Archive for Reading

Skim reading, speed reading, and close, critical reading

When I was in high school and college, I read massive amounts of fiction (e.g., Don Quixote, The Magic Mountain), history (e.g., The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich), current events (e.g., Time from cover to cover for about twenty years), and so forth.  But almost everything I read — if I considered it worth reading at all — I read very carefully, sometimes taking several minutes per page, and rereading particularly difficult passages until I assured myself that I understood what they were really about.

I had heard about Evelyn Wood's speed reading — it was hard to miss because it was so widely advertised — but was always skeptical of the extravagant claims made for it (e.g., finishing Gone with the Wind — nearly seven hundred pages — in less than an hour).  I could, if I wished, read very quickly by focusing on key elements of texts, but then I never felt that I completely comprehended them and that my retention was limited.

Because of my reading habits, it was always very important for me to have quiet surroundings when I was working my way through books, articles, essays, and so forth.  I was particularly deliberate when reading poetry, because I felt then, and still feel to this day, that to fully appreciate a good poem, one needs to go over it again and again to ruminate and savor not only its meaning, but also its sounds and rhythms.  That is the approach I use in my Chinese Poetry and Prose class, which I offer every third year, and whose current iteration began today.  We spend more than two weeks on a single poem by the Tang poet, Wang Wei, called "Deer Park / Enclosure", which consists of twenty syllables.  I may ask my students to keep a journal of their growing awareness of what the poem is actually telling us (in my forty years of teaching, I've never asked students to keep a journal about anything, but it might be worth doing in this class).

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Julie Washington on Dialects and Literacy

Read here now: the fine profile of my friend and research collaborator Julie Washington in the April issue of the Atlantic magazine. It’s been out for a while but you might not have seen it if, as in Madison WI where I live, it’s still February (we had the biggest snowstorm of the season this week). Julie is a professor at Georgia State University and the head of their program in Communication Sciences and Disorders. She’s an expert on the structure, acquisition, and use of African American English (AAE), and her research focuses on how use of the dialect affects reading achievement and educational progress, the assessment of children’s language and reading, and the identification of developmental language and reading disorders. The article describes her view that children who speak AAE in the home and community will make better progress in learning to read, and in school, if they can code switch between AAE and the mainstream dialect, often termed (though not by her) "standard" American English.

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The end of the line for Mandarin Phonetic Symbols?

Just as all school children in the PRC learn to read and write through Hanyu Pinyin ("Sinitic spelling"), the official romanization on the mainland, so do all school children in Taiwan learn to read and write with the aid of what is commonly referred to as "Bopomofo ㄅㄆㄇㄈ "), after the first four letters of this semisyllabary.  The system has many other names, including "Zhùyīn fúhào 注音符號" ("[Mandarin] Phonetic Symbols"), its current formal designation, as well as earlier names such as Guóyīn Zìmǔ 國音字母 ("Phonetic Alphabet of the National Language") and Zhùyīn Zìmǔ 註音字母 ( "Phonetic Alphabet" or "Annotated Phonetic Letters").  From the plethora of names, you can get an idea of what sort of system it is.  I usually think of it as a cross between an alphabet and a syllabary.

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Blue Cell Dyslexia

An article about dyslexia appeared last week in the prestigious Proceedings of the Royal Society B (“The [British] Royal Society's flagship biological research journal, dedicated to the fast publication and worldwide dissemination of high-quality research”).  A week is a long time in blog-years, I know, but impact of the article is rippling far and wide. The authors claim to have identified a visual basis for dyslexia: an anomaly involving the distribution of a type of receptor in a part of the retina.  This anomaly may provide “the biological and anatomical basis of reading and spelling disabilities”, with “important implications in both fundamental and biomedical sciences.” They also seemed to demonstrate that the anomaly could be easily eliminated by changing lighting conditions.

As might be expected, the media picked this up as scientists maybe having at long last found the cause of dyslexia.

Dyslexics, their families and teachers, reading researchers and treatment specialists, and the organizations that represent them are asking: did someone just discover the cause and cure for dyslexia?  (I know this: I get email.) As someone who has conducted research in the area, my question is different:  how did this terrible article get published and how can its harmful impact be counteracted?

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Dialect readers redux?

In a recent article Patriann Smith, a professor of Language, Diversity and Literacy Studies at Texas Tech, makes a bold proposal: that “nonstandard Englishes” such as African American English (AAE) and Hawai’i Creole English be used as the primary language of instruction in educating children who speak them. ("A Distinctly American Opportunity: Exploring Non-Standardized English(es) in Literacy Policy and Practice", Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9/12/2016) Smith reviews evidence that speaking “nonstandard English” (her term) as a first language interferes with children’s educational progress, given the way children are taught and progress is assessed. She also questions the privileged status accorded to the “standard” (aka mainstream, higher status) dialect of English (SAE) used in education, business, government, and other institutions, and the traditional view of literacy as the ability to read that dialect. Hence the proposal that children be taught in their native dialect whether “standard” or not.

In this post I'll look at some implications of this proposal for learning to read. The idea that children who speak AAE (or another nonstandard dialect) might benefit from being taught to read using materials written in their dialect isn't new.  Some 40 years ago there was a brief, a mostly-forgotten educational experiment with "dialect readers".  They weren't widely accepted then.  Has their time finally come?

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Aphantasia — absence of the mind's eye

You've probably heard sentences like this a thousand times:  "Picture it in your mind's eye".  How literally can we take that?

"What Does it Mean to 'See With the Mind's Eye?'" (Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic [12/4/14]):

Imagine the table where you've eaten the most meals. Form a mental picture of its size, texture, and color. Easy, right? But when you summoned the table in your mind's eye, did you really see it? Or did you assume we've been speaking metaphorically?

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Do what to the switch?

Quick! What does it say?

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Reading for pleasure at a young age

I'm often amazed (and pleased) at how children already in elementary school are reading big books for fun.  They can curl up for hours with the Harry Potter novels and read them all by the time they enter middle school, and while in middle school they finish off more challenging fantasy works like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  They become deeply absorbed in reading these thick volumes, and regard the experience as pure delight.

My siblings and I had all read Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson by the time we entered junior high school, and I still remember the intense enjoyment I derived from reading Don Quixote as a sophomore in high school (neglecting to do my regular class assignments while preoccupied with Cervantes' huge tome for a couple of weeks).

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Is English a "writer-responsible language" and Chinese, Korean, and Japanese "reader-responsible languages"?

These are totally new concepts for me.  Until David Cragin told me about them, I had never heard of reader-responsible language and writer-responsible language.

Dave works for Merck in the Safety & Environment group, knows Mandarin, has been to China 12 times since 2005, and teaches a short course on risk assessment and critical thinking at Peking University every year.  He was recently appointed to the Executive Committee of the US-based Sino-American Pharmaceuticals Professional Association (SAPA), so he has a professional and personal interest in cross-cultural communication.

In an earlier post, we discussed another, related issue that interests Dave:  "Critical thinking".

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Reading the Quran

The following photograph appears in this BBC article: "Why is Sanskrit so controversial?"

It is accompanied by this caption: "Muslims in India choose to learn Arabic".

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So much to read, so little time

This ubiquitous regret has long provided fodder for commercial exploitation—since the 1960s, speed reading courses have been marketed with promises to double or quadruple the rates at which text can be absorbed and understood. More recently, a number of speed reading apps for mobile devices have been released (e.g. Velocity, QuickReader, Acceleread), promising “superhuman” reading speeds that will “accelerate your learning potential” and help you “keep up with the web, blogs, twitter and e-mail.” (Now, if they could only invent an app for quadrupling the speed of answering e-mails, or writing Language Log posts, or thinking about what I’ve just read, that would truly increase my productivity.)

Of all these apps, the recently launched product Spritz offers the most specific pseudo-scientific hype as part of its marketing (their website offers a page soberly titled “The Science”). Since the stated rationalization for the app sounds plausible, at least to the point of managing to impress a number of smart, generally skeptical people who’ve sent me queries about it, it’s worth subjecting it to some psycholinguistic scrutiny.

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A bilingual, biscriptal product designation in Taiwan

Well, it's not quite as complex as the mixture of languages and scripts that we addressed in "A trilingual, triscriptal ad in the Taipei subway", but the following group of four characters and four phonetic symbols on the container of a fish-based food flavoring (here's the company's web page for this project) raises plenty enough interesting issues to merit its own post.

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Too much Victor Mair

I've been reading way too much Victor Mair. In the restaurant of my hotel in London I just saw an English girl wearing a T-shirt on which it said this:

H O
P E

And I immediately thought, who is Ho Pe?

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