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The Process and Action of Reading

Something that we take for granted, something that you are doing right now, is the process and action of reading.

The word comes from Old English rǣdan, of Germanic origin, related to the Dutch raden and German raten ‘advise, guess’. Its meaning embraced the concepts of ‘advise’ and ‘interpret’ as in ‘interpreting a riddle or dream’. And when the process is considered more deeply, it can seem as though one is engaged upon some kind of ‘dream-interpretation’: after all, when reading, one is taking symbols in sequences and drawing meaning from them, both the meaning that the author installed in them (it is hoped) as well as various other meanings that one may install for oneself. Examined closely, this can be seen to be a kind of guesswork: what one ends up with at the end may only be an approximation of what was written, and could even be at wild variance with the original intention depending on what exactly has taken place in the interim.

Consider how a child learns to read: first, he or she must grapple with the reality that a set of particular symbols, chosen over time by the surrounding culture, has individual sounds connected with it. We have come to call this ‘phonics’ and to see it as a fairly scientific undertaking: one takes a symbol and ‘learns’ that it ‘means’ a sound. The symbol ’T’ is connected to the sound ’t’ and not to any other sound, for example.

Then things get more arcane: the sound ’t’, coupled with other sounds, adds up to something quite different from a mere sound. The symbols ’t’, ‘r’, ‘e’ and ‘e’ combine to form the sounds ‘tree’ but also the meaning ‘tree’. Another layer of understanding is achieved. In itself, that is quite a mystical accomplishment. A young human being has linked physical sounds with written shapes and has progressed beyond what most animals are able to do, and then has transcended even that and joined those same shapes with something intangible, the idea behind them. ‘Tree’ may seem a little too tangible as an example, like most physical nouns; ‘love’ may make the point more strongly. A feeling, an idea which has outward signs but which is in itself a mental or spiritual thing, has been bound to a set of emblems imprinted on a page. No wonder that the word spell is derived from the same root as the ‘spell’ that is practiced by a mage.

But things get even more complex. Placing these representative tokens that we have come to know as ‘words’ together, one can achieve almost infinite effects through sentences (the word ‘sentence’ stemming from Latin sententia ‘opinion’, from ‘feel, be of the opinion’, reflecting that approximation of what was written indicated earlier). Sentences of various types and complexities go on to form paragraphs, paragraphs develop into chapters; chapters evolve into books. And every step of the way, the reader takes symbols and works with them to arrive at meaning.

The simple act of reading is not therefore a one-way transmission of information, perception or opinion from one mind to another, but a participative act: the reader brings both a personal understanding (or misunderstanding) and a personal contribution (or lack of contribution) to the process.

Many children love to read and can't wait to learn more about these things called ‘words’ so that they can plunge into the ocean of literature which awaits them. But those who struggle to like reading often protest that they are 'bored' by it. A whole page of text 'staring at them' produces exasperation rather than participative joy. Some readers can supply pictures from their own imaginations, drawn from the fact that they understand the symbols and the words on the page, to ‘flesh out’ what they read, while others must to be helped with a supply of pictures: lots of pictures and fewer words per page can really assist in addressing an imbalance with this. But what is happening is a remedy for a missing earlier step: a child has failed to connect a symbol or set of symbols with a sound and then a meaning, and that has resulted in a distancing and disassociation. Instead of reading being a participative act, it has become an externally imposed chore.

Colour, reality or dynamism supplied by pictures is important in restoring affinity for page after page of symbols and signs which for a struggling reader have nothing to do with anything that means anything to them. Entering a library for some is like a visit to a magician’s cave, full of excitement, promise and mystery, while for others it is a journey into darkness and occlusion, an experience of being surrounded by meaninglessness and irrelevance.

How do we form our own views of what is going on in the world? What lies at the foundation of our imaginative thinking? A child’s early reading is about more than just teaching a child how to read: it’s about laying in the basics of how they will understand and behave towards things around them. And developing an affinity for the symbols used by a culture enables a child to not only decide early on what it is that they, as individuals, like or don’t like in life, but to act within that culture, to participate in it and contribute to it on many levels. Reading books with understanding helps a child to determine who they are and how they will deal with the world.


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