What is reading?

What is reading?

by Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

As a young child, my mother would spend time reading graded readers with me. This is what it looks like. I would read aloud from a book and my mother would ‘correct’ my pronunciation. At primary school, I was sometimes asked to read a passage to my classmates. Like most students, I stood up and read the passage aloud. When I came across an unfamiliar word, my teacher would read it for me.

These experiences resulted in my limited view of reading (i.e., reading aloud, pronunciation). This view looks at reading as a decoding activity – from written text to human voice.

Let’s consider the following questions. Does decoding involve comprehension? Is reading aloud necessary for comprehension to take place?

A holistic view

Reading is more than reading aloud or pronunciation. When was the last time you read a book out loud? As reading is meaning oriented, let me propose that reading is primarily about comprehension. In fact, reading components in tests such as IELTS and TOEFL focus on reading comprehension – e.g., identifying main ideas, drawing conclusions, guessing meaning from context.

Reading is also commonly misunderstood as a text-oriented event. While a reading encounter cannot exist without a text, it is equally impossible to have this encounter without a reader. Both are essential. Rosenblatt (1994) explains that readers bring along their culture and experience when they read a text. This implies that there are more than one ‘correct’ interpretation of a particular text.

Theory and practice

What difference will it make if reading is more than pronunciation or a decoding activity? What difference will it make if there are more than one ‘correct’ interpretation of a particular text? How is it relevant to my classroom practice? Research shows that the beliefs of teachers relate to their classroom practices in the teaching of reading comprehension (Richardson et al., 1991).

Because reading is primarily about comprehension, our reading classes should focus on supporting students to identify main ideas and supporting ideas, for example. Knowing that there are more than one ‘correct’ interpretation, teachers should think twice before rejecting ‘wrong’ responses. Although having ‘correct’ answers is important in high-stakes examinations, an open approach should be encouraged in a language classroom. Students should be given opportunities to explain how they arrive at a different answer. Perhaps, more than one are acceptable.


Richardson, V., Anders, P., Tidwell, D. & Lloyd, C. (1991). The relationship between teachers’ beliefs and practices in reading comprehension instruction. American Educational Research Journal, 28(3), 559-586.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1994). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based independent researcher and an education consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

Image source: shutterstock.com/Syda Productions

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