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Many, if not most, students do not know how to read well.

According to a longitudinal study that the U.S. Department of Education conducted in 2009 among post secondary students beginning in the 2003/2004 school year, 28.1% of students in public two-year institutions and 10.8% of students in public four-year institutions enrolled in remedial English or writing classes. ^{[1]}

While parents and educators may decry the present ineptness of public education to teach children how to read and write, research and essays from decades and even centuries before 2018 indicate that developing readers have struggled to read well, though they might be widely read. The 18th century English poet Alexander Pope called one who read much but read superficially a “bookful blockhead, ignorantly read.”

Much of the fault for this circumstance lies in a failure to teach students to read beyond basic skills. It results from instilling in students the belief that reading more equates to reading better and that the acquirement of information is the same as expansion of knowledge.

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It is this difference between acquiring information and expanding knowledge that builds the base for the seminal work How to Read a Book, by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren, which I briefly mentioned in my post on taking notes in books. Adler and van Doran described four levels of reading:

  • Elementary reading, which asks, “What does it say?”
  • Inspectional reading, which asks, “What is it about?”
  • Analytical reading, which asks, “What does it mean?”
  • Synoptical reading, which asks, “What do I think of or understand from all this?”

A student should complete the elementary level of reading by the time he exits middle school to start 9th grade. By high school, a student should have sufficient word mastery and vocabulary growth and be able to use context to read almost anything. As the case is, Adler and van Doran observe, many students start college having perhaps not even attained this elementary level of reading.

“We must be more than a nation of functional literates,” they write.

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When you read, you should aspire to understand, where understanding means challenging your knowledge base, forming explanations and ideas, connecting concepts, and achieving educational “enlightenment”, rather than just gather information. Information is useless without exercise. The competent reader opens dialogues with the authors whose books he reads.

I consider myself an enthusiastic and prolific reader. After studying How to Read a Book, I began to question whether or not I was also a good reader.

A good reader allows himself to be perplexed.

A good reader develops the habit of thinking about his thoughts while reading.

A good reader seeks to gain understanding, not accumulate information.

There is certainly a time and place to read less actively, whether for entertainment, as with a romance novel at the beach, or for basic information, as with the instruction label on the new television remote with its impractical plethora of buttons. Much of the time, though, more active reading is in order.

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The bulk of How to Read a Book concerns the development of skills needed for analytical reading, the level which a college student should attain. In analytical reading, as noted before, you should wonder what the author is trying to tell you. What is the skeleton of the book; its theme and main points? Can you perceive the unity of the theme through the work?

Particularly important in the analytical level of reading is unambiguous interpretation of the propositions and arguments that the author proposes. This means that you understand the declarations of knowledge and the statements of proof and support that the author gives for a particular question and conclusion. You should be able to explain yourself the main propositions in the author’s argument.

This differs from memorization, a technique that many students fall back on simply because it is easier. In 7th grade I learned the following definition for science: “an endeavor dedicated to the accumulation and classification of observable facts in order to formulate general laws about the natural world.” In that course, I had to memorize several definitions for each module, this one included. However, the author of the textbook emphasized the importance of not only remembering the information, but also of understanding what it means. That way, I really knew what science was.

To read well, you must be able to state the propositions, such as definitions, in your own words. Only then can you say that you understand what you have read.

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Once you have understood the what- answering the questions “What is the book about as a whole?” and “What is being said in detail, and how?”, you move to the last stage of analytical reading, wherein you question the veracity of the statements made and the relevance or importance of the statements.

After closing the covers of a book, you should not just move along, The author has done his part in starting the conversation; you must do yours and reply. Good reading ends with introspection into what one has gained from the reading.

This step of the analytical level most intrigued me while reading How to Read a Book, so I’d like to devote a separate post to it. Until then, I hope this article has been enlightening for you in your reading journey.


[1] Chen, Xianglei, and Sean Simone. “Remedial Coursetaking at U.S. Public 2- and 4-Year Institutions: Scope, Experiences, and Outcomes.” National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 2016, https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2016/2016405.pdf.