15 November 2012

Some thoughts about skimming

I made a rather interesting observation a few weeks back and have been curious about its implications ever since — maybe some (Catherine Johnson?) can shed some light on it.

I spend a lot of time pestering my students not to skip around randomly when they read. Skipping around strategically is fine, as in once you’ve got the main point, you can save loads of time by just focusing on topic sentences/places that the author clearly indicates are important, but reading part of a sentence and then skipping down four lines because you feel like it is not fine.

As a result, I spend a lot of time reminding people to read sentences in order from left to right and not to skip around internally within them, picking out random bits without understanding their context.

But here’s what I’ve realized: I don’t do what I tell my students to do. I don’t read sentences in order from left to right. On the contrary, I absorb huge blocks of text in “gulps,” picking out the important words/phrases/punctuation marks almost as soon as I look at the page. That’s why I read so fast. I don’t actually figure out the meaning of what I’m reading word by word — which is how my students read — but rather all at once.

I do recognize that my ability to read SAT passages so quickly is exaggerated because I read them thematically, looking for tropes that will allow me to “slot” them into a particular category and give me the point almost instantaneously, but that’s largely a result of 1) my familiarity with the test, and 2) the fact that I have enough general familiarity with most of the topics on the SAT, as well as the standard debates surrounding them, that I don’t have to think particularly hard to understand what’s being said and why.

But as for the reading in chunks piece, I’m pretty sure I read this way — or at least close to this way — when I was in high school. I think I was already reading that way when I was in elementary school.

The question is “how?”

No one ever taught me to speed-read. I just picked it up from reading so much. But how exactly did that leap occur? How does someone go from reading word-to-word to reading in blocks? And how do you teach someone to do that? How much content knowledge does a person need to have for that kind of reading to be effective?

I don’t know the answers. But I’m getting really curious. Anyone?

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