Reading skill requires well-trained multilevel networks

Parsing four clauses, and forming connections, illustrating some component networks of reading skill

Parsing four clauses, and forming connections

Working memory keeps new information active for one to two seconds while it carries out the appropriate processes.

Reading skill requires well-trained networks for recognizing words

The most fundamental requirement for fluent reading comprehension is rapid and automatic word recognition… Amazing as it may seem, fluent readers can actually focus on a word and recognise it in less than a tenth of a second… Thus, four to five words per second even allows good readers time for other processing operations. Both rapid processing and automaticity in word recognition (for a large number of words) typically require thousands of hours of practice in reading.

Reading skill requires well-trained networks for parsing syntax

In addition to word recognition, a fluent reader is able to take in and store words together so that basic grammatical information can be extracted… to support clause-level meaning. Syntactic parsing helps to disambiguate the meanings of words that have multiple meanings out of context (e.g. bank, cut, drop).

Reading skill requires well-trained networks for assembling clauses

A third basic process that starts up automatically as we begin any reading task is the process of combining word meanings and structural information into basic clause-level meaning units (semantic proposition formation). Words that are recognised and kept active for one to two seconds, along with grammatical cueing, give the fluent reader time to integrate information in a way that makes sense in relation to what has been read before. As meaning elements are introduced and then connected, they become more active in memory and become central ideas if they are repeated or reactivated multiple times. Each semantic proposition reflects the key elements of the input (word and structure) and also highlights linkages across important units (in this case, verbs), where relevant. Semantic propositions are formed in this way and a propositional network of text meaning is created.

Reading skill requires forming networks connecting text

As clause-level meaning units are formed (drawing on information from syntactic parsing and semantic proposition formation), they are added to a growing network of ideas from the text. The new clauses may be hooked into the network in a number of ways: through the repetition of an idea, event, object or character; by reference to the same thing, but in different words; and through simple inferences that create a way to link a new meaning unit to the appropriate places in the network… As the reader continues processing text information, and new meaning units are added, those ideas that are used repeatedly and that form usable linkages to other information begin to be viewed as the main ideas of the text… they become, and remain, more active in the network. Ideas that do not play any further roles in connecting new information…, or that do not support connecting inferences, lose their activity quickly and fade from the network. In this way, less important ideas tend to get pruned from the network, and only the more useful and important ideas remain active.

Reading skill requires forming networks summarizing ideas

As the reader continues to build an understanding of the text, the set of main ideas that the reader forms is the text model of comprehension. The text model amounts to an internal summary of main ideas… Background knowledge… plays a supporting role and helps the reader anticipate the discourse organisation of the text…

Reading skill requires forming networks modeling narratives

At the same time…, the reader begins to project a likely direction that the reading will take. This reader interpretation (the situation model of reader interpretation) is built on and around the emerging text model. The ability of fluent readers to integrate text and background information appropriately and efficiently is the hallmark of expert reading in a topical domain (e.g. history, biology, psychology).

Reading skill requires controlling attention

…we know that an executive control processor (or monitor) represents the way that we focus selective attention while comprehending, assess our understanding of a text and evaluate our success. Our evaluation of how well we comprehend the text is dependent on an executive control processor.

Reading skill compacts multilevel information into working memory

…the many processes described here all occur in working memory, and they happen very quickly… Roughly, in each and every two seconds of reading, fluent readers:

  1. focus on and access eight to ten word meanings
  2. parse a clause for information and form a meaning unit
  3. figure out how to connect a new meaning unit into the growing text model
  4. check interpretation of the information according to their purposes, feelings, attitudes and background expectations, as needed
  5. monitor their comprehension, make appropriate inferences as needed, shift strategies and repair misunderstanding, as needed
  6. resolve ambiguities, address difficulties and critique text information, as needed [1]

  1. Grabe, William Peter, and Fredricka L. Stoller. Teaching and researching reading. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2011, pp. 13-23.

Nonfiction narratives help us see how new information fits together

A storyteller’s hands grasp an unseen object, illustrating nonfiction narratives, which are complex and embedded

Nonfiction narratives give us the stories we crave

…when I read the best analytic writing… it often feels like a story to me. The writing unfolds. I enjoy the playing out of ideas and positions, the ways they conflict, the ways questions are raised and explored—the way they are narrated. All of these writers are masters of the embedded story that grounds any point in live experience, which gives it what rhetoricians call presence.

So here is my modest proposition—that narrative is the deep structure of all good writing. All good writing. “Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend on it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, of explaining”…even research reports must tell a story.

We never really read for raw information. We can’t.

So-called “informational texts” work only when the writer has been able to establish a set of expectations to drive the reading. This frame stabilizes the reading, gives it purpose, provides a pattern to place the “information” in.

Nonfiction narratives are journeys we take with the writers

Reading, as I am describing it, is not a treasure hunt for the main idea; it is a journey we take with a writer.

Extended informational writing is mediated by a teller; someone is guiding us through facts, theories, or perspectives. We can sense his or her cognitive energy, the fascination with the topic, the delight in the odd and unexpected fact, the sense of irony or humor that leavens even writing on the most serious topics. There is a relationship, a trust even.

When, in the name of pure objectivity, these traits are withheld (usually the case with textbooks), we have difficulty reading; the writing is called academic, synonymous, in the public mind at least, with dullness. Or to use a term from the field of reading, these texts are inconsiderate.

Nonfiction narratives aren’t like textbooks

Whenever I raise the question of comprehending nonfiction, someone asks, How will your ideas help students read textbooks? The short answer is, they won’t.

Textbooks are not read—that is, they do not require sustained attention to the development of an idea, the kind of reading that it might take to read an essay in The Atlantic or a professional research article.

Take, for example, a standard high school text like Biology (Biggs, Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, & National Geographic Society, 2007), which weighs in at a hefty 6.2 pounds. For all its bulk, students are rarely asked to read more than three paragraphs before a text break or a new topic occurs. The writing itself seems geared for presenting terminology (all bolded) rather than for engaging a reader. Two or three terms are introduced per page, for a total of approximately 1,500 terms for the entire book. The pages are extraordinarily busy, with sidebars, photos, and diagrams, all distracting in a People Magazine sort of way. So what we have is essentially a dictionary with elaborated definitions.

Nonfiction narratives embed tensions and resolutions that embed information

In the classification schemes of the most respected literacy educators… informational reading is “efferent” and functional, a carrying away, in this case, of information.

Take, for example, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer… What I got was the experience of being with the author as he led me through the cycles of hope and defeat, the carnage of so many patients in such grueling trials, and the hesitant but steady progress of researchers. I retain the sensation of cancer itself becoming the main character of the book—evasive, adaptive, persistent, multiple, an adversary of extraordinary wiliness and devastation. I retain these narrative contours—and the information I retain adheres to them.

…to be taken into a book like The Emperor of All Maladies is to move outside ourselves and to be present as a first-rate mind explains the science and human drama of cancer research.

These writers never leave narrative far behind. Instead, they use narrative in more complex and embedded ways.[2]

  1. “stories. for grownups.” Accessed 11 Mar. 2017.
  2. Newkirk, Thomas. “How We Really Comprehend Nonfiction.” Educational Leadership 69.6 (Mar. 2012): 29-32.

Print exposure potently builds up cognitive ability


Television… is not the great information machine… …exposure to television… did not predict additional variance over and above… ability…

…when speculating about variables in people’s ecologies that could account for cognitive variability—in an attempt to supplement purely genetic accounts of mental ability…—researchers should find print exposure worth investigating, because such variables must have the requisite potency to perform their theoretical roles. A class of variables that might have such potency would be one that has long-term effects because of its repetitive or cumulative action. Schooling is obviously one such variable… …print exposure is another variable that accumulates over time into enormous individual differences. …these individual differences are associated to a strong degree with individual differences in general knowledge.

…individual differences in declarative knowledge bases—differences emphasized by many contemporary theories of developmental growth—appear to some extent to be experientially based, and the experience that has a particularly close link with these individual differences seems to be print exposure…

Print exposure… determines individual differences in knowledge bases, which in turn influence performance on a variety of basic information processing tasks…

…the more avid readers in our study—independent of their general abilities—knew more about how a carburetor worked, were more likely to know that Vitamin C was in citrus fruits, knew more about how lending rates affect car payments, were more likely to know who their U.S. Senators were, knew more about broiling food, were more likely to know what a stroke was, were more likely to know what a capital-intensive industry was, and were more likely to know who the United States was fighting with and who it was fighting against in World War II.

Print exposure accounted for a sizable portion of variance in measures of general knowledge, even after variance associated with general cognitive ability was partialed out. There does appear to be differential exposure to information, primarily through the medium of reading, and this differential exposure is predictive over and above general cognitive ability. …print exposure… was a more potent predictor than the ability measures. When entered after the print exposure composite, the… cognitive ability measures… accounted for an additional 5.1% of the variance in the knowledge composite scores, considerably less than the 37.1% of the variance accounted for by the print exposure…

…print exposure influences cognitive efficiency.[2]

  1. “Wonder Words… Wisdom, Skill & Virtue.” LifeSuccessCoaching, 30 June 2011, Accessed 20 Nov. 2016.
  2. Stanovich, Keith E., and Anne E. Cunningham. “Where Does Knowledge Come From? Specific Associations between Print Exposure and Information Acquisition.” Journal of Educational Psychology 85.2 (1993): 211-29.