The prevailing wisdom still holds that reading is fundamental. Why then are even our most academically ambitious teens spending so little leisure time with books?
Yes, we live in a multimedia world awash in audiovisual delights. Any argument that people don’t consume enough information or immerse themselves sufficiently in art and stories falls flat in the Internet age. Tweets, emails, and videos may constitute the bulk of our information diets, but too much valuable knowledge is locked up in longform text. The only way to mine those rich veins of meaning is to read.
The funny thing about reading is that just about all of us know how to do it, but not everyone does it well. Even worse, we don’t generally understand that reading is something that can be done better. Practice, in this area as in so many others, makes perfect because reading is a skill.
The primary skill of reading entails recognizing combinations of letters as words and combinations of words as sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. But if you think that mastering those skills accrues mastery in reading, you’ve sorely underestimated what the process really entails. Reading effectively requires so many skills from the ability to engage and anticipate what a writer is saying to a sense of what sentences carry weight and which are filler.
If you want to read faster while understanding what you are reading, read every day.
Technology consultant Tim Tan cogently sums up how this process works on Quora:
Looking back, I’ve come to realize that the sheer act of reading every day was the single most beneficial factor in quickening my speed and enhancing my comprehension. In everything I tried, reading for enjoyment was the most substantial factor in helping me become a better reader. It sounds over-simplified and just like common sense, but it works. I would compare reading to a sport or playing music: practice improves your efficiency and effectiveness. Since we make use of our reading abilities daily, however, it’s much harder to get out of shape or lose some of our capabilities. One of the best things you can do to read faster and think better is find some books that you really love and read as much as you can.
Psychology professors Anne E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich have collaborated extensively on research into what reading does for the mind. The thread that runs through their writing is that that comprehension ability and reading volume are in a reciprocal relationship:
…this very act of reading can help children compensate for modest levels of cognitive ability by building their vocabulary and general knowledge. In other words, ability is not the only variable that counts in the development of intellectual functioning. Those who read a lot will enhance their verbal intelligence; that is, reading will make them smarter.
Even the most simple skills can be sharpened to the finest edges through practice. All of us know how to throw a snowball, even if we haven’t enjoyed that simple pleasure for years. Yet nobody could credibly argue that an amateur ice tosser would be expected to throw more quickly or accurately than a major league pitcher, who has thrown countless pitches on a daily basis with the intention of improving incrementally over time. Anybody on a track to higher education or professional life is looking down the road at a LOT of reading. Start getting better now by reading every day. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you see benefits.