Why The Way We Read Sucks, And How To Fix It: Part 1

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Why The Way We Read Sucks, And How To Fix It

There’s so much I want to say on this topic. But it would take too long to put it all together, so I’m going to do what we always do here at AJATT — give it to you piecemeal.

As with everything on this site, the advice here is just based on my personal experience. I’m not an expert. Take what works, leave what doesn’t — the overall principles matter more than the minutiae of technique. Your mileage may vary and all that (then again, I am quite confident that it won’t vary by that much — otherwise I wouldn’t be writing it, eh lads, eh?).

Also, an interesting thing happened. While I originally intended this advice to be specifically directed towards languages we suck at (i.e. early- and mid-stage foreign languages), I soon found that it applied just as well to reading languages where we have native-level skill. Yay!

Anyway, first, a little bit about:

The Sucky Way We Read

By “how we read”, I mean “how we are taught to read in school”. Fortunately for me, growing up, I did a lot (indeed, most) of my reading entirely outside of the school framework, so for a long time I wasn’t “infected” as much by the school disease — at the very least, I was asymptomatic for many years.

But over time, it did get to me as well. So much so that I had to reach back into my childhood and reflect on what I had been doing outside of school, why it was so much fun, and why it worked so well, in order to get my then-stalled reading habits back on track (in the early years of my adult life, I went through a stage where I was basically not doing any reading, despite having a strong desire to read and a history of reading).

The style of reading that is typically taught and/or encouraged in school is all about:

  • Hitting every single word.
  • No change of pace or shifting gears.
  • No skipping unless teacher says so. Any self-directed skipping is “cheating”, and is to be punctuated by feelings of guilt and remorse (aren’t these, like, synonyms?).
  • Zero or severely limited choice in terms of start time, stop time and duration.
  • Zero or severely limited in terms of reading material, with no option to change after initial choice.
  • The order in which the book is written and presented is the One, True and Only Correct Order. You have no right to permute it or ignore it. You earn the right to read page p+1 only after perfectly reading page p.

It’s no wonder that so many adults never pick up another real book once they leave school. If you’d never ever been allowed to set or change the channel on your TV, and never been taught that you even had the right or ability to make such a judgment call, then you’d probably hate TV, too — no matter how many “TV-worms” (think: bookworm) told you that TV was the shizzle and that there were tons of great channels and shows out there.

The above is a style of reading that is, on the surface, well -suited to an early-stage student. After all, does someone who can barely read or who barely knows the subject matter at hand, really have the ability to decide where and what to skip? (Actually my answer to that is “yes”, but, school’s answer tends to be a resounding “no”).

Why How We Read Sucks

My guess is that the core reason why this reading style came about in the first place is because, at one time, in many parts of the world, there simply weren’t that many books, period. So, reading one book a year was fine, since you only owned one book and maybe had access to a few more. Oftentimes, the books in question were these massive, dense, metaphor-laden sacred texts, which probably do lend themselves to a special style of reading (then again, judging by how few people of any religious persuasion actually read sacred texts, perhaps these too could benefit from techniques like those I’m intending to share).

Of course, things have changed. A lot. At least in terms of the number of books available. But in most schools and classes, the reign of tyranny of a single source of information continues. Moreover, the semi-compulsive behavior of reading (or, attempting to read) every-single-word-on-every-single-page-so-you-get-exactly-what-was-said-and-don’t-miss-a-single-thing is exacerbated by the earnest student’s fear of “missing” something that might be “on the test”. In fact, many tests are designed to reward this one-tree-matters-more-than-the-entire-forest type of reading.

There’s just no sense of priority; everything becomes equally important. It’s as if the Pareto Principle never existed. Indeed, some people might argue that that was the point: it is said that most school systems in the world today are based on a design that aims to produce compliant, docile factory workers — people who unquestioningly obey pre-made decisions, not people who make them. Those who go on to be managers get let in on the secret that most decisions are arbitrary, but people lower down on the ladder are to be left in the dark, believing that the pre-made decisions are absolute, based on the perfect or near-perfect knowledge of their elders and betters (“experts”, “superiors”), and carrying all the weight of divine decree.

OK, social engineering, blah blah whatever. Let’s not get too worked up. The deeper problem is that to force yourself to read everything is to force yourself out of your growth/true-comfort zone and into either your boredom zone or your panic zone (both of which are places where you are just going to…wait for the pun…”zone out”).

This leads to stress. Stress makes you forgetful: short-term memory gets pwned. No short term memory → no long-term memory. No long-term memory → no learning new information. No new information → less intelligent choices, far less brilliant flashes of insight. Less intelligent choices → more stupid choices. In short, the way school typically teaches us to read, makes us stupid. As in, Republican Gilmore Girls the end of Prison Break running out of cheap jokes stupid. The phrase “dumbing down” starts to take on a whole new meaning..

And now that we’re done complaining and making sweeping judgments and dubious historical references, it’s time to talk about how to fix the problem! But for that, dear children of the AJATT, ye shall have to wait for the very forthcoming sequel to this article — part deux! Wherein shall be demonstrated reading techniques that can help you have more fun reading any language, including Japanese.

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  28 comments for “Why The Way We Read Sucks, And How To Fix It: Part 1

  1. October 29, 2009 at 19:46

    Great post. I think this is entirely right. I am trying to re-train myself to read as the amount of reading that is currently required of me is more than my style of reading allows. It’s funny, I find it much easier to skip over things when I am reading Japanese (to get the bigger picture, as it were) than when I am reading in English when I feel more obligated to check that I understand everything perfectly. Hopefully, with some practice, I can improve….

    Anyway, I enjoy your blog a lot: thought I would stop lurking…

  2. Jen
    October 29, 2009 at 19:50

    Hmmm, from my experience, that was not what reading at school was like at all. When I was reading stuff for my English Literature classes, fine, we had no choice in what we were reading and we had to read it all properly and understand everything, but that was the only time I ever felt like I was being forced to read something that I didn’t want to at school (and I actually loved a couple of the books that we studied and had read them of my own free will before anyway)…
    I guess you must have gone to a different kind of school to me (I went to a bog standard primary/comprehensive in the UK)…

    Although, the way that we were taught to read when using a foreign language (German) was appalling, and the texts ridiculously boring for the most part.

    I do definitely impose the,”you must read everything in sequence and to the end” rule on myself (unless I am reading in an academic way, where I only really need one chapter or whatever), which doesn’t bother me at all in English, but I would like to break out of that mindset with Japanese, as sometimes it means that I lose motivation to read at all (even when I know that I enjoy it really)

    So I am looking forward to your advice in your next post!

  3. Eldon
    October 29, 2009 at 19:50

    Ahh, good old idiot-producing school. I’m inclined to agree with that, since most people at my school didn’t like reading simply because they had to do boring/rubbish set texts. Hell, even some of the teachers didn’t like the set list – one got my class to do an entire piece of GCSE coursework from a week or so’s teaching by only looking at the first chapter and no further – although I guess he was moving away from what you’ve described.

    Nice article 😀

  4. WC
    October 29, 2009 at 20:16

    It’ll be interesting to see how you propose to fix this problem.

    I read -very- fast in English and can skim pages quickly to determine if there’s anything worthwhile to read on it. (In fact, I just did this with half the Wheel of Time books, since the latter ones were so amazingly boring except for a few chapters.)

    I read -very- slow in Japanese and can’t skim at all or I get nothing from it. Granted, once I can read Japanese well, I expect to get more from skimming it than Japanese thanks to the miracle of kanji, but that’s a long ways off.

    There is a lot of reading-every-word-on-the-page left to do before my Japanese reading skill comes anywhere close to my English reading skill.

  5. Emagale
    October 29, 2009 at 23:19

    I too had a very different experience reading in school, especially in my foreign language classes–we were always encouraged to focus on what we did know, and skip what we didn’t (especially at beginning levels). And lo and behold, our teachers’ promise that we would figure out what we didn’t know from context, or it wouldn’t be that important anyway, was usually true. Now I’m a language teacher myself (don’t hate me) and I use the same technique with my students. While you will no doubt disagree with me, and I should probably wait for your next article before commenting, I think this is one place where classes are useful. In my experience, giving most beginning students a text meant for native speakers and saying “read” is an express ticket to a long, tortuous journey through the pain zone with only the dictionary for company. Yet if they read this same text in class, there are the following advantages: 1) constant reinforcement (from the teacher) to stop freaking out when they don’t know something, and focus on what they do know. 2) the help of their classmates (more brains are better than one). 3) a time limit (you have 15 minutes to read this article because that’s how long it will take you to find what you know in it– something a good teacher should know about their students–and even if it sucks it will only suck for 15 minutes, not the three hours it would take you to look up every single word. Now the teacher in this case is still choosing the text (and choosing it very carefully I might add), but there are teachers who come in with a choice of articles, or even require students to bring in their own material for reading class. So, I’m not sure how well-founded your spurning of reading in school is–no doubt there are bad cases, but in my opinion there are some good ones too. In any case, despite our differing views on the usefulness of classes, I look forward to your suggestions for reading!

  6. Drewskie
    October 30, 2009 at 03:31

    I bought manga when I started sentences a month ago, and THIS is why I have only read it a single time.

    Well-timed article, Khatz. Thanks.

  7. Ian
    October 30, 2009 at 04:48

    Here’s a decent article that outlines some of the main techniques for learning to read faster and more efficiently.

    artofmanliness.com/2009/10/18/how-to-speed-read-like-theodore-roosevelt/

  8. Lauren
    October 30, 2009 at 05:00

    I’m so glad you wrote this. It pointed out to me that I have the exact same problem – when I was a kid I read like crazy and now I read very little because I have an OCD-like insistence on reading *every* word. Which slows me down and totally takes the fun out of it.

    I’m really glad you’re taking on traditional schooling, because it really is terrible, yet so few people seem to recognize this.

  9. October 30, 2009 at 05:23

    I’m having fun reading, but I’d like some advice on the AntiMoon “slow reading” method.

  10. October 30, 2009 at 05:52

    I just had an idea Katsumoto, and that’s that people are generally on two poles in terms of character and study. Those that are too hard on themselves, always thinking of practical ways to improve, and in the end never having any fun, never getting anywhere.

    There are the others that have no problem having fun, but tend to be not ‘goal focused’, so they don’t get anywhere as fast as the might if they were more goal oriented, more practical.

    The ideal student is someone who is goal oriented, always pushes their self, but also is always easy on their self, and always has fun.

    You’re always pushing the ‘have fun’ but you should push the goal oriented stuff too. I think some percentage of people want guidance in that realm.

  11. Ken
    October 30, 2009 at 08:57

    I’m gonna go home, get out my るろうに剣心, and skim it. I’m gonna look at all the pictures, and only pick up a few words per page. And I’m not even gonna feel guilty, because Khatzu sensei totally said it was OK, mom!

  12. October 30, 2009 at 09:29

    You know those books where you just can’t put them down and you end up staying up all night reading just cuz the story’s so gripping, and you end up sleeping in late for work the next day? That’s how your language study materials should be.

  13. Jimbo
    October 30, 2009 at 14:03

    How would you deal with reading, say, a philosophy text like Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” or Heidegger’s “Being and Time”? I thought getting every word was kind of the point?

  14. アメド
    October 30, 2009 at 14:50

    hmmm i don’t know if anyone interested in going beyond the initial 2042 kanji needed for Japanese or not. I already did up to 3007 and up to 1800 sentences. But hmm i might want to try and go up to 6000 kanji cuz i surfing the net and found kanji kentai en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanji_kentei

    Anyhow it tests for 6000 kanji!!!!. To be honest one of the reasons i want to go far and learn the meanings/writing of them all is cuz i want to head towards manadarin/cantonese after japanese. Since they all use the same characters knowing large amounts would be easy to transfer over once I’ve reached a good level in Japanese. But i think for the kanji kentai you need to know large amounts of vocab. in order to use the kanji past 2042 so hmm. I guess it’s best for ppl to learn how to use initial 2042 then head towards 3007 then beyond. I heard that are university graduates in china know around 5000-6000 characters. This is standard there but in japanese knowing this amount would lead to high levels of reading/writing as well. But i also read that heisig i think is going to make 4000+ characters and ultimate goal of 10,000 characters. But first things first get fluent in japanese!!! then learn wayyy moreeee characters!!!

  15. Drewskie
    October 30, 2009 at 18:15

    Seth, since Khatzumoto clearly took a vow of comment-silence a while back (I assume because comments became Q-and-A-tzumoto time), I’ll respond to that with a link to this post,

    www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/2008/page/7

    Khatzumoto was also too goal-oriented once, but in his teaching style. He taught goal-orientation a little too much, and people reacted the wrong way. Maybe he overcorrected, but I think that’s probably for the better. Nobody will not-learn Japanese by having too much fun and not focusing on a goal. Nobody will walk away hating the language and cursing all the time they wasted watching good anime and reading good manga and listening to good music and reading good websites etc etc.

    But people will focus on the goal too much. They’ll do that all on their own (myself included). I imagine very few people set out to learn Japanese without a goal in mind. We all want fluency. Khatz deliberately steers us away* from that mindset and to a mindset that guarantees language acquisition, even if it’s not on a perfect timescale. People who work well with goals will cling to their goals and be better for it, and that’s that.

    *If it weren’t for the fact that I can cite sources there, I’d definitely feel like a preacher for the Church of AJATT after writing that.

  16. BA
    October 30, 2009 at 19:27

    I deliberately buy dipping books (that is, books which don’t have a narrative, where each chapter is stand-alone), so that I can choose what I want to read, and how much, and which topic, without having to feel guilty or getting confused when I find out I’ve skipped the bit about character A’s neurotic breakdown.

    I’ve also given up on forcing myself to read to the end of something. In fact, I have a new rule, whereby if I find myself counting the number of pages until the end of the chapter, then I put the book down, and choose another. Just because I’ve said I’ll read for a bit doesn’t mean I have to read it all from the same book.

  17. Fdsfdaafsd
    October 30, 2009 at 21:43

    Drewkie well Khatz may be goal driven but I believe that’s a good thing too. I seriously believe you can learn Japanese without having a goal. You must have something if you want to learn Japanese. So there must be something keeping you attach. You are right studies have shown that people who write down their goals have a higher chance of suceeding and becoming more successful. He just wants us to have fun and not be bored. In some of his posts he says “Dicipline is just remembering what you want” so he gives some ways to do that which is by blocking English websites. Thrust me people are used to things. That could be a bad thing or a good thing depending on your situation. Thrust me if you’ve been doing 6 months Japanese without touching or hearing English for a long time you will be use to it. Even if you’ve been doing 1 month of Japanese like I have hardcore you will find your mind is changing slowly. I have just weirdly sometimes me thinking in Japanese like randomly in my head. Sometimes when I’m speaking in another language i know a Japanese word sometimes slips out for some random reason.

    Also this will lead to isolation. Espicially if you have a random mind like me. It doesn’t matter who you are you live in a English society you will be isolated. It’s not lonely hardcore isolation but it’s more like your being treated differnt. I have no idea if this will work that should be included for all of you. I will still do it because I truly believe Khatz learned this way. I will continue to live on as that proof. Besides have fun and use common sense. In some situations in life rarely sometimes you have to defy all logic to make up your own. That’s how world history was invented. 😀

  18. Ben
    October 31, 2009 at 03:25

    BEST place to find new Japanese music!!!~ www.jpopasia.com/genres//

  19. angela
    October 31, 2009 at 06:20

    hey there I love all your posts, I always feel so refreshed after wards. This one is no exception, I look forward to part 2! by the way I read another users post somewhere and he mentioned the idea of creating ajatt t-shirts! this would be a great idea! I think that would be a great way to get people to donate too! you could maybe on the front have one of your cartoons and then on the back maybe have in big characters ”勝元” with a quote in japanese. anyways that idea really seemed cool to me and i would proudly wear/support you/your method/your site! please consider it! by the way keep twittering away; I enjoy reading your little words of witty wisdom.

  20. lucy
    July 10, 2010 at 18:14

    That is so right. My teachers will ask me every single word on the page and if I can’t give the meaning of the word, she’ll give a very thick book and tell me to search every word that I don’t understand. It was horrible.

    But I can say that I still read all the time, and I skim every book I read. Only after I finished the book and find it quite good will I then read the book again in detail.

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