The myth of normal reading

14 November 2022
The myth of normal reading
Studies in education and psychology often involve ‘normal’ readers. But is there really such a thing as ‘normal’ reading? In an opinion article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Falk Huettig from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University in Nijmegen and Fernanda Ferreira of the University of California at Davis argue that we should embrace the diversity of reading rather than chase the phantom of normal reading behaviour.

We argue that there is no such thing as standard, average, typical, or healthy reading,” says MPI’s Falk Huettig. In their opinion article, Huettig and fellow psycholinguist Ferreira set out to deconstruct the myth of normal reading, by drawing attention to the cross-cultural and linguistic diversity in reading. “People bring a huge diversity of brains and experiences to the reading task”.

Cross-cultural diversity

Readers vary in age, language background, language level and processing strategies. Reading also depends on what we read and what our goal is. For instance, we may skim an article for information or pore over a personal email. “There are multiple ways of reading and reasons for reading, and none of them is normal or better or a ‘gold standard’. We need to move beyond Anglo-centric reading research and produce models of reading that reflect the large cross-cultural diversity of languages and types of writing systems”, Huettig argues.

According to Huettig and Ferreira, abandoning the distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ reading has broader implications for society. For innce, the diversity of reading should also be embraced in education. “We must stop stigmatising individuals who read differently and for different reasons.”

Reading comprehension

Huettig and Ferreira also discuss the declining levels of reading comprehension across the globe. While decoding abilities are obviously important for beginning readers, teaching should focus on the comprehension of written language. Ultimately, reading is about the ability to extract the information that is relevant for a person’s goals. “Educational policies and the science of reading arguably have gotten it all wrong: The focus should not be so much on how well people decode written language and how fast people read, but instead on what people comprehend given their own stated goals.

Link to paper

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