Thursday, August 21, 2014

Reading upon sight

I remember my first reading classes. I was one of the early birds and got into the early reading groups in 1st grade. I don't remember the process of learning to read so well, other than that we read in groups and that I started to get into it with enthusiasm. I can remember at some point, starting to alter my voice for humor, something my teacher, Mrs. Sweeney, seemed to frown upon.

I also remember the I Can Read Book Club. Books like "Johnny the Firecat" would come in the mail with my name on it. I had no idea that Mom had set up a subscription for me, but I loved getting those books in the mail.

There is something that I noticed about reading, around the time that Dad decided that in order to take a nap, I needed to sit in the corner when I made any noise that happened to disturb his sleep. There were items nearby with words on them, words that I could read. I was bored, so I just kept reading them over and over again.

What was significant about this experience is that I discovered that I could not look at a word without reading it. Reading was automatic for me and anytime I saw a word, I read it and could hear the voice in my head go off with the sound of the word, whatever that might be. No word passes my eyes without reading it. Unless it's advertising. Then I find ways to avoid reading or to focus somewhere else.

It is estimated that there are 3 billion people on the planet who do not know how to read. That suggests that reading is not something we're necessarily evolved to do. We've adapted to reading for communication and education. Honestly, I could not imagine what life would be like without reading, other than, it would be be like grinding dirt all day. Hard, manual labor, for no particular purpose other than just survival. I'd be alive, but not living.

I've known some who were functionally illiterate when they graduated high school, but somehow they made it. Not knowing how to read today is worse than not knowing how to type. I took typing just to meet girls in school, with a voice in the back of my head saying that someday, I may need to know how to type. Today, I work as a writer, well not really a writer, but my job requires me to read and write emails, service request logs and other forms of communication.

Technology requires us to read in order to use it. Just to get started, we have to read instructions to know how to use it, too. Despite the criticism pointed at the internet, many have recognized that the internet, the world wide web, and the proliferation of free software with all the coding required to create it and maintain it, has fostered a sort of revolution or renaissance of literacy. The internet is, as one researcher put it, "saturated in text", and only the most literate societies can enjoy it. The US is one of those societies.

The implications of this reading revolution are profound and few if any of us will know all of the implications for quite some time. People read the internet in a way that is different than print. I like to read the internet because it feels more alive than print. Even printed books converted to PDF that can be read on a screen are not quite as appealing as reading a website with a recent article. Like today.

Without this "second nature" of reading that I experience when I do read, I could not really enjoy the internet in all of its permutations. Sure, I could watch video, listen to music or voice, and maybe even play games. But my mind wanders and wants to know more.

I've found that although I can watch video and learn something from it, reading offers a special experience that I can't get from video. For one, I am hard of hearing, so I never miss a word when I read. Second, when I hear the words as I read them, in my own voice, I'm asking questions that I could not ask while listening to someone else talk. Comprehension is a very big part of taking in new information, and I find that comprehension is far easier while reading than while listening.

So when you're in a waiting room, or standing in line somewhere, try to look at a sign without reading it. If you can't help but hear the words you see in your mind, you have a gift that will never stop giving. If you have kids, you can give it to them, too. It's automatic once you learn how to do it.
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