Some Thoughts about Reading

Jan 14, 2020 | Posted by Jennifer


Lately I have been thinking more and more about reading. What is reading, exactly? What processes in the brain does it involve? Why do we read? As a dyslexia tutor, I am fascinated with the science behind the act of reading. It is a complex process. Does one’s ability to decode script on a page automatically mean someone is a reader? I have seen more than one student “read” a text flawlessly but not comprehend it. Or does it mean that to be a reader, one must have prosody, which means reading with expression that occurs by using appropriate intonation and rhythm? In my tutoring work I have studied the reading pyramid as well as the simple view of reading in my quest to help my students grow in their skills, but in this blog post I want to examine how defining what reading actually is has changed over the years.

Sometime around 1850‒1700 B.C. someone invented something pretty amazing. A Semitic-speaking people took a form of Egyptian hieroglyphics and drew from them symbols that, rather than representing whole ideas, instead represented individual sounds (Schumm). This invention was the first alphabet and was revolutionary in that it vastly condensed the written code into a much more manageable and memorizable level. Through that change, understanding written expression became accessible to the common person.

History trundled along, and so did the alphabet, for thousands of years. The alphabet enabled anyone trained to decode its arrangement into words, phrases, and clauses (in the beginning, primarily the aristocracy and the clergy) to have access to written knowledge. Until the movable metal type printing press was introduced to Europe by Gutenberg in the fifteenth century, though, in Western Europe reading pretty much remained the province of the upper echelon. Over time as the costs of printing books went down, more and more people were able to obtain them and learn how to read for themselves. Reading was accomplished in this manner (through using the eyes to view the writing) for several centuries until early in the nineteenth century.

In the 1820s, however, a man named Louis Braille invented a new way of communication. Braille, blind from childhood, had learned a way to write using dashes and dots from Charles Barbier that Barbier had named “night writing” (“Who Was Louis Braille?”). Braille simplified the code and taught it to other blind students at the school where he taught. Through his invention, the act of reading transferred from an exercise of the eyes to the touch of a finger. And history continued.

Roughly a century later in the 1930s, a new invention arose that migrated reading to a different organ: the ears. Called “talking books,” they were the very first audiobooks. The American Foundation for the Blind, a recording studio, created them on vinyl records so that they could be listened to by their blind patrons (Thoet). Records gave way to cassette tapes, which yielded to CDs and eventually arrived at today’s method: digital media. Now that we live in a digital world, audiobooks have steadily gained in popularity. And while printed books still remain more popular, audiobooks are quickly gaining ground (Perrin). In 2018, for example, it was revealed that audiobook sales had doubled the previous five years while print and ebook sales were flat (Willingham). In some cases, audiobooks even seem to surpass their printed cousins to help in comprehension because audiobooks are better able to convey nuances such as humor, drama, and irony through the prosody of the narrator’s voice. One might even say that the book has come full circle. After all, weren’t the Homeric epics first told orally, perhaps around a campfire, back before they were ever written down?

I am continuing to consider how I define what reading really means to me, but for now I think of it as the act whereby a person obtains and comprehends information through language, whether written, felt, or spoken. I love it when one of my students, not yet able to read with his eyes fluently, runs into a tutoring session proudly announcing, “Hey, I just read The Lightning Thief. It was great!” and wants to discuss it with me. Does it matter to me that he enjoyed the book through his ears rather than his eyes? No. That book has become a part of him, and he can talk about it with any of his friends who have also enjoyed the book. He’s learned new words, heard sophisticated language, and gained a little bit of insight about Greek mythology as well.

While I assert that it is important that students be able to read visually (after all, I am a reading tutor), I am thankful that we live in an age where students who otherwise struggle to read are, by listening to a good book, able to develop their vocabulary, hear sophisticated syntax, and discuss literature with their teachers, peers, and family. In the book However Imperfectly Andrew Pudewa affirms this as well, stating, “The . . .thing of which I was certain is that the most important component of nurturing an excellent speaking and writing ability is to build the language database in the brain through auditory input (by being read to out loud in huge quantity) and memorizing English verse and prose” (144-145). If you have a student who struggles with reading, please know that you can and should encourage them to read, but it may need to look a little different than what you had imagined, at least for a while. Empower your student to enjoy literature by equipping him with good quality audiobooks while you continue to strengthen his decoding skills. Andrew Pudewa discusses how valuable listening to quality literature is in his presentation Nurturing Competent Communicators. If you haven’t listened to it, please do. He expresses why reading aloud is so critically important much better than I ever can in this post.

I hope that by reading this, you have been able to think about what reading means to you. At its core, reading a good book, no matter how you accomplish the task, can be one of the most powerful experiences of your life. It can reveal great beauty, expose terrible falsehoods, and draw us closer together while at the same time expanding our universe. Books change lives. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Empower your students to go “more places” by providing them with plenty of good books and audiobooks. Then let their journey begin.


                                                                                      Works Cited

Perrin, Andrew. “One-in-Five Americans Now Listen to Audiobooks.”
        Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 25 Sept. 2019,

Pudewa, Andrew. However Imperfectly. Institute for Excellence in Writing, 2018.

Schumm, Laura. “Who Created the First Alphabet?”, A&E Television Networks, 6
        Aug. 2014,

Thoet, Alison. “A Short History of the Audiobook, 20 Years after the First Portable Digital
        Audio Device.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 22 Nov. 2017,

“Who Was Louis Braille?” National Braille Week,

Willingham, Daniel T. “Is Listening to a Book the Same Thing as Reading It?” The New York Times, The New York
       Times, 8 Dec. 2018,


Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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