children, reading with children is a more effective practice for promoting reading skill and fluency. In 1997 Steve Stahl and colleagues provided further support for this conjecture. They observed significant differences in students' reading fluency and comprehension levels as a result of teacher-guided reading practices in a comprehensive study of second-grade students. Meta-analyses of guided oral reading have further demonstrated the value of this instructional practice in promoting word recognition, fluency, and reading comprehension across a range of grade levels.

In conclusion, the emphasis on immersing children in literature and increasing their exposure to print is an educational practice that makes sense. Nonetheless, there are multiple purposes and mechanisms for fostering reading engagement and volume that must be considered. When discussing the value of reading engagement and volume, one should attempt to specify the purposes of these practices, especially when making causal attributions. Reading aloud to children is an important educational practice that promotes vocabulary growth, understanding of text and genre, general knowledge, and hopefully motivation to read. In contrast, guided oral reading is a practice that has been found to be a more effective method of promoting children's word recognition, fluency, and comprehension. The primary aim of these educational practices is to foster independent reading.

The variability in children's levels of reading volume serves to further exacerbate the growing disparities between good and poor readers. It is therefore essential to provide multiple reading experiences for young children: reading aloud to them from a variety of genres, reading with them and facilitating their oral reading with tailored feedback and guidance, and promoting extended independent reading opportunities at home and after school. If reading makes one smarter (as some research has found) and if reading is important for a child to get off to a successful early start for future reading ability and engagement, then the value of early reading engagements, as Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich have found, and volume across a variety of venues cannot be overestimated.

See also: Children's Literature; Early Childhood Education; Reading, subentries on Beginning Reading, Interest.


Adams, Marilyn J. 1990. Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Arnold, David S., and Whitehurst, Grover J. 1994. "Accelerating Language Development through Picture Book Reading: A Summary of Dialogic Reading and Its Effects." In Bridges to Literacy: Children, Families, and Schools, ed. David K. Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.

Baker, Linda; Scher, Deborah; and Mackler, Kirsten. 1997. "Home and Family Influences on Motivations for Reading." Educational Psychologists 32 (2):6982.

Bus, A. G., and van Ijzendoorn, M. H. 1995. "Mothers Reading to Their Three Year Olds: The Role of Mother-Child Attachment Security in Becoming Literate." Reading Research Quarterly 40:9981,015.

Chall, Jeanne S.; Jacobs, Vicki A.; and Baldwin, Luke E. 1990. The Reading Crisis: Why Poor Children Fall Behind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cunningham, Anne E., and Stanovich, Keith E. 1997. "Early Reading Acquisition and Its Relation to Reading Experience and Ability Ten Years Later." Developmental Psychology 33:934945.

Cunningham, Anne E., and Stanovich, Keith E. 1998. "What Reading Does for the Mind." American Educator 22 (12):815.

Dickinson, David K., and Smith, Miriam W. 1994. "Long-Term Effects of Preschool Teachers' Book Readings on Low-Income Children's Vocabulary and Story Comprehension." Reading Research Quarterly 29:104122.

Ehri, Linnea C., and Robbins, C. 1992. "Beginners Need Some Decoding Skill to Read by Analogy." Reading Research Quarterly 27:1326.

Eller, Rebecca G.; Pappas, Christine C.; and Brown, Elga. 1988. "The Lexical Development of Kindergartners: Learning from Written Context." Journal of Reading Behavior 20:524.

Elley, Warwick B. 1989. "Vocabulary Acquisition from Listening to Stories." Reading Research Quarterly 24:174187.

Feitelson, D.; Goldstein, Z.; Iraqi, U.; and Share, D. 1993. "Effects of Listening to Story Reading on Aspects of Literacy Acquisition in a Diglossic Situation." Reading Research Quarterly 28:7079.

Hayes, Donald P., and Ahrens, Margaret G. 1988. "Vocabulary Simplification for Children: A Special Case of 'Motherese'?" Journal of Child Language 15:395410.

Juel, Connie. 1994. Learning to Read and Write in One Elementary School. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Mason, Jana M. 1992. "Reading Stories to Preliterate Children: A Proposed Connection to Reading." In Reading Acquisition, ed. Philip B. Gough, Linnea C. Ehri, and Rebecca Treiman. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Mason, Jana M.; Stewart, J. P.; Peterman, C. L.; and Dunning, D. 1992. Toward an Integrated Model of Early Reading Development. Urbana-Champaign, IL: Center for the Study of Reading.

McCormick, Christine E., and Mason, Jana M. 1986. "Intervention Procedures for Increasing Preschool Children's Interest in and Knowledge about Reading." In Emergent Literacy: Writingand Reading, ed. William H. Teale and Elizabeth Sulzby. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Meyer, Linda A.; Stahl, Steven A.; Wardrop, James L.; and Linn, Robert E. 1999. "Reading to Children or Reading with Children?" Effective School Practices 17 (3):5664.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. 2000. Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. Washington, DC: National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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Anne Cunningham


views updated Jun 08 2018


Daniel P. Resnick and Jason Martinek

The ability to make sense of signs and images has been within the range of human capacity for close to five millennia, since the appearance of written scripts around 3000 to 4000 b.c. Yet for most of its history the combination of visual perception and brain processing that we call reading has been the practice and habit of elites. For Europeans, it is only since about 1500 that reading started to become the practice of substantial numbers of ordinary people.

Social historians have understood reading as an interaction between reader and text in specific social contexts. In arguing for this position, they deviate from narrower theories of context-free cognitive processing advanced by cognitivists. Historians have argued, for example, that the understanding of biblical texts of a voracious reader like the mid-sixteenth century miller Menocchio can be explained only by a careful examination of both his own life experience and the other books that he had read (Ginzburg, 1976). Less idiosyncratic readers in other times and settings have also brought to their texts lived experiences that have affected their way of referencing oral and written traditions.

But why read? Reading was a choice that increasing numbers of Europeans made to engage themselves in particular communities, real and imagined. Women and men, churchmen and nobles, clerks and secular administrators, merchants and artisans, and rural villagers and vagabonds did so for many different reasons. For some it was a necessary skill to make a livelihood, for others a way to challenge authority, but for many, largely among the young, it was a demand imposed upon them, intended to legitimate and uphold clerical and later secular authority. Nevertheless, reading had the potential to offer escape from the isolation of individual experience and to bind readers to a larger social body. To a real extent, the languages in which reading took place were binding readers to linguistic, national, religious, and economic communities (Anderson, 1991).

Despite advances in the accessibility of texts and the growth of opportunities for schooling over the last five hundred years, reading has persisted as a bounded "low literacy" experience for most of the European population, associated with the decoding of relatively simple and familiar texts. At the same time, a "high literacy" tradition—associated with unfamiliar texts, complex construction, inferential reasoning, and solitary reflection—has persisted for elites.


Since the time of the first Sumerian tablets, reading had been understood as a vocal, difficult, and time-consuming exercise in which readers sounded out the text (Mangruel, 1997). Although some scholarly readers in the late Roman and medieval periods had been silent readers thanks to their familiarity with linguistic constructions and specific texts, most readers had had to turn written language into spoken words before they could understand it. No "take-off" for reading could take place without a more rapid and silent processing. The first steps in this direction were taken for Latin by the twelfth century and for the vernaculars of Europe in the three centuries that followed.

The vernacular languages became accessible to the reader through changes in the appearance of text. In the interest of more readers and easier reading, publishers of manuscripts copied by commissioned scribes changed the shapes and forms of letters, making them simpler and more distinct. The reader was helped along not only by the clean look of the letters, but by spaces between words, punctuation, and separations between paragraphs.

The alphabets of the European languages distinguished between vowels and consonants and made a place for both. The inclusion of vowel sounds made it possible for written languages and dialects to capture the vocabulary and usage of oral exchanges. At the same time, the accessibility of script was also advanced by changes in the appearance of text. Scripts were standardized and simplified, words were separated, spaces appeared between sentences and paragraphs. In this way written text became very accessible to novice readers. By the mid-fifteenth century, it was possible to read vernacular texts—French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German, high and low, and in many dialects—as a silent reader (Saenger, 1989).

Silent reading, in turn, gave readers the possibility of moving through text discreetly, without alerting others to what they were encountering. In an age preoccupied with challenges to orthodoxy and rife with real and perceived heresies, this was very important. But silent reading did not bring about the demise of oral tradition or a wave of independent and critical challenge to received orthodoxies. Reading aloud to others continued to be a popular practice, whether in the home or the church, for instruction, entertainment, and information. In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France and Germany, for example, men and women would listen to readers of stories as they worked evenings in homes and workrooms.

In the age of radio and then television, paid readers and broadcasters have continued the oral tradition so important to the spread of a rudimentary basic literacy. Religious programming, human interest stories, tales of heroic feats, and gossip about the well-to-do have remained the staples in the new media, relaying information that passes at the same time through newspapers and workplace conversations. The fears of early modern clerics and nineteenth-century social elites that the spread of reading would introduce novel and challenging ideas to a large public and thereby undermine authority has not been confirmed, although the spread of literacy has been associated with modernization, democracy, and economic growth.


Communication in sixteenth-century Europe remained largely oral. Estimates of those who could read are low and tell us little about the kinds of reading ability people had. Such estimates are based largely on the ability to sign one's name, an indicator of the ability to read that is useful in charting poorly mapped waters but not a reliable indicator. Perhaps only 3 to 4 percent of the population in German-speaking rural areas and 10 percent in towns could read (Engelsing, 1974). In England, we can estimate that possible readers were no more than 10 percent of the male population and a much smaller portion of women (Cressy, 1980). In Italian cities like Venice, which had enjoyed considerable commercial growth in preceding centuries, reading rates were higher but did not embrace more than 25 percent of the male population.

Reformation and counter-reformation. Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1450, which in fact built on earlier European work and the Chinese precedent, began to increase the amount of reading material available in ways that would ultimately expand potential readership. Most initial printed material was religious, and it was the change in Europe's religious map, more than the new technology, that really launched a new stage in the social history of reading. The first movements to extend reading practice in northern Europe were led by religious reformers and their state backers in the first decades of the sixteenth century, when large portions of northern Europe rejected the hegemony of the Roman church in matters of creed, sacrament, and religious organization. Reformers made sermons, distributed flyers designed for public discussion, and argued for a revival of the early church practice of catechism, linking orality to the reading of text.

Catechism (to teach by word of mouth) had its origins in the effort to enlist recruits to Christianity in the early church and is referenced in the patristic writings. As oral instruction, it took on forms that were appropriate to the absence of written text: memorization, drill, and repetition of a set of beliefs. Later on, manuals for confessors developed the practice of defining what was to be learned by sets of questions and answers, which were also to be memorized.

Catechetical instruction in some form was maintained as a priestly obligation throughout the medieval period, and it served as the principal form of primary education. Manuscript texts were useful to priests and clerks engaged in teaching, and the extant copies of catechisms, songbooks, prayers, and lives of saints are evidence of this. Instruction clearly varied in quality and form from parish to parish, but in general it had limited aims.

Martin Luther's (1483–1546) own visits to parishes in Saxony in the 1520's had convinced him that religious instruction was moribund and that a new set of written guides to instruction was necessary for both pastors and laity. In the ferment of the sixteenth century, many reformers adopted the same strategy, among them John Calvin (1509–1564) and Johann Agricola (1494?–1566). In 1529, Luther published a "Little Catechism" along with an expanded one to assist in proselytizing for his movement.

The Little Catechism had a major role in guiding household reading habits in the areas of Lutheran influence. It began with the Ten Commandments, which was followed by the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer (the Twenty-Third Psalm), and the sacraments. Reading of the text was designed to move the reader from fear of God to faith, prayer, and the promise of grace. Luther, who had demanded instruction and examination through catechism and developed texts that could guide both pastoral instruction and household reading, had many competitors in German areas that had broken with Rome (Strauss, 1978). More than a thousand catechisms have been catalogued in the holdings of the Weimar library (Reu), not counting the many that have disappeared.

Catechisms would be read on Sundays in churches and practiced in homes throughout the year, while schoolmasters used them as texts for their classes. Examinations of the young on their catechisms because a regular Lenten spring ritual for public authorities in the lands where Lutheranism was a state religion. The texts of these recitations were extended in some cases to embrace information about rulers, governments, and systems of justice. Public examinations on catechism thus served as civic exercises. The practice of examinations and home visitations was carried on into the eighteenth century in Lutheran Sweden, as confirmed by parish registers ( Johansson, 1977).

Instruction in catechism had its own particular forms, associated with oral repetition, familiar text, and a set of memorized questions and answers. The blinders placed on reading by the outlook of catechetical instruction are well expressed in the observations of Tettelbach, a pastor and teacher in Saxony, in 1568:

I have been noticing that schoolboys and other children merely memorize this precious book. This is a praiseworthy thing to do, to be sure. But they remember it without having thought or reflected on what it means, and they parrot the words with so little feeling that when one asks them a question about it, they can't explain even the simplest thing. (Strauss, p. 174)

Roman Catholic authorities, responding to the wave of challenges to orthodox belief and practice, developed and encouraged use of specially prepared digests of religious material and continued to limit the access of the laity to the Bible in the vernacular ( Julia, in Cavallo and Chartier, 1999). Both Catholic and Protestant communities relied on guided reading of printed catechisms along with inspirational lives, prayers, and hymns. Direct access to the Bible itself, which Luther had at first promoted, was for some time opposed by both Catholic and Lutheran authorities and promoted only by those who were willing to leave interpretation of the texts open to the lay reader.

Vernacular translations of the Bible remained on the Index for two hundred years. Pius IV's (1499–1565) Index of Prohibited Books (1559) permitted reading of the Bible in translation by only two categories of readers. The first to receive this exemption were those who had the permission of their bishop and the support of their parish priest and confessor. The second group was the scholarly community—"learned and pious men" who were said to be "able to draw from that reading not harm but some increase of faith and piety."

Humanist elites. Humanists were a major part of the book buying market in these two centuries. They were noblemen, clerics, rulers, scholars, and civil administrators, people of some means who fostered the revival of respect for the contributions of Greece and Rome to later European values and institutions. As readers they identified with the Greek and Roman tradition in literature, history, and public administration. They were part of a movement to promote access to Greek and Roman texts in largely vernacular languages, a movement that began in the Italian city-states and spread throughout Europe. Although some, like Erasmus (1466?–1536) played a role in religious reform, many had markedly secular tastes.

Humanists called for major changes in the format of the book, the appearance of the page, and the variety of published texts, even before the introduction of the printing press (Grafton, 1997). They wanted and got small portable books, pleasing fonts, and a long list of titles. They promoted the habit and practice of reading in ways that affected the availability of varied reading material for all social classes. The genres of non-religious texts that they demanded, particularly romances and picaresque fiction, appeared in inexpensive editions for regional urban markets in the seventeenth century and then circulated more widely by the end of next century.

Humanist readers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, before and after the introduction of the printing press, had an interactive and dynamic relationship with the publishers, middlemen, and printers who invested in the production and inventory of codex manuscripts and then printed books. As humanists reviving an interest in antiquity, their tastes ran predominantly to ancient Greek and Roman histories, literature, poetry, plays, biography, and autobiography of writers of antiquity, but they also read medieval Christian writers. They wanted to read the texts without the mediating apparatus of glosses on the page prescribing interpretation and the barriers to accessibility created by large, dark Gothic typefaces.

Reading had five characteristic features for the humanists. First, it was a social practice. They liked to discuss what they had read, hold symposia, and entertain one another with debates and readings. In succeeding centuries the practices they cultivated found their way into political discourse, entertainment, and the practices of book clubs and debating societies. Second, reading was used to shape and train memory. It was often simply the first step in a process that led to the memorization of a particular text. The recall and recitation skills of Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540–1609) and other sixteenth-century humanists were a source of celebrity among contemporaries.

Reading was also a step in the growth of personal knowledge, to be cemented by note-taking, copying, and paraphrasing. The personal libraries of humanists indicate their pride in creating their own comments and glosses on texts. "Whatever you read," wrote Guarino of Verona (1374?–1460) to a pupil, "have a notebook ready." Fourth, reading was an act of veneration. Just as the reading of lives of saints had shown consideration for Christian holiness, so did the reading of Greek and Roman literature and history indicate a reverence for the wisdom of pre-Christian antiquity. Readers of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) on Livy, like those who read Erasmus's Adages (1500), were brought to deference by the act of reading.

Finally, reading was very often the occasion for tasteful and showy investment. Readers were eager to display to contemporaries and posterity the evidence of their personal reading tastes. The ornate covers and bindings of texts in humanist libraries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, like the reader's comments on the pages, served as evidence of the association of reading and artful display. Jean Grolier de Servières (1479–1565), a leading French collector of the sixteenth century, inscribed in Latin on the cover of handsomely bound leather volumes that they were intended for the use of Grolier and his friends (British Museum, 1965).

The pedagogy of catechism heavily influenced the secular schools that were set up in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The German school system in Prussia, Bavaria, and other states established in the second half of the nineteenth century and greatly admired by the other European states was deeply rooted in the relationship between religious bodies and state power in the period of the Reformation.


Reading was not simply a solitary transaction between a reader and a text; the relationship between reading and social change was complex. On the one hand there were the interactions between readers, authors, and texts. Printed texts allowed authors who would have had a limited impact as individuals in preliterate societies to broadcast ideas widely. Texts could also provide political movements with a thread of ideological cohesion by providing individual readers with a shared set of beliefs and understanding of what was wrong with society and how to change it.

On the other hand there were interactions between readers, lived experience, and censorship. Reading could only lead to action if readers made a connection between the ideas contained in printed texts and their own experience. The viability of political tracts depended on readers' ability to believe what authors told them. Viability also depended on readers' access to printed material, which the state, because it had the most to lose from wide dissemination, tried to limit through strict censorship. When the state's ability to control what got printed and read was compromised, as occurred in England between 1640 and 1660, the world, as Christopher Hill has noted, could be turned upside down (Hill, 1972).

Prior to the English Revolution, the state's activities were shrouded under a veil of secrecy and privilege. Although newsbooks, the precursors to the modern newspaper, began appearing in the 1620s, readers learned little about domestic affairs from them because it was illegal to report on such matters. Instead, readers found information about events in other countries, in which merchants, the major consumers of the early newsbooks, had a great interest because their livelihoods depended on foreign trade. In the 1640s, however, the content of the newsbooks changed with the failure of the state, despite its own best efforts, to control what got into print.

Thus, what had previously been the private deliberations of the state became a matter of public discourse. This emergence of what historians have called the public sphere (Zaret, 2000) was due to the breakdown of censorship in the 1640s and 1650s, the wider availability of printed materials of an overtly political nature, increased literacy rates, and a heightened interest in political issues. In the public sphere, readers came together to discuss and debate arguments presented in journals, periodicals, and books. Collectively, these readers became the target for competing groups vying for power during the English Revolution.

The war between Parliamentarians and Royalists and among the factions in the Parliament was as much a war in print as a physical one. The war in print took two distinct forms. The first was a battle of righteousness and citation. Both sides tried to win over readers by using the Bible and religious imagery. "In the turmoil of the seventeenth century," wrote Hill, "the Bible became a sword to divide, or rather an armoury from which all parties selected weapons to meet their needs" (Hill, 1993, p. 6).

In a second arena, factions fought to win over readers through gossip, innuendo, and occasionally pornography. In the process, they borrowed deeply from oral traditions of gossip, bawdiness, and defamation. Printed gossip was passed on predominantly through newsbooks. In these newsbooks readers found detailed descriptions of the other side's transgressions and a view of events that reflected their prejudices, beliefs, and interests. The Parliamentarians' Mercurius Britanicus and the Royalists' Mercurius Aulicus carried on this war in the 1640s, at the same time that their troops took their arguments to the battlefield.

The use of the printed word to mobilize readers took place at the periphery as well as the political center. Levellers, Diggers, Ranters, and millenarian sects such as the Fifth Monarchy Men, who called for the abolition of the monarchy, the established church, and class distinctions, all used the printed word to attract supporters. Like the Parliamentarians and Royalists, they looked to the Bible for validation. In Acts 4:32, Gerrard Winstanley (1609?–1660?), a leading Digger, found support for his attack on private property: "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had."

Reading clearly helped to fuel the French Revolution. Individuals have long noted the significance of reading to the revolutionary fervor of the late eighteenth century. The revolutionary texts in France were the great texts of the Enlightenment, authored by such men of letters as Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 1694–1778) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), but influenced by Roman republican texts and classical example. Their texts criticized the absolutist state on what they saw as rational, not religious grounds. Readers found in these authors' texts an alternative way to construct society.

Voltaire's Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733, known in French as Lettres philosophiques), written during his exile to England, praised English customs, institutions, and intellectual life. The book's major implication was not lost on French readers; French customs, institutions, and intellectual life were, it suggested, far inferior to their English counterparts. French authorities suppressed the book and Voltaire was forced to flee Paris. Rousseau's work raised similar questions about the foundation upon which French society rested. In The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau argued that a legitimate government was one that rested on common consent, not oppression. Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794) and other leaders of the French Revolution acknowledged a debt to Rousseau.

That such texts shaped readers' minds is clear by the lengths to which the state worked to suppress them. They were placed in the same category as pornography and censored as "bad books." Reading was dangerous precisely because it could lead readers to challenge the status quo.

Once the revolution started, the number of newspapers read and circulated increased dramatically. Readers found in these newspapers reports on the activities of the legislative body. Although politician publicists like Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville (1754–1793) envisioned newspapers as a means of establishing political legitimacy—"One can teach the same truth at the same moment to millions of men"—quite the opposite was actually the case. Newspapers presented a government being torn apart by internecine strife. Hence, just as reading could help inspire revolution, it could also work to undermine it (Popkin, 1990).

In the nineteenth century leaders of social movements continued to turn to readers for support and legitimacy, whether through newspapers, pamphlets, flyers, or books. Books such as August Bebel's (1840–1913) Woman under Socialism (1883) went through dozens of editions and reached many thousands of readers. Many leaders of the German Social Democratic party were also editors of newspapers. In Britain in the 1890s Robert Blatchford, who claimed to have been converted to socialism through reading, published one of the most popular socialist newspapers of the day, The Clarion. Reading never completely replaced the more traditional way of transmitting ideas—conversations in the market and workplace, political meetings, strikes, and demonstrations. But it raised the distinct possibility of reaching more dispersed populations over a more extended area than any speech ever could.


Until the nineteenth century, books were too expensive for all but wealthy individuals and institutions to purchase in great number. Most Europeans, if they owned books at all, had a collection limited to a catechism or book of hours, the life of a saint, a Bible, and perhaps an almanac. Martin's examination of 400 estate inventories in Paris in the seventeenth century indicates that merchants and artisans were rarely buyers of books, and when they did own books, they owned very few. Circulating libraries and reading cabinets appear in the eighteenth century to meet the demand for access to books without the requirement of purchase.

In the mid-eighteenth century the emergence of lending libraries and reading societies helped give readers access to a large number of texts. Middle-class readers often belonged to reading societies. In these societies, readers would have access to the latest books and journals, mostly of a political nature, which they would then discuss and debate. Unlike lending libraries, private reading societies were geared to the interests of their members. By the nineteenth century, however, reading societies were largely superseded by commercial lending libraries, which served a more heterogeneous population. (Wittmann, in Cavallo and Chartier, 1999).

In the nineteenth century municipal governments created municipal libraries, first in England and then on the continent. These libraries were aimed particularly at working-class readers and had a strong moral component. Reformers and employers hoped to elevate the moral sensibilities of the working classes, shape character, and ease social tensions. They saw the library as an uplifting alternative to the pub or alehouse, the traditional sites for male working-class leisure. Reformers discouraged workers from reading pulp fiction, urging them instead to read edifying literature. Despite these attempts, working-class reading continued to consist mostly of pulp fiction.

Even in non-capitalist countries, libraries served as a means to shape working-class minds. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, revolutionary leaders hoped to use libraries as a means to lift up workers, both morally and intellectually. One Party activist, for example, urged the citizens of Petrograd two years after the Revolution, "As the proletarian revolution wants you to be sober and clear minded you should not fail to obtain a book at your local library." (Lerner, 1998, p. 150). As this suggests, libraries were not value-free institutions.

Finland and Iceland, known for the high literacy of their adult populations, have had active circulating libraries and reading societies since about 1800. In Finland, where the public literacy of adults is among the highest in the world and where school-age children show the highest reading performance in international comparisons, circulating and public libraries seem to have contributed to this success. With strong financial backing from the Finnish government in the twentieth century and attention to community needs, Finnish library administrators have greatly expanded their holdings for children. They work closely with schools to stimulate children to read and teach children how to use the library. They have also offered on-site services for hospital patients and residents of nursing homes. To enrich the holdings of small rural libraries they started bookmobiles. Finnish libraries may be the most patronized in Europe, registering a full 25 percent of the population in a count made thirty years ago (Hatch, 1971).


In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there are many examples of readers who followed Luther's counsel and focused on a religious text with great intensity. They can be considered "intensive" readers, like the character Christian in John Bunyan's (1628–1688) The Pilgrim's Progress (1678). Christian's reading of apocalyptic portions of the Bible leads him to a catharsis of emotions and an affirmation of faith. Bunyan wanted his own readers to read his work with that same intensity, and he hoped that it would help them to find their own routes to salvation. Intensive reading involved a highly intimate relationship for readers, authors, and texts. It gave an individual reader the sense that the author's words were spoken directly to him. The trust bound up in this relationship could lead the reader to find in the author someone who could answer his deepest and most provoking questions or even completely redirect the trajectory of his life.

Some historians, such as Engelsing, have argued that reading changed in the eighteenth century. Not only did reading matter become more varied and secular, but the way of approaching a text changed for readers. Adapting to the more abundant literature, they turned to sampling, critical engagement with many different works, and perhaps a cursory examination of some of that material. Others, such as Darnton and Chartier, have disputed this argument, pointing to evidence of intensive engagement with novels in the eighteenth century and some examples of extensive reading by humanists in the two preceding centuries. One historian has even called the eighteenth century, because of its taste for the novel, a " 'revolution' in reverse—far more 'intensive' than before and not in the least 'extensive' " (Wittmann, in Cavallo and Chartier, 1999, p. 296).

Although the reading of religious texts remained an important staple of eighteenth century life, a shift had begun whereby readers increasingly turned from reading primarily for salvation to reading for information and pleasure. The growing popularity of novels, periodicals such as the Spectator (1711–1712), and newspapers over the course of the century demonstrates that readers' tastes were indeed changing.

That readers had begun approaching texts more superficially is evident in the emergence of the term "skim" in the English language to refer to a practice of readers. Only in the mid-eighteenth century did the term come to mean, "to glance over, without reading closely." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest record of the term used in this way dates to 1738 when Mary Granville Pendarves Delaney (1700–1788) described the practice in a letter to a friend: "I skimmed over [Your last letter] . . . to satisfy myself of your health." Three years later, Isaac Watts (1674–1748) used the term in a published work titled The Improvements of the Mind. "Plumeo," he wrote, "skimmed over the pages, like a swallow over the flowery meads."

Although extensive reading certainly gained ground in the eighteenth century, intensive reading persisted, particularly in the way readers approached novels like Samuel Richardson's (1689–1761) Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), Rousseau's La nouvelle Heloise (1761), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's (1749–1832) The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Historians have documented well the sentimental or empathetic responses these novels elicited from readers, particularly women, who were well represented among their readers.

Watt has noted the role of English women in ensuring the success of Richardson's Pamela. He attributed this appeal in part to the author's ability to write about women and their experiences with sensitivity and accuracy, far more so than any author before him. He also attributed it to the intimacy Richardson created between his readers and the text, which allowed for the "complete engrossment of their inner feelings, and the same welcome withdrawal into an imaginary world vibrant with more intimately satisfying personal relationships than ordinary life provided" (p. 196).

Darnton has shown how Rousseau's La Nouvelle Heloise, which went through at least seventy printings between 1761 and 1800, evoked a similarly strong emotional response among readers, male and female. In Germany, the emotional intensity with which readers read Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther is widely believed to have resulted in a wave of suicides. Thus, although what readers read had changed in the eighteenth century, how they read necessarily had not; they continued to have a passionate engagement with their texts. That novels aroused readers' emotions, however, made them a prime target for criticism. Critics also lambasted them for fostering unrealistic notions of romantic love and potentially compromising female chastity through their erotic suggestions. Novels were also imbued with the power to corrupt impressionable readers. Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) wrote that novels were "written chiefly to the young, the ignorant, and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct, and introductions into life. They are entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore easily susceptible of impressions." According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) the long-term effects of novel reading on the mind were catastrophic. Novel reading, he believed, "occasions in time the entire destruction of the power of the mind" because it encouraged "no improvement of the intellect, but fills the mind with a mawkish and morbid sensibility which is directly hostile to the cultivation, invigoration, and enlargement of the nobler power of understanding."

Despite critics' best efforts, novel reading continued to be a popular leisure activity. Novels offered readers psychological mobility, opening up for them portals to other worlds. From the privacy of their own homes, individual readers could travel to the Swiss Alps, meet people from other classes, witness a barroom brawl, or attend a fancy ball. Novels also had the power to excite, scare, titillate, or depress. In short, they provided readers with a diversion from otherwise mundane ordinary lives.

By the second half of the nineteenth century extensive reading had become the dominant mode. For the sake of bourgeois propriety, readers were expected to read not only in silence, but with greater restraint and control. A text's success, therefore, was measured less by the feelings it evoked than its aesthetic qualities. The taming of readers' emotions occurred simultaneously with the taming of the novel itself, a process spearheaded by writers like Jane Austen (1775–1817) and Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832). No novel better illustrates the shift that took place than Austen's 1811 work, Sense and Sensibility. In this novel, sense reigns over sensibility. Even Marianne, a paragon of excessive emotionalism, settles down in the end.

The preeminent literary critic Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) codified the more restrained approach to reading in "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" (1864): "Everything was long seen, by the young and ardent amongst us, in inseparable connection with politics and practical life. We have pretty well exhausted the benefits of seeing things in this connection, we have got all that can be got by so seeing them. Let us try a more disinterested mode of seeing them; let us betake ourselves more to the serener life of the mind and spirit." For Arnold, reason, not emotion, was to guide the reader.

The taste for novels was shared by urban workers who were who were emerging as readers of printed matter of all kinds in urban centers in Europe. Their tastes did differ from those of the bourgeoisie, ranging from the sensationalistic literature of the pulp press to moral and didactic literature generated by both socialist and evangelical movements. That said, clerks, office workers, shop assistants, workers, and laborers made up almost half of the borrowers in municipal libraries in Paris in the 1880s and 1890s, and more than half of the books that circulated were novels (Lyons, p. 336). The sheer proliferation of printed materials made it impossible to go back to the heyday of intensive reading.


By the eighteenth century Europeans received so much information by way of the printed word that it had become an integral part of everyday life. It would have been hard to imagine a world without it. Since the seventeenth century and particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the amount of printed information Europeans had to process increased dramatically and made the ability to read even more necessary to function in European society. Europeans had to be able to make sense of the information found in such items as schedules and timetables, menus, advertisements, product labels, telephone books, recipes, how-to manuals, bills, and road signs.

The twin processes of state bureaucratization and the commercial revolution made reading an increasingly invaluable skill for Europeans to have at all levels of society. Even before the invention of the printing press, European states, which had previously relied predominantly on oral testimony, had become ever more dependent on written records. In the Middle Ages, the ability to read was not a prerequisite for holding office. That changed in the early modern period. The mid-sixteenth century witnessed the last illiterate high-ranking government officials in northern Europe—the first earl of Rutland in England and Constable Montmorency in France (Stone, 1968). Reading was required to process legislative initiatives, petitions, and other matters of state, particularly those relating to the military and taxation.

Similarly, the commercial revolution helped make reading a necessity of life. Merchants had long relied on written bills of exchange in their international trade. The printed word also impinged on the lives of farmers, shopkeepers, and artisans in the form of promissory notes, wills, and apprenticeship contracts. In addition, farmers and artisans increasingly relied on the printed word to provide them information about their occupations.

Since the early sixteenth century, Europeans had disseminated knowledge about agriculture in print. Humanists discovered Virgil's Georgics and further developed the genre. In Sir Anthony Fitzherbert's Book of Husbandry (1523) and other works that followed, readers found information on agricultural practices in different parts of England and recommendations on how to best raise crops and animals. In the eighteenth century, when agricultural improvement was of great concern to landowners, Arthur Young's (1741–1820) Travels in France (1792) was able to show a comparable concern with agricultural practices across the Channel.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries manuals written by master craftsmen appeared for those already practicing the same craft. Manuals provided illustrations, patterns, and models. Although few sixteenth-century French artisans owned books, those who did were most likely, after religious texts, to own craft manuals or books of "pourtraicture" (Chartier, 1987, p. 150). These manuals were not intended for the general public because of the need for craftsmen to protect the secrets of their trades.

The dissemination of information about crafts could be a double-edged sword. At the same time that it could improve the quality of the end product, it could undermine the legitimacy of a craft's traditional practitioners. In the dairy industry in England before the eighteenth century, women played a leading role producing cheese for the family and perhaps a small surplus for sale. Dairywomen had learned the craft from other women, not from manuals or recipes. The process often lacked exactness, which meant that the product could differ greatly from batch to batch. In the eighteenth century, due to the commercialization of the dairy industry, men began to rationalize the process of cheesemaking by applying scientific knowledge to the craft. They published texts on the science of cheese-making with recipes that encouraged product standardization. This led to the demise of dairywomen's control over the process (Valenze, 1995, p. 48–67).

In these two areas and in others, readers in the eighteenth century found that reading books offered an alternative to on-site apprenticeship for the development of skills and knowledge that were useful in the workplace. The genre grew again at the end of the nineteenth century with the decline of apprenticeship and became important to industrial education in schools and post-secondary institutes in the twentieth century. In the latter half of that century, this genre migrated in part to the television medium, where printed materials were a tie-in to demonstrations on screen. How-to manuals, however, persisted as an autonomous genre, responding to the demands of readers who wanted utility in their texts, and not simply pleasure and recreation.


By the late nineteenth century, nearly universal education in Europe had produced official literacy rates of 90 percent or more in countries like Belgium and Germany. Eastern Europe lagged, but both literacy rates and popular reading were growing there as well. Traveling book salesmen in rural areas throughout Europe complemented more organized bookstores and libraries found in urban areas.

The advent of mass reading raises several questions. Mass taste often differed from the reading matter recommended by social reformers. Trade union and socialist libraries, for example, urged working-class readers to consult serious works of philosophy and economics but found marked preferences for escapist novels. Children's books were divided between worthy, educational tracts, preferred by many parents, and more exciting fare sold directly to children, such as cowboy novels set in the American West, available in many languages. Mass-circulation newspapers offered large type and a simple vocabulary, as well as a sensationalist style that many social critics found repellent. Mass reading did not mean uniformity in the approach to reading.


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Labarre, Albert. Le livre dans la vie amiénoise du seizième siècle: L'enseignement des inventaires après décès, 1503–1576. Paris, 1971.

Lerner, Fred. The Story of Libraries: From the Invention of Writing to the ComputerAge. New York, 1998.

Manguel, Alberto. A History of Reading. New York, 1997.

Popkin, Jeremy D. Revolutionary News: The Press in France 1789–1799. Durham, N.C., 1990.

Resnick, Daniel P., ed. Literacy in Historical Perspective. Washington, D.C., 1983.

Resnick, Daniel P., and Lauren B. Resnick. "The Nature of Literacy: A Historical Exploration." In Perspectives in Literacy. Edited by Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose. Carbondale, Ill., 1988. Pages 190–202.

Resnick, Daniel P. and Lauren B. Resnick. "Varieties of Literacy." In Social History and Issues in Human Consicousness: Some Interdisciplinary Connections. Edited by Andrew E. Barnes and Peter N. Stearns. New York, 1989. Pages 171–196.

Saenger, Paul. "Physiologie de la lecture et séparation des mots." Annales E.S.C. (1989): 939–52.

Stone, Lawrence. "Literacy and Education in England, 1640–1900." Past and Present 42 (1968): 69–139.

Strauss, Gerald. Luther's House of Learning: Indoctrination of the Young in the GermanReformation. Baltimore, 1978.

Valenze, Deborah M. The First Industrial Woman. New York, 1995.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Berkeley, Calif., 1964.

Zaret, David. Origins of Democratic Culture: Printing, Petitions, and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England. Princeton, N.J., 2000.

Victor Li provided research assistance in the preparation of this article.


views updated Jun 27 2018


The question "Who read whatand how?" is fundamental to intellectual history. No idea can have a history until someone reads it somewhere, and its impact on society will depend on the readings of individual readers. It was inevitable, then, that the historiography of ideas would turn toward the historiography of reading. That trend picked up momentum in the 1980s, when postmodern critics raised provocative theoretical questions about canon formation, the indeterminacy of texts, and the role of the reader in making meaning. Those critics, however, mostly failed to produce empirical studies of actual readers in history. That gap would be filled by scholars working in the emerging field of "book history," taking their inspiration from Robert Darnton's 1986 manifesto "First Steps Toward a History of Reading."

How Historians Study Reading

How can the historian recover something so private, so evanescent as the inner experience of the reader? Darnton conceded that documentary evidence was hard to come by, but he did not consider the problem insurmountable. In fact, since 1986 innovative historians of reading have located and used a broad range of primary sources, including memoirs, diaries, personal correspondence, library borrowing registers, wills (which often list books owned), booksellers' ledgers, reports filed by book peddlers and salesmen, minutes kept by literary societies, authors' fan mail, oral interviews, sociological surveys, marginalia, and iconography (the portrayal of readers in medieval manuscripts can be remarkably illuminating). Especially for the nineteenth century, when many newspapers were largely reader-written, one can look to published letters to the editor (and, more revealing, letters that were never published). Exceptionally valuable are the records of inquisitors and secret policemen, who obligingly asked precisely the questions that intellectual historians want to askquestions about how individuals select, obtain, interpret, share, and discuss books. In The Cheese and the Worms, Carlo Ginzburg used the proceedings of the Inquisition to investigate the reading habits of Mennochio, a sixteenth-century Italian miller.

Mennochio was a strikingly idiosyncratic reader. Somehow he acquired a vernacular Bible, Giovanni Boccaccio's (13131375) Decameron, travel books, and perhaps the Koran. From these texts he drew highly independent conclusions about metaphysics, religion, the origins of the universe, social equality, and the economic basis of the Catholic Church. This is what Roger Chartier has called appropriation : the tendency of readers to interpret and adapt texts to serve their own interests and uses. Other historians of reading, along similar lines, make use of Erving Goffman's "frame analysis," where a frame is defined as a set of interpretive ground rules adopted by the reader. Either approach recognizes reading as a creative act rather than the passive absorption of the author's intended message. Thus the general thrust of the historiography of reading has been very different from Frankfurt School, Marxist, semiotic, and feminist criticism, which tended to treat the common reader as the passive victim of mass culture, capitalism, or patriarchal discourses.

Historians of reading inevitably take into account the influence of race, class, and gender, but often with unexpected results. Female readers are more likely than male readers to choose and identify with female authors: that appears to be a broad tendency, which cuts across time and culture. But beyond that, most recent studies have revealed that men and women read less differently than many researchers imagined. In Victorian Britain prison inmates devoured sentimental fiction, while Kate Flint found middle-class women who were tackling philosophy, politics, and the hard sciences. In the fan letters received by middlebrow Canadian novelists, Clarence Karr discovered that men as well as women were moved to tears, and women as well as men were inspired to rational critical analysis. After a generation of critics dismissed the traditional literary canon as elitist, Jonathan Rose revealed a large and passionate audience for the classics among the British working classes, and Elizabeth McHenry recovered a tradition of African-American literary clubs that discussed established white authors as well as new black authors. Priya Joshi found that readers in colonial India enthusiastically embraced the English novel, though the novel as a genre was not indigenous to the subcontinent. This was not a matter of the colonized slavishly mimicking the colonizer: Indian readers selectively read novelists that resonated with them, including some (notably G. W. M. Reynolds) that metropolitan critics considered hopelessly trashy.

Some historians of reading, such as Carlo Ginzburg, intensively study the experiences of a single reader. Others reconstruct the literary life of entire communities, as Christine Pawley did for Osage, Iowa, in the 1890s, or as William J. Gilmore did for a corner of rural Vermont in the early American republic. Still others show how print communicates the information needed to negotiate urban life (see David M. Henkin's City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York and Peter Fritzsche's Reading Berlin 1900 ). Historians of literacy once merely measured whether people could read; more recently David Vincent has explored the actual uses of reading skills in nineteenth-century England. Ronald Zboray explained how reading habits in antebellum America were transformed by a vibrant market economy, which called into existence new methods of printing, illumination, transportation, marketing, book distribution, and literacy education. On the other hand, Stephen Lovell has described the very different impact of a command economy on reading choices in the Soviet Union, explaining why it created an extraordinary demand for classic literature.

"Reception histories" track the critical responses to individual texts or authors, a method particularly useful for historians of ideas. James Secord's Victorian Sensation treated the controversy surrounding Robert Chambers's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a popular precursor of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. John Rodden reconstructed the intellectual history of the Cold War through responses to George Orwell, showing how liberals, conservatives, neoconservatives, Marxists, social democrats, anarchists, New Leftists, Jews, Catholics, Germans, and Russians variously appropriated his work.

Some Models

Many historians have used Jürgen Habermas's (1929) model of the "public sphere" to explain the dissemination of ideas among eighteenth-century readers. The vast body of research on this subject has been synthesized by James Van Horn Melton in The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe. The general assumption behind these studies is that only Western societies with mature printing industries could develop true public spheres, but C. A. Bayly questions that. In Empire and Information, Bayly argues that eighteenth-century North India nurtured what he calls an ecumene, similar to what Habermas observed in Europe, except that it arose in a preprint culture. Relying on circulated manuscripts and oral performances, Indian readers were able to follow and participate in public debates about politics, religion, law, society, literature, history, and aesthetics.

In addition to borrowing historical models, historians of reading have invented some of their own. In 1974 Rolf Engelsing argued that a "reading revolution" (Leserevolution ) swept through the North Atlantic world around 1800. This involved a threefold shift: from reading aloud to private reading, from predominantly religious reading to predominantly secular reading, and from "intensive reading" (close and repeated study of a few canonical texts, such as the Bible or Pilgrim's Progress ) to "extensive reading" (rapid and continuous consumption of a large intake of ephemeral texts, mainly newspapers, magazines, and novels).

Engelsing's hypothesis is still widely debated. Though the shift to private reading clearly did take place, it has come to appear much more drawn out than he suggested. Cecile Jagodzinski contends that in England reading became more private during (and as a result of) the religious conflicts of the seventeenth century, and reading aloud was still common in working-class households as late as 1900. Nevertheless, it may be that the "reading revolution" may be treated as researchers have learned to treat the Industrial Revolution: as a rough generalization about a ragged and uneven process, a concept that has some usefulness as long as it is borne in mind that reading habits (like industrialization) evolved along different paths in different societies.

But What Exactly Is Reading?

That question raises some intriguing anthropological issues. One could say that reading is retrieving information encoded by making marks on a material base, but that begs yet another question. As Germaine Warkentin has noted, some indigenous peoples of North America seem to have recorded information on wampum belts, birch-bark scrolls, stone cliffs, and (among the Git'ksan of British Columbia) ceremonial cloaks. But linguists cannot read these texts (if indeed they are texts) as they might decipher and read Egyptian hieroglyphics, or the glyphs on a Mayan stela. In some cases they must be reador, more accurately, performedby an authorized member of the native nation. And different native "readers" may read different significances into the same inscription. One might conclude that a Git'ksan cloak is more like a work of abstract expressionist art than a document: it is supposed to be suggestive rather than precise. Yet a member of the Git'ksan nation will probably insist that the cloak is "written," not "painted." True, its meaning is radically indeterminate, but a generation of postmodern critics have argued that all texts are wide open to interpretation. Given all that, can one truly "read" a cloak?

One way of coping with this quandary is to go back to the original meaning of the word. Laurel Amtower makes the point that in Old English, raedan could refer to any kind of "interpretation and glossing of signs in a world in which all was text." It might involve reading a boc (an Anglo-Saxon term that included all sorts of documents, not just books per se ). But one could also read things that were not (strictly speaking) documents, for example "Ic raede swefn" (I read dreams) (Amtower, ch. 2). That wider meaning survives in colloquial English in the early twenty-first century, as in "How do you read this situation?" A new methodology, "audience history," treats reading in that expansive sense, reconstructing (as far as possible) the entire cultural diet of a given group of individuals. Thus The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes considers not only how workers read books, magazines, newspapers, and advertising bills, but also how they "read" films, radio programs, musical performances, and school lessons.

Broadly, then, the history of reading has become the history of interpretation. Historians have become all too aware of the epistemological questions they encounter whenever they try to make sense of texts, and some of them have concluded that the most fruitful approach to those questions is a historiography of reading, which asks how readers in the past made sense of texts. The importance of the subject is clear: wars have been fought over different readings of treaties, scriptures, and intelligence reports. If, as Erving Goffman put it, people are always "reading" the sensory data that showers in on them, always asking themselves "What is it that's going on here?" then cultural historians must inevitably address "reading" widely defined.

See also Education ; Language, Linguistics, and Literacy ; Literature ; Oral Traditions .


Amtower, Laurel. Engaging Words: The Culture of Reading in the Later Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Bayly, C. A. Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 17801870. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Cavallo, Guglielmo, and Roger Chartier, eds. A History of Reading in the West. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

Darnton, Robert. "First Steps Toward a History of Reading." In his The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

Flint, Kate. The Woman Reader 18371914. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

Fritzsche, Peter. Reading Berlin 1900. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Gilmore, William J. Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life: Material and Cultural Life in Rural New England, 17801835. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989.

Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller. Translated by John and Anne Tedeschi. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Henkin, David M. City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Jagodzinski, Cecile M. Privacy and Print: Reading and Writing in Seventeenth Century England. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

Joshi, Priya. In Another Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Karr, Clarence. Authors and Audiences: Popular Canadian Fiction in the Early Twentieth Century. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000.

Lovell, Stephen. The Russian Reading Revolution: Print Culture in the Soviet and Post-Soviet Eras. New York: St. Martin's, 2000.

McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 2002.

Melton, James Van Horn. The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Pawley, Christine. Reading on the Middle Border: The Culture of Print in Late Nineteenth-Century Osage, Iowa. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.

Rodden, John. George Orwell: The Politics of Literary Reputation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2002.

Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 2001.

Secord, James A. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Vincent, David. Literacy and Popular Culture: England 17501914. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Warkentin, Germaine. "In Search of 'The Word of the Other': Aboriginal Sign Systems and the History of the Book in Canada." Book History (1999): 127.

Zboray, Ronald J. A Fictive People: Antebellum Economic Development and the American Reading Public. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Jonathan Rose


views updated May 29 2018

READING The process of extracting meaning from written or printed language: one of the four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, WRITING) and one of the two key aspects of LITERACY (reading and writing). The activity is of two kinds: reading aloud, so that others can hear (and benefit from) what is being read, and silent reading.

Reading aloud

People who are learning to read often read aloud, in order to relate what they see to the spoken language. Depending on the skill and confidence of the novice reader, this may be accompanied by tracing the line of text word by word with the index finger. In scribal societies, reading aloud appears to have been the norm, even for private, personal purposes. The shift to mature silent reading may have been encouraged by the advent of print, the spread of literacy, an awareness that reading aloud disturbs others within earshot, a view among teachers that saying (or muttering) what is being read indicates a low level of skill, and perhaps also appreciation of a silence that makes the message more personal. Reading aloud in public is an ancient practice that lies at the roots of publishing (‘making public’), and in many parts of the world continues to be an important means of disseminating information and educating the young. It includes dictation that is read out to be written down by students and lecturing from a prepared text at a pace that allows note-taking: compare French lecture (reading). Reading aloud well involves control of breath, voice, and body, a capacity to look up from a text and back without losing one's place, and, depending on subject and occasion, an element of drama and display. In public presentations, such reading has traditionally been from a document held in the hand or placed on a lectern (a special sloping surface that holds whatever is being read). On television, however, there is increasing use of an electronic prompting device (a teleprompter or trade name, an Autocue) placed between reader and audience. This enlarges the elements of a script line by line, so that someone may see it easily and use it without appearing (too obviously) to be reading.

Silent reading

Private reading is so basic a skill in present-day society that its nature is little discussed and its existence largely taken for granted. It differs from other forms of scanning one's surroundings by being focused, sustained, relatively disciplined, and accompanied by thinking about the meaning of what one sees. The concept of reading is often extended to other kinds of disciplined, reflective activity, such as ‘reading’ someone's face for a message, ‘reading’ a landscape for information, or asking Do you read me? (Have you understood me?) after sending a radio message. One can also ‘read’ semaphore signals at a distance, braille by touch, and Morse code by listening. The eye movements that occur in conventional reading consist of jerks and stops. Each jerk entails a change in focus, and is technically known as a saccade (from French: the jerk on the reins of a rider controlling a horse); each stop is a fixation, a moment of stability in which signals are transmitted from retina to brain. On average, readers make three or four fixations a second, and each may register several letters or several words, depending on such factors as distance from text, size and kind of lettering, and familiarity with language, orthography, and subject matter.

Readers use both visual and phonetic skills, combining a capacity to decipher writing and print letter by letter with an indirect awareness of the heard equivalents of what is graphically displayed. This cross-association of graphic and phonic symbols appears to be natural: readers may at any time audibly or inaudibly say a syllable or word so as to help grasp its nature, function, and meaning: in doing this, they may be returning to the historically and individually ‘early’ stage of moving the lips while interpreting the signs of the text. In this process, they are not usually put off by homophones, such as right and write or dun and done, which suggests that visual interpretation can function independently of phonetic backup. They may, however, be put off by homographs and polysemous words, such as the various uses of bank and crane. The fact that some people read so fast (over 500 words per minute) that they exceed the capacity of their phonetic backup to check what they are seeing is evidence for an element in reading that is not in any way tied to physical sound or ‘sounds’ in the mind.

Learning to read

There has long been controversy among teachers of reading over the primary means by which children learn (or should learn) to read. Attitudes and policies tend to vary between a whole-language, whole-word, global, holistic, or look-and-say approach on the one hand (in which words are minimal units to be learned as gestalts) and a symbol-to-sound, code-based, atomistic, or phonic approach (in which reading is like cracking a code that consists of correspondences between speech sounds and graphic symbols, with letters or graphemes as the prime units). Some teachers favour one approach over the other, while many favour a compromise that allows a judicious use of elements from both approaches. Some also make a distinction between a ‘whole language’ approach in which children work from so-called ‘real books’ (as opposed to specially prepared readers) and the older ‘look and say’ method that is closely associated with readers, reading schemes, flash cards, and other aids. There is some evidence that concentrating on the atoms of reading in the early stages leads to a higher rate of word recognition later, followed by an expansion of global comprehension through the quality and interest of what is being read. It is also likely that strategies may differ depending on the writing system used: for example, learning to read the blend of logographic and syllabic signs used for Japanese may require a different approach from learning the set of signs used for such ‘alphabetic’ languages as Spanish, Italian, German and English.

Six stages?

The American researcher Jeanne S. Chall (Stages of Reading Development, New York, 1983, and with Steven A. Stahl, ‘Reading’, International Encyclopedia of Communications, New York, 1989) has proposed that reading in English proceeds through six (relatively idealized) stages, more or less as follows (with ages specific to educational experience in the US):

Stage O: Pre-reading and pseudo-reading.

Before they reach the age of 6, children are likely to ‘pretend’ to read, retelling a story when looking at the pages of a book that has already been read to them, increasingly naming letters, recognizing some signs, printing their own names, and playing with the general paraphernalia of literacy. This process develops naturally as a response to being read to by adults or older children who take a close and warm interest in that response. Most children at this stage can understand simple picture books and the stories read to them, but have a hazy perception of what reading really is.

Stage 1: Initial reading and decoding.

Between 6 and 7, children may learn the relations between sounds and letters and between spoken and printed words, read simple texts containing short, high-frequency words that are spelt more or less regularly, and ‘sound out’ monosyllables. If they receive instruction in phonics, they are often read to from a level just above their own ability to read. Generally, their level of reading at this stage is well below their capacity to manage speech. Although it is not easy to quantify words known and used, Chall estimates that they can understand some 4,000 spoken words and some 600 written or printed words. A reading specimen of this stage is:‘May I go?’ said Fay. ‘May I please go with you?’
(from American Book Primer).

Stage 2: Confirmation and fluency.

Between 7 and 8, children may consolidate their skills, increasing their range of reading, their fluency, their general vocabulary, and their ability to decode the elements of words. Again, help may often include being read to at a level above their own ability. At the end of this stage, they can understand an estimated 9,000 spoken words and 3,000 written or printed words. A reading specimen of this stage is:
Spring was coming to Tait Primary School. On the new highway big trucks went by the school all day (from Ginn 720, Grade 2).

Stage 3: Reading for learning.

Between 9 and 14, reading is no longer an end in itself but becomes a means by which further knowledge and experience can be gained. Use extends beyond the immediate subjects of school and includes textbooks, reference books, and periodicals (from comic books to newspapers and encyclopaedias). Reading becomes part of a general experience of language that is likely to include explicit discussion of language skills, especially writing and spelling. At the beginning of this stage, listening comprehension of the same material is more effective than reading comprehension, but by the end the two are roughly equal. For some young people, reading may have edged ahead. Two reading specimens of this stage are:
She smoothed her hair behind her ear as she lowered her hand. I could see she was eyeing beauty and trying to figure out a way to write about being beautiful without sounding even more conceited than she already was (from Ginn 720, Grade 5).
Early in the history of the world, men found that they could not communicate well by using only sign language. In some way that cannot be traced with any certainty, they devised spoken language (from Book F, New Practice Reader, Graves et al., 1962).

Stage 4: Multiplicity and complexity.

From 14 to 17, if all has gone well, students are reading fairly widely from a range of increasingly complex materials, both narrative and expository, and varied in view-point. Such materials are both technical and non-technical, literary and non-literary, and may involve a parallel study of words and their elements. For poorer performers, listening and reading comprehension are about the same, but for stronger performers reading comprehension is better than listening comprehension, especially in technical subjects. A specimen for this stage is:
No matter what phenomena he is interested in, the scientist employs two main tools—theory and empirical research. Theory employs reason, language, and logic to suggest possible, and predict probable, relationships among various data gathered from the concrete world of experience (from A. B. Kathryn , ‘College Reading Skills’, in John & Mavis Biesanz (eds.), Modern Society, 1971).

Stage 5: Construction and reconstruction.

Beyond 18, young adults should have developed the capacity to read for their own purposes, using their skill to integrate their own knowledge with that of others and to assimilate their experience of the world more effectively. In stronger performers, it is rapid and efficient, and serves as a basis for a lifetime of reading for personal and occupational purposes. Interested readers go beyond their immediate needs and in the writing of essays, reports, summaries, and other materials continue to integrate the four skills. A reading specimen for this stage is:
One of the objections to the hypothesis that a satisfying after-effect of a mental connection works back upon it to strengthen it is that nobody has shown how this action does or could occur. It is the purpose of this article to show how a mechanism which is as possible psychologically as any of the mechanisms proposed to account for facilitation, inhibition, fatigue, strengthening by repetition, or other forms of modification could enable such an after-effect to cause such a strengthening (from Edward L. Thorndike , ‘Connectionism’, Psychological Review 40, 1933).


The above stages resemble the developmental phases of the child's mind as proposed by the Swiss researcher Jean Piaget. They are both a generalization from objective study and an idealized assumption about an average child who progresses fairly smoothly through such stages in an English-speaking society that has an adequate educational system, without any significant social or personal problems. The order may be universal, but the age ranges will vary between individuals, cultures, and countries. Unfortunately, not all climb smoothly from the bottom to the top of this ladder and not all societies provide an adequate educational service. In addition, many competent readers might have serious difficulty with the specimen that Chall provides for Stage 5, many adequate readers with the specimen at Stage 4, and so on down the line to the large percentage of people whom English-speaking societies now recognize as functionally illiterate: that is, those who, for whatever reason, never managed to get successfully through Stage 1 or 2. Recent definitions of literacy have classed as illiterate all those who read less efficiently than they would like, including many who have moved well beyond Stage 2.See CHILD LANGUAGE ACQUISITION, DYSLEXIA, EDUCATION, ILLITERACY, PROSE, SPELLING.


views updated May 17 2018


Reading can be an activity of extremes; either a person read or he cannot. What has to happen to be able to read? Why is it easy for some children and difficult for others? Reading is not an unlearned skill, such as talking, that starts developing at birth. The ability to read and write does not develop by itself; a child needs instruction to be able to read. When and where should that reading instruction begin?

The Emergent Reader: The Infant and Toddler Years

In the first few months after birth, children begin to play with sounds. Their cooing turns to babble as they attempt to imitate the sounds that they hear. They love to play games such as pat-a-cake and peek-a-boo, and manipulate objects. Adults need to talk to babies using simple language and acknowledge their language attempts to support their oral language development. It is during this time of play that infants begin their pathway to reading.

First readings with infants should include cardboard books, which are sturdy and allow the infant to handle the book without concern about pages being ripped. Most readings with a toddler center around vocabulary building, such as by asking him to point to different items in a picture. Toddlers can identify more items through this type of labeled reading than by actually talking. A toddler might not be able to voice the word if you point to an elephant, but if you ask him to show you an elephant, he will be able to point to a picture of one. As toddlers increase their vocabulary, they begin to imitate language around them by speaking in simple sentences; "I want cookie," "I go bye-bye," and "I have book" are a few examples. This oral language is the foundation for the development of literacy.

Precursors to Reading: The Preschool Years

To encourage vocabulary development, it is important for children to be engaged in meaningful conversations with others. Children need to exchange ideas about their feelings and thoughts. Children are often imitators of what they see and hear, and they need to experience reading and writing behaviors that will encourage their interest in and enjoyment of reading and writing.

Among the first words that children recognize or read are those found on fast-food signs, the names of their favorite foods and favorite toys, the names they use for their parents, and their own name. To encourage reading, children need to be exposed to print every day; during this daily reading, print concepts are introduced that are necessary for the preschooler to learn to read. These concepts are understood when a child can:

  • show where the front of a book is;
  • realize that there are words on a page;
  • point to the words as they are read;
  • understand that one reads from left to right;
  • show where the story starts on a page; and
  • show the beginning and ending of a word.

After reading a story to a child give her the opportunity to talk about the story. She can tell you her favorite part of the story; you might also encourage her to retell the story in her own words. Children enjoy rereading the books that have been read to them. They will pull out the same book to be read again and again. They may even "read" their books by looking at the pictures and telling the story. This pretend reading, known as book talk, provides another brick in the foundation of their reading pathway.

If a child were retelling the story "The Three Little Pigs," he would probably include the language: "I will huff and puff and blow your house down." The words "huff" and "puff" are not typically in a child's basic vocabulary. These are examples of book talk words; using such words shows that the child has re-told the story using the language from the book. Normally these book words are important to the story structure or story meaning.

Book talks, story retellings, singing songs, and noticing rhymes in words are ways that children like to play with words. A child is ready to begin formal reading instruction when she is recognizing symbols, demonstrating vocabulary knowledge by using book talk, and identifying word patterns with rhymes.

Beginning to Read: Kindergarten and Primary Grades

Formal reading instruction begins when a child is introduced to the letters in the alphabet. This typically occurs in kindergarten or the primary grades of elementary school. Children must learn that the written word is made up of letters that are symbols for the sounds they hear. Children must match those known sounds with letters. To help children match the sounds that they hear to letters, they need opportunities to use different literacy tools such as writing lists, making signs in block building, writing notes, and using icons and words when exploring computer games.

Children's writing experiences should allow the flexibility to use nonconventional forms of writing at first, what is called inventive spelling. These spelling attempts show where they are developmentally in their reading. Children go from hearing the beginning sound, then the ending sound, before they begin to look at letters in the middle of a word. If they attempt to spell the word "jump" with a "j," they are looking at the beginning letter of a word when they read. If they spell "jump" with "jp," that would indicate that they are looking at both the beginning and ending letters of words when they read. When children look at both the beginning and ending sounds, they are then ready to look at the letters in the middle of the word. At this point children would spell "jump" either "jup" or "jop." To help children look at the entire word, they should be encouraged to stretch out the sounds they hear: "j-u-m-p."

In this beginning stage of reading, children "read" from matching what they hear to letters in the word. Having the children stretch out the word "jump" to hear the individual sounds will help them realize that there are four different sounds. When they can hear and identify those four different sounds they will be able to read and write "jump" with conventional spelling. Once children understand this letter sound match, they should be encouraged to write on their own as the next step in their literacy development.

In addition to being read to, children need to be encouraged to read independently. In the early stages of learning, children depend on illustrations to help them read a story. Before having a child read, have him look at and discuss what he sees in the pictures. This process, known as a picture walk, helps the child gather words he needs to read the story and is also an opportunity to teach any unfamiliar vocabulary found in the book. For example, while doing a picture walk the child tells you he sees a crocodile but the word on the page is "alligator." A parent would tell the child, "yes that does look like a crocodile, but it is really an alligator." When the child is reading the book and he comes to the word "alligator," he will be able to read the word successfully because of the discussion during the picture walk.

As children master high frequency words, they begin to look at words in chunks or parts (st-amp, float, gl-ad). They will start to recognize common blends (st, pl, br) and digraphs (ew, ar, ou). To become independent readers, children need to know several strategies to help them decode an unknown word. These strategies include: using the picture, sounding out the word, looking for sound chunks in a word, rereading the sentence, skipping the word, and thinking about the story.

During this early reading stage, it is very important that children continue to be read to. They need to be read meaningful stories and informational stories daily to continue to build vocabulary meanings of unknown words.

Reading to Learn: Second Grade through High School

Once a child can decode words using a variety of strategies, the focus of reading changes from word recognition to comprehension and reading fluency. Reading becomes an opportunity to learn as children read a variety of texts. Their reading success depends on the skills learned in the early stages of reading. Children begin to make connections from one topic to another and are able to consider several viewpoints while reading.


Reading and writing are complex skills, and each child has a unique learning pattern and her own timing in acquiring the skills necessary to become a reader and writer. The age a child learns to read depends on the individual's background of literature and print. If given exposure to appropriate literacy experiences and good teaching during early childhood, most children will learn to read at age six or seven. A few children will learn to read at four, some at five, and others will need intensive individual support to learn to read at eight or nine. Literacy experiences that help a child learn to read are daily exposure to print, vocabulary development, book retellings, and an understanding of print concepts.



Griffith, Priscilla, and Mary Olson. "Phonemic Awareness Helps Beginning Readers Break the Code." International Reading Association 45 (1992):516-523.

"Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Your Children. A Joint Position Statement of the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)." Reading Teacher 52 (1998):192-216.

Reading Is Fundamental, Inc. (RIF). Available from; INTERNET.

Victoria L.Davids


views updated Jun 11 2018


READING , family of British statesmen and lawyers. rufus daniel isaacs (1860–1935), first marquess of Reading, British statesman, advocate and lord chief justice. Born in London into a family of fruit merchants, and a relative of the famous boxer Daniel *Mendoza, Isaacs went to sea as a ship's boy at the age of 16. He returned to England two years later and in 1879 went into the London Stock Exchange in an attempt to make his fortune. In 1884, however, he was unable to meet his obligations and was "hammered" (suspended from the exchange). Isaacs planned to sail to Panama to recoup his losses but was persuaded by his mother to study for the bar instead and was admitted in 1887. His knowledge of the commercial world enabled him to establish himself as a leading commercial counsel and in 1898 he was made a queen's counsel. Subsequently he was involved in a series of cases which brought him before the public eye. His ability to master complicated facts and his magnificent cross-examination of the financier Whittaker Wright on charges of fraud and of Frederick Seddon on charges of murdering his lodger won him the reputation as one of the greatest advocates of all time. Isaacs' success at the bar was phenomenal. He amassed a considerable fortune and honors were heaped upon him. He was elected to parliament as a Liberal Imperialist in 1904 and was made solicitor-general in 1910. In the same year Isaacs was given a knighthood and appointed attorney-general. Nevertheless, he was passed over for the appointment of lord chancellor because of his involvement in the Marconi scandal in which he was one of four ministers accused of attempting to make financial gain out of a government contract with the English Marconi Company. In 1913 Isaacs was made lord chief justice of England, the first Jew ever to hold this post, and took the title of Lord Reading. He presided over several famous criminal cases, among them the trial of the Irish nationalist, Roger Casement, on charges of treason. Yet although he was well known for his humanity and impartiality he was not considered a great judge.

Following the outbreak of World War i, Isaacs became increasingly involved in problems of government finance and introduced the scheme by which the state guaranteed all bills of exchange, thereby preventing a panic in the London bill market. In 1915 he went to the United States as president of the Anglo-French mission and secured a loan of 500 million dollars. Isaacs returned to the U.S. two years later as special envoy with the object of persuading America to join the Allies. In the following spring he went to the U.S. for a third time as high commissioner and special ambassador to convince the American government to send half a million American troops to France immediately. Isaacs remained lord chief justice until 1920 when he was made viceroy of India, ruler of India on behalf of the British crown, the only Jew ever to hold this post. His appointment was hailed as a move to reconcile warring factions in India and also to assuage the growing hostility toward British rule. Isaacs succeeded in initiating the widespread reforms embodied in the Montagu-Chelmsford report (1918), establishing a form of self-government in most of the Indian provinces and introducing improvements in agriculture and housing. He was much admired for the genuine sympathy he and his wife showed for the people of India but he failed, nevertheless, to obtain the cooperation of Mahatma Gandhi and the Hindu nationalists and was eventually obliged to arrest Gandhi for incitement to civil disobedience and to call in the army to keep order. Isaacs returned to England in 1926 and was given the title of marquess, the only Jew to be so honored. He held numerous company directorships and remained a prominent figure in the Liberal Party, representing the party at the Indian Round Table Conference of 1930. For a short period in 1931 he was foreign secretary in the national government headed by J. Ramsay Mac-Donald and he retired in 1934 from public life with the honorary post of lord warden of the Cinque ports.

Rufus Isaacs was one of the outstanding figures of his age and in Anglo-Jewish history. He showed considerable interest in Jewish and Zionist affairs toward the end of his life and in 1926 became chairman of the Palestine Electric Corporation. He visited Palestine in 1932 and associated himself with various Zionist projects. After the advent of Hitler, Isaacs resigned the presidency of the Anglo-German Fellowship and spoke in the House of Lords against the persecution of the Jews in Germany.

gerald rufus isaacs (1889–1960), second marquess of Reading, British statesman and lawyer. Born in London, he was the only son of Rufus Isaacs and succeeded to his father's titles in 1935. He was admitted to the bar and was a bencher of the Middle Temple from 1936, becoming treasurer in 1958. Isaacs was chairman of several government committees and was undersecretary of state for foreign affairs from 1951 to 1953. He served as minister of state for foreign affairs from 1953 until his retirement in 1957. Isaacs was active in Jewish affairs as chairman of the Council for German Jewry and president of the London Jewish Hospital.

eva violet, marchioness of reading (1895–1973), English social worker. The daughter of Alfred *Mond, first Lord Melchett, she married Gerald Rufus Isaacs in 1914. Eva Reading devoted her life to problems of nursing and child care and was adviser to the ministry of health on child care during World War ii. From 1957 to 1959 she was president of the National Council of Women. Though brought up as a Christian, Eva Reading reverted to Judaism in the 1930s and became a staunch Zionist; she toured the United States on behalf of the *United Jewish Appeal in 1939, and later served as chairman of the British section of the *World Jewish Congress. She should not be confused with Stella Isaacs, marchioness of Reading (1894–1971), the second wife of Rufus Isaacs, first marquess of Reading, who was not Jewish. She was the founder of the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, and, in 1958, was the first woman to be given a life peerage and to sit in the House of Lords, where she took the title of Baroness Swanborough.


H.M. Hyde, Lord Reading; the Life of Rufus Isaacs, First Marquess of Reading (1968); D. Walker Smith, Lord Reading and his Cases (1934); L. Broad, Advocates of the Golden Age; Their Lives and Cases (1958); P.H. Emden, Jews of Britain (1943), 295–316; N.B. Birkett, Six Great Advocates (1962); I. Butler, The Viceroy's Wife (1970). add. bibliography: odnb online; (G.R. Isaacs) Marquess of Reading, Rufus Isaacs, First Marquess of Reading (2 vols, 1942–45); D. Judd, Lord Reading (1982).


views updated Jun 08 2018

read·ing / ˈrēding/ • n. 1. the action or skill of reading written or printed matter silently or aloud: suggestions for further reading | [as adj.] reading skills | a cursory reading of the minutes. ∎  written or printed matter that can be read: his main reading was detective stories. ∎  used to convey the specified quality of such written or printed matter: his file certainly makes interesting reading. ∎  knowledge of literature: a man of wide reading. ∎  the formal reading aloud of a legal document to an audience: the reading of a will. ∎  an occasion at which poetry or other pieces of literature are read aloud to an audience. ∎  a piece of literature or passage of scripture read aloud to a group of people: readings from the Bible. 2. an interpretation: feminist readings of Goethe | his reading of the situation was justified. ∎  a form in which a given passage appears in a particular edition of a text. 3. a figure or amount shown by a meter or other measuring instrument: radiation readings were taken every hour. 4. a stage of debate in a parliament through which a bill must pass before it can become law: the bill returns to the House for its final reading next week.


views updated Jun 27 2018

346. Reading

See also 29. AUTHORS ; 53. BOOKS ; 248. LITERARY STYLE ; 249. LITERATURE ; 409. VERSE .

an impairment of the ability to read because of a brain defect. Also called alexia . dyslexie, adj.
Medicine. 1. a disorder of perception causing objects to seem as if reversed in a mirror.
2. a reading difficulty characterized by confusion between similar but oppositely oriented letters (b-d, etc.) and a tendency to reverse direction in reading. strephosymbolic, adj.


views updated May 17 2018

Reading. County town of Berkshire, situated where the river Kennet joins the Thames. A small borough by 1086, it grew partly thanks to Henry I's foundation of a major Cluniac abbey (1121), where he was buried. The abbey dominated the town until the dissolution (1539), and not until 1542 did Reading become an autonomous borough. From the 14th to the 17th cents. it flourished through cloth-making: it was temporarily the eleventh wealthiest English town under Henry VIII, and Archbishop Laud was the son of a Reading clothier. The town suffered badly in the Civil War; was only of modest importance in the 18th cent.; but revived as an industrial town in the 19th (‘Biscuitopolis’).

David M. Palliser


views updated May 29 2018

Reading City in s central England, at the confluence of the Thames and Kennet rivers; county town of Berkshire. The area was occupied by the Danes in the 9th century. Industries: ironware, engineering, electronics. Pop. (1994 est.) 138,503.