Reading Without Understanding: A Worrying Trend

09 February, 2021
Do you remember the last time you read a book without getting distracted, tired, or interrupted by anything or anyone? Do you read without understanding?

When the new year started, maybe your resolutions were pretty traditional and common. Whatever the case, this is always the chance to ask yourself what really defines you and what you want to discover. This is something you can certainly find in books. However, have you fallen into the trap of reading without understanding?

Dedicating time to reading is positive. There’s no better way to see not only the outside world but also your inner world in a new light.

However, do you really understand what you read? Do you really assimilate everything that a book can bring you? Books are an immense source of knowledge, but also of pleasure, and, most often, what attracts us to them is pure entertainment.

The reality is that you can easily overlook some of their most enriching benefits, such as their infinite and valuable wealth of instruction and wisdom. Today we ask the question: are you reading without understanding?

A woman reading.

Skim reading: reading without understanding

Once again, Santa Claus probably visited your house on Christmas Eve, loaded with gifts. Among them, he certainly brought some of the most common gifts of recent years. Of course, we’re talking about iPads, tablets, smartphones, and video games. These electronic items relegate books into second place.

People consider this to be quite normal these days, but it’s a worrying trend. Young people are dedicating less and less time to quality reading and understanding.

A Doctor of Philosophy, Ziming Liu, from San Jose State University in California, has conducted several studies on a practice commonly known as skimming.

In 2005, he conducted a study entitled “Reading behavior in the digital environment: Changes in reading behavior over the past ten years”. In it, Liu concluded that the digital screen-based reading behavior of our time is characterized by spending more time engaged in skimming and scanning, keyword spotting, one-time reading, non-linear reading, and selective reading.

People spend less time on in-depth reading and concentrated reading. In addition, he also observed a considerable decrease in sustained attention to the text.

Diagonal reading, the most common trend among young people

Diagonal reading (sometimes called “Z” reading) is a consciously employed method that consists of reading the first line of a paragraph and, without concentrating on any particular word, scanning diagonally from the left side to the right-hand corner.

This is somewhat similar to “skimming”. The person’s mind will stop only on the words that stand out most to them.

Sadly, this is a very common tendency in young people these days. It’s a quick and distilled way of reading that allows them to assimilate certain concepts they’ve seen in books. They then make these concepts their own as if they’d really understood the full context they’d extracted them from.

This is a method that, for Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, goes against the very nature of reading. She herself clarifies in her reports that reading requires specific surroundings and specific conducive and fundamental phases in order for it to culminate in real knowledge.

If we skip any of these stages, the results will be incomplete and, in many cases, even incorrect. Thus, if we know that we often fall into the trap of reading without understanding, and that this can lead us to wrong conclusions, why do we do it? What’s the reason behind it?

Someone with an electronic reader.

The “age of anxiety” prevents us from quietly sitting down to read a book

The current culture of immediacy is a concept that’s closely linked to technology. We want everything quickly and immediately.

However, the problem is that we just can’t treat reading this way. Reading is an activity that requires concentration, calmness, and patience in order to understand certain concepts or expressions in any given text. The results and benefits from reading are obtained gradually, little by little.

Expert psychologists from the University of Houston in Texas conducted another study on this topic. It was published in Child Psychiatry & Human Development in 2012. In it, they analyzed the influence of anxiety on reading habits among elementary school children in the United States.

Their conclusion was that performance drops considerably in both boys and girls who suffered from it. The report identified anxiety, and especially the type associated with technology, as a detrimental agent for reading comprehension and academic performance.

Reading is a process that doesn’t only challenge us to understand the words or punctuation in a text. We also take on the mission of understanding broad perspectives in what we read.

We need to understand the historical context or period the book was written in, the use of language in a literal or figurative sense, and the message that’s being transmitted, among other things.

Grills-Taquechel, A.E., Fletcher, J.M., Vaughn, S.R. et al. Anxiety and Reading Difficulties in Early Elementary School: Evidence for Unidirectional- or Bi-Directional Relations?. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev 43, 35–47 (2012).

Reading Behavior in the Digital Environment: Changes in Reading Behavior Over the Past Ten Years
December 2005Journal of Documentation