reading (mental process)

reading, process of mentally interpreting written symbols. Facility in reading is an essential factor in educational progress, and instruction in this basic skill is a primary purpose of elementary education. The ability to read was not considered important for most laymen until sometime after Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing press (c.1450) and the Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on individual interpretation of the Bible. Until that time reading was generally restricted to the clergy and certain members of the nobility. Although illiteracy is still a problem in many areas of the world, compulsory childhood education laws have assured that most citizens of advanced industrial nations can read.

Physiological and psychological studies suggest that the process of reading is based on a succession of quick eye movements, known as fixations, across the written line, each of which lasts for about a quarter of a second. In each fixation more than one word is perceived and interpreted, so that a skilled reader may take in more than three words per fixation when reading easy material. Depending on the rate of fixations and the difficulty of the material, an adult can read and understand anywhere from 200 to 1,000 words per minute.

There has been considerable difference of opinion about the best method of teaching children to read. By the end of the 20th cent. the educational concensus was largely that a combination of phonics, which emphasizes sound, and the whole-language method, which emphasizes meaning, is the most effective way to teach the skill. Most educators also agree on the importance of remedial work for students whose progress is impeded by impaired vision, faulty eye movements, developmental disabilities such as dyslexia, or personal handicaps resulting from poor teaching.


See G. Hildreth, Teaching Reading (1958); I. A. Richards, How to Read a Page (1959); G. Cuomo, Becoming a Better Reader (1960); H. Diack, Reading and the Psychology of Perception (1960); J. S. Chall, Learning to Read: The Great Debate (1967); M. Cox, The Challenge of Reading Failure (1968); M. J. Adler and C. Van Doren, How to Read a Book (rev. ed. 1972); M. C. Robeck and J. A. R. Wilson, Psychology of Reading (1974).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Phonics: Selected full-text books and articles

Phonics Exposed: Understanding and Resisting Systematic Direct Intense Phonics Instruction
Richard J. Meyer.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002
Reading, Language, and Literacy: Instruction for the Twenty-First Century
Fran Lehr; Jean Osborn.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Phonics and Beginning Reading Instruction"
Children Learning to Read: A Guide for Parents and Teachers
Seymour W. Itzkoff.
Praeger, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Slow Reading: Phonics and Decoding"
Investigating the Status and Perceived Importance of Explicit Phonic Instruction in Elementary Classrooms
Shaffer, Gary L.; Campbell, Patricia; Rakes, Sondra.
Reading Improvement, Vol. 37, No. 3, Fall 2000
Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction
Krashen, Stephen.
Reading Improvement, Vol. 39, No. 1, Spring 2002
Early 3 R's: How to Lead Beginners into Reading, Writing, and Arithme-Talk
Lee Mountain.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Get Them Ready for Phonics- Orally"
Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read
Frank Smith.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994 (5th edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Phonics and Mediated Word Identification"
Word Recognition in Beginning Literacy
Jamie L. Metsala; Linnea C. Ehri.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 13 "Phonics and Phonemes: Learning to Decode and Spell in a Literature-Based Program"
Raising Lifelong Learners: A Parent's Guide
Lucy Calkins; Lydia Bellino.
Perseus Publishing, 1998
Librarian’s tip: "The Debate about Phonics" begins on p. 97
Preparing to Teach Writing: Research, Theory, and Practice
James D. Williams.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of phonics begins on p. 103
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