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 Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.