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What competent reading involves

Reading is a complex process. Let us stop and consider what is involved as you, a competent reader, read this line aloud.

First, you must be motivated to read it, otherwise you would not bother. Secondly, you must be able to focus your attention on the text, undistracted by what is going on around you or by other thoughts. Then you must clearly see the shapes of the letters so that they can be transmitted to your brain. You must be able to let your eyes scan the letters from left to right, while at the same time breaking up the string of letters into words, words into phrases, and phrases into sentences. The shapes of the letters you see must be transmitted in sequence to the brain, their exact position in space retained. This is crucial: a picture of a cat remains a cat whether it is upside-down or on its side—a ‘p’ upside down is not a ‘p’ any more, it is a ‘d’.Your brain must be able to recognize letters even if they are printed in an unusual typeface, in capitals, or in italics.

As a competent reader, the process that takes place in your brain as you read is an automatic one. You have an in-built store of words in your brain, known as a ‘lexicon’, that recognizes familiar words. Even unfamiliar words are generally decoded by your lexicon. This is done by a process of ‘lexical analogy’, where the lexicon searches for a familiar word on which to base the pronunciation of the unfamiliar word. The context in which the unfamiliar word is found will also influence its pronunciation.

This introduces us to the other important aspect of reading: comprehension. The lexicon is connected to a kind of dictionary in the brain, known as a ‘semantic system’. This stores the meaning of all the words you know and allows all known words to be matched to their meanings.

Throughout this process you will need to remember the meanings of the words you have read so that you do not forget the first words of the paragraph by the time you reach the end. The meaning of sentences will also need to be remembered from page to page for the text to be understood.

Is this all? No, we still have not spoken about how your brain will imbue your reading out aloud with expression, different accents, and variations in volume and pitch; all of these require access to other parts of the brain where learned information is stored. And all these processes are carried out simultaneously, and with lightning speed!

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