I’ve been reading Frank Smith, Understanding Reading, A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read, fifth edition, Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,1994.
It is nice to be reading a fifth edition. That says that there has been some previous usefulness and that the author/publisher is trying to keep up. More germane to the BLC blog is reflecting on the basic psychological reading processes that Frank Smith describes. Basically, he warns that if reading is done too slowly comprehension will fail. The brain needs the input of many pieces quickly or else the very short term memory drops them and comprehension is blocked. This short time is measured in just a few seconds.
Maybe we can illustrate this with an easy experiment. Take a sentence 12-20 words long. Put each word on a separate piece of paper. Then read each word and turn the page to read the next word. Frank Smith is saying that when we get to the last page our comprehension will have dropped into a very poor or negligible range. This can be done right now, too, without multiple pieces of paper. Take one piece of paper with a slit that is big enough for about 7-10 letters, go down two or three paragraphs on this blog and start reading where you only let one word become visible at a time. Alternatively, as briefly as possible, glance away between each word. Or simply pronounce each word by itself before going to the next word. How is comprehension, or its lack thereof?
That observation of needing basic fluency for good reading comprehension has a ring of truth. However, it raises several questions when one considers second language acquisition.
First of all, it implies to me that reading at the ‘speed of speech’ or faster is a necessary goal of a good reading program. Reading slower than such a speed will guarantee extreme inefficiency and/or poor to dismal comprehension.
However, once we accept the goal of good comprehension and a decent reading speed, we face another hurdle. How do we explain what goes on in most ancient language classrooms? How do they process a sentence of disjointed parts? Apparently a reader in a second language who does not have sufficient vocabulary and structural mastery to read long stretches of text on the fly must re-read and build several modules of ‘medium-term’ memory. That is, a person must use a lot of processing energy to put a word or structure into a retrieval capability and then re-read a sentence/passage several times, building up various pieces until a satisfying comprehensive sense is obtained and the reader can move on. Wow, just describing such a process is tiring and such a process still does not guarantee good comprehension.
Professor Smith is not directly concerned in this book with the questions that I raise for second language acquisition, nor did he describe the paragraph above. However, it seems a reasonable extrapolation from what I’ve been reading. And it underlines a basic idea that such a collapsing, approach to reading with multiple starts on each sentence should not be called ‘reading’ and is no way to appreciate a literature. To borrow Anna Phillip’s imagery from her SBL presentation in SF: she talked about taking a text, a cup of warm cocoa, and getting comfortable near a fireplace on a wintery day. That pleasurable image probably represents what many students would like to achieve when then begin to study a foreign language with a goal of reading the literature. That is probably the goal, or should be the goal, of any who want to read a canonical text, the Hebrew Bible, the Greek New Testament, or any highly valued literature.
Well, Frank Smith’s book doesn’t answer the question of how to attain such reading speeds, reading comfort, and better comprehension in a second language. It simply points out that speed is a necessity. Those who have been working with BLC are already aware that we take such goals seriously. It is certainly true that rapidly interacting in an oral environment leads to improved senses of reading. This underlines the answer to a question that we receive over and over–“if reading is the goal, why does BLC demand listening and speech?” Ans: “We talk alot in biblical Hebrew, in class and in recordings, because we want everyone to be good readers. People need to process a language at the speed of speech to be good readers.”