Fluency and reading comprehension

14 September 2011 by Brian Schultz

I just finished reading an interesting article on what I will call the mechanics of reading, entitled “Reading—From Behind the Eyes,” chapter 2 of Frank Smith’s book Reading without Nonsense (3rd ed., New York: Teachers College Press).  In it, Smith makes an interesting observation that I think relates to our goal of reading the Bible in its original languages with as much comprehension as possible.

The author highlights the fact that what makes for easier reading is to avoid what he calls “tunnel vision.”  “Tunnel vision” in this case is not having one’s vision restricted or wrongfully focusing one’s vision on only a part of what can and should be perceived, but that our brains become overloaded with too much information it cannot process in the available time.  The result is that the brain selects a portion of the input and ignores the rest, a kind of self-imposed “tunnel vision.”  (He points out that it has been shown that the brain can only handle a certain amount of visual input, and that this does not change with age, skill or practice.  See p. 16)  If in reading, therefore, one is ‘bombarded’ by too much information that needs to be processed (rather than that which is already familiar), it becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to read.

A first observation is that this helps explain why learning to read Hebrew is so much more of a challenge than learning how to read Greek.  While some Greek letters are different than our English alphabet, many are quite similar.  Additionally, many of the “new” letters correspond to sounds already existing in the English language.  In the end, therefore, the amount of new information our brain has to process in order to read Greek is minimal.  Contrast this to Hebrew.  All the letters are new and seemingly unrelated to the English letters, the direction of reading is different than in English, consonants are represented differently than vowels, there are new sounds, etc.  It is for this reason that I have my Hebrew students read out loud for 10 mns every day, 5 days a week, in addition to the other homework.  Incidentally, I think it is most useful to the student if they can read that with which they are already familiar, as well as have access to the audio of the text they are reading.  In addition to other benefits I believe there are in listening to the language, it is a kind of tool for the student to self-correct their reading and pronunciation.  But in all fairness, I did not need the above article to realize that reading Hebrew is harder than reading Greek for those coming from Latin-based alphabets.

So back to “tunnel vision.”  One of the ways we avoid tunnel vision while reading is by being able to “predict,” so to speak, what might come next as we read.  Smith points out that after any word, an author has an arsenal of 50,00-100,000 words to choose from (in English).  But if I were to ask you to give your best guess as to what word might come after another word (A), you would not feel as though your are having to choose among 50,000+ words.  Rather, word A in and of itself (assuming you know the language well) is allowing you to already restrict your choices from among about 200-300 words only (p. 24).  “Not only do all readers have this prior knowledge of their language—generally without being aware they have it—but also they constantly use the prior knowledge without being aware of it” (p. 22; italics in the original).

The point Smith is trying to make is this: “It is therefore a basic skill of reading… to make maximum use of what you already know and to depend on that information from the eyes as little as possible” (p. 13).

Herein lies the problem with biblical languages.  The current focus of most courses is to get the student to decipher correctly what is on the page so as to be able to translate it.  But this is exactly the opposite of what Smith suggests one ought to be doing when reading for comprehension!  Consider the following paragraph:

If you read too slowly you will get tunnel vision, since the visual system will become clogged with all the visual information you are trying to get from the page.  If you are reluctant to push ahead, reading and rereading in a hapless endeavor to remember every detail, then you will get tunnel vision.  If you strive to get every word right before you look at the next, you will get tunnel vision.  Unfortunately, these bad reading habits are something deliberately taught in the belief that they will help children learn…  [Children] have been influenced too much by an adult who misguidedly says, “Slow down, be careful, and make sure you get every word right.” (p. 29)

But how can it be OK to make mistakes in reading?  Smith obviously had to address that one as well:

Errors need not be a concern in reading, provided the reader is using appropriate nonvisual information.  Such a person reads for meaning.  And if we read for meaning and make a mistake, then the sense of the passage usually alerts us if the mistake we have made makes a difference.  (If the mistake makes no difference, then what difference does it make?)  Thus a good reader is likely to make quite conspicuous misreadings sometimes, like reading apartment rather than house.  And such a reader won’t self-correct unless the misreading makes a difference to meaning.  This is the way fluent readers read. (p. 28; italics in the original)

From between the lines, it becomes obvious that good reading is based on a fluent control of a language. The question I have is this: are we aiming for such familiarity in the biblical languages that our students are able to read and, without thinking, replace a word with a synonym without realizing it, because they are so focused on the meaning of what they are reading?  Obviously, this is not a goal for a first or second year student.  But should it not be the end goal for those students wishing to become scholars and pastors who wish to study the Bible for the rest of their lives as part of their professions?

Few of us who claim to “know” Greek or Hebrew are able to come up with alternative ways a thought could be communicated.  Instead, we have been taught to merely decipher one of the possible ways to express it.  We are reading for ‘decipherment’, focusing on each individual word, but not really for synthesized ‘meaning.’  I am not suggesting that we are not, in the end, getting the meaning of what we are reading.  But we are not reading for meaning, we are not reading “the way fluent readers read.”

Let’s go back to the point about reading too slowly:

If you read too slowly you will get tunnel vision, since the visual system will become clogged with all the visual information you are trying to get from the page.  If you are reluctant to push ahead, reading and rereading in a hapless endeavor to remember every detail, then you will get tunnel vision.  If you strive to get every word right before you look at the next, you will get tunnel vision.

This suggests that when a reader slows down and consciously processes individual words their high-level comprehensive skills are impaired. The implied solution is that one needs a natural fluency in a language in order to do high-level reading. This would even apply to literary analysis and ‘close readings’, where one needs to keep the whole ‘in memory’ while contemplating an author’s choice of pieces.

So how do we get there?  Simply put: increased familiarity with the language.  Or, in other words, working towards fluency—the kind of fluency that can generate several ways to express thoughts and ideas, not just recognize one possible way to do so.  I suspect that anyone intent on production of a language will quickly favor speaking over writing because it is more time-efficient and because the capability of at least processing at the speed of speech is vital for the above reading skills.  This is an important point, because one of the objections against using the communicative approach to teaching biblical languages is: “All we are trying to do is read, not speak it.”  Smith’s study suggests that if we want to be proficient readers, we need the language to begin to flow within us.  As he puts it, we should aim at being able to read “from behind the eyes.”

Categories: ancient language acquisition, Biblical Hebrew, biblical language fluency, Greek pedagogy, Hebrew alive, Koine Greek, Living Koine, Reading biblical languages, second language acquisition

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