Reading Comprehension and the Future of Textbooks

Written by: Arnold Glass


Reading comprehension is one of the most remarkable human skills. People speak at about 120 words per minute but read at 250 – 300 words per minute, which means that a person can acquire information more than twice as fast by reading than by listening. Furthermore, if a listener misses something it is gone forever. However, if comprehension momentarily lapses during reading, a regression occurs and the eyes return to the previous point in the text to read it over. So reading is inherently less likely to produce gaps in understanding than listening. Finally, unlike speech, text may be edited for clarity. Both speech and print require the listener/reader to make inferences that connect what is new with what is already known. When a text is edited for clarity, the cues that direct inferences are made salient, so that the difficult becomes easy, the obscure becomes obvious, and the occult is revealed.

The importance of inference to connect the information in a passage with general knowledge of the world was first demonstrated by two different studies (Dooling & Lachman, 1971; Bransford & Johnson, 1972) that were performed independently of each other and appeared at almost the same time. In both studies students read a passage written just abstractly enough that they would be unlikely to understand what it was about. An example is:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups depending on their makeup. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo any particular endeavor. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important, but complications from doing too many can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. The manipulation of the appropriate mechanisms should be self-explanatory, and we need not dwell on it here. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to see any end to the necessity of this task in the immediate future, but then one can never tell.

Such a passage is difficult to understand and students found it difficult to remember. All it took to make the passage comprehensible was to add the title, Washing Clothes, and it became immediately obvious to what all of the abstract words referred. When supplied with the title, students found the passage easy to comprehend and remember.

Of course a textbook written as abstractly as the passage above would be a very poor textbook. That is why a good textbook is filled with concrete examples. However, even good writing requires the cooperation of the reader. Ultimately, the inference is not on the page but in the mind of the reader. The reader can choose to scan the text for the isolated meaning of each clause, without fixating long enough at each point in the text to make the inference necessary to connect information encoded by each clause into a more complete description of the world.

It is both surprising and sad how much more likely even good readers are to scan rather than read a text, even when it is in their interest to read slowly, carefully, and completely. Many times I have performed an experiment in which my students take the same final exam twice in a row. The first time it is a closed book exam. The second time it is an open book exam in which the student has access to my textbook, which has all of the answers. Thus, the first test is a retrieval test but the second test is a reading comprehension test. The grades on the two exams are averaged so that the students have a strong incentive to look up all of the answers and obtain a perfect score on the reading comprehension test. Nevertheless, the percent correct on the two exams is exactly the same! The only way to get the students to read the book closely enough to answer the questions correctly is have the added requirement that first the words in the text that answer the question must be underlined. When this requirement is added, not only are the students usually able to underline the correct words but they then go on to answer the question correctly (Glass & Sinha, 2012).

So, it appears that students are in the habit of skimming texts for answers rather than reading them carefully and inferring the implications of the content. Why has this habit developed? One possibility is that the competition from other media encourages students to read more rapidly so that there is more time for streaming videos and for video games. Another possibility is the structure of the modern textbook itself encourages skimming rather than reading. In the last century, college textbooks were organized as were other books: into a sequence of chapters that continued the narrative without interruption. However, modern textbooks are forced into a procrustean rubric that interrupts the narrative structure. Each chapter begins with a set of bullet points summarizing what is to follow and ends with a summary describing what has just gone before. Boxes of related information break up the text throughout. It is never clear when these boxes should be consulted. Since textbooks now look more like cookbooks, instruction manuals, the kind of magazine that decorates the checkout counter of the supermarket than narrative essays it is natural for students to treat them as such and skim them for answers.

Furthermore, textbooks not only look more like instruction manuals, they have begun to read more like them. Multi-author textbooks are now common that are collections of essays on related topics rather than a narrative on a single topic. There are textbooks whose nominal authors are dead and with each revision come to resemble more a collection of related abstracts, bulletins about recent advances, without any point of view at all. Again, it may seem to a student more natural to skim than to read such a textbook.

Perhaps there are high-tech solutions in the future for encouraging deep reading, such as the continued replacement of ink on paper with light-emitting pixels. It is impossible to see how such high-tech solutions would be more successful than the traditional one, an inviting text that rewards deep reading with a deeper understanding of the subject matter.


Bransford, J. D. & Johnson, M. K. (1972). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Behavior and Verbal Learning, 11, 717 – 726.

Dooling, D. J. & Lachman, R. (1971). Effects of comprehension on retention of prose. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 88, 216 – 222.

Glass, A. L. & Sinha, N.  (2012).  Providing the answers does not improve performance on a college final exam.  Educational Psychology, 32,1 – 32.

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About the Author: Arnold Glass

Arnold Glass is author of Cognition: A Neuroscience Approach (2016). He is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University....

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