Recently I read a research article on reading by Dinsmore and Alexander (2012) in which they reviewed the research on how readers process text while reading. They found that most researchers generally agreed that reading is a thinking activity that takes place on two different levels simultaneously. They proposed that when good readers read they engage with the text at a surface-level and also at a deep-level of processing.
On reflection, these two processes are important for effective reading comprehension to take place. However, reading involves more than decoding and interpreting a written message, it also involves an analysis of the reading process itself and how the message will impact the reader's view of the world. What I am proposing is that there are not two but three levels of processing during reading: a stepping forward, a stepping into, and a stepping back.
At the surface-level readers decode the surface or physical features of the text itself. They generally do this by focusing on the written message by identifying letters, clusters of letters, words, and clusters of words in order to follow the text discourse. As they do this they often sub-vocalise or speak the written words in their heads. I refer to this process as a stepping forward. In stepping forward the reader must process larger amounts of text in order to decode the message more efficiently because working memory has a limited capacity and too many small bits of information can stifle this stepping forward process. Thus, for reading to progress well the reader must touch as fewer bases as possible by sampling some of the surface features of the text and filling in the missing details from their long-term memory. This recognition process eliminates redundancy and ignores the non essential information that would clutter their working-memory. The surface information is processed not as verbatim strings of letters and words or word-for-word but as small chunks of meaning called propositions. Many children step forward with their reading but many do not go any deeper than merely decoding the surface features of the text.
The stepping into of text processing operates when readers enter a deep-level of processing. This is the mental space where information is transacted and transformed. For example, the propositions made during the stepping forward are transformed by the reader's ability to develop inferences while reading. Usually inferences are formed when readers link ideas from one part of the text to another or by creating bridging inferences by combining existing information from the reader's own background knowledge to fill in the gaps. This mental activity is often required because texts would be too long and copious if all the information were to be supplied. Therefore, authors naturally expect that readers will draw from their own world experience. This is a type of two way constructive mental process that seeks to build a situation model of what the reader is comprehending during reading.
Stepping back is a third level of processing but is not often included in discussions about levels of processing. However, this is possibly the most important element of information processing. The term stepping back implies that readers step back, or change their perspective from a focus on the surface features and on the meaning of the text to one of examining the reader's own thinking processes before, during, and after reading. In other words, it is like having a bird's eye view of the reading terrain. Readers do this by; setting goals for the reading, monitoring their reading, and then reflecting on their reading performance and reading goals. This stepping back also affects the readers' ideas, opinions, and responses. It may also affect the readers' self-efficacy and their self-perception as a reader (see next blog series).
|Mother and son using the 10 Principles for Assisting Reading.|
What does this mean for the reader?
- Obviously unless you can step forward it is not possible to step into or to step back. The reader must be able to negotiate the surface features of the text. In my first series of blogs (10 Principles for Assisting Reading) I describe how to assist novice or reluctant readers. In another 10 part series I discuss fluency, another important aspect of stepping forward.
- Stepping into involves using working memory more efficiently, as discussed in my 10 part series on working memory. The next series, Visualizing and Reading Comprehension, discusses the use of visualization techniques as way to bring together many aspects of stepping into reading.
- Some basic aspects of stepping back were also discussed in the working memory series. For example, goal setting, monitoring, and reflection were stepping-back skills (more ideas in the next 10 part series on metacognition).
Dinsmore, D., & Alexander, P. A. (2012). A critical discussion of deep and surface processing: What it means, how is measured, the role of context, and model specification. Educational Psychology Review, 24, 499-567.