Zen and the Art of Reading Research

Introspection may come in handy when it comes to achieving spiritual enlightenment, but it really doesn’t help much when it comes to understanding how we read or how we learn to read. Research has shown that what we think we do when we read is not really what we do at all.
For example, you might think that as you read, your eyes flow smoothly over the text. That’s just not true. It turns out that your eyes rapidly jump from one word to the next — flitting across the page. You rarely skip words, and sometimes, without you necessarily knowing it, your eyes skip backwards to re-examine a word you’ve already looked at.

Here’s another one. You might think that you can predict or guess words that are coming up in text. Again, research has shown that you really can’t. Studies have shown that, given unlimited time, people can only correctly “guess” about 10% of the content words in a passage of text. Furthermore, people are no better at guessing the words at the end of the sentence than they are words near the beginning, and people don’t read faster as they approach the end of a sentence or paragraph. People plod through text at a fairly steady pace, looking at almost every content word. It doesn’t seem like that’s what we do, but it is.

The fact that our own introspections are so often misleading really emphasizes the need to depend upon good research information. The process of reading and the process of learning to read have been empirically studied for well over 150 years. Early studies were shocking in that they revealed things about the psychological processes involved in reading that we never would have discovered through introspection. And recent research has further revealed quite surprising truths about what is happening in our heads when we sit down and read a pithy article on the internet.

Introspection, philosophy, and deep thought just don’t tell you very much about how you read or how your children will learn to read. If you want to understand these things, you absolutely have to turn to research.