Attributes of a reader

Introduction  I  Decoding  I  Attentive & Imaginative  I  Committed  I  Embodied  I  References  I  Comments


In their seminal article, Freebody and Luke (1990) concisely argue that four coinciding attributes are employed by effective readers. These are decoding, meaning making, use and analysis. In order words, an effective reader is one who:

  • has the language & literacy skills to decode what he or she is reading;
  • is engaged as a participant in the text to make sense and make meaning of the ideas contained therein;
  • is purposeful and is reading to use the text to learn, discover, explore, etc; and
  • can analyse the text to reflect on the quality of its ideas, of its choice and of its expression.

Whilst Freebody and Luke provide a suitable and simple platform for the frames of mind for effective reading, one can derive further attributes for Wittgenstein that complement those identified above. In this sense, the reader is an effective decoder as well as:

  • attentive and imaginative;
  • committed to understanding the text and its implications; and
  • embodied in the social, aesthetic and personal moment in which the text takes palace.

The Decoding Reader (back to top)

PI 156: Now compare a beginner with this reader. The beginner reads the words by laboriously spelling them out. -- Some however he guesses from the context, or perhaps he already know the passage by heart. Then his teacher says that he is not really reading the words (and in certain cases that he is only pretending to read them). If we think of this sort of reading, the reading of a beginner, and ask ourselves what reading consists in. 

PI 156: The word ‘to read’ is applied differently when we are speaking of the beginner and of the practised reader. -- Now we should of course like to say: What goes on in that practised reader and in the beginner when they utter the word can’t be the same. And if there is no difference in what they happen to be conscious of there must be one in the unconscious working of their minds, or, again, in the brain.

  • “In a child’s brain, unlike an adult’s, the first large activation area covers far more territory in the occipital lobes (i.e. visual and visual association areas) ... There is a great deal more activity in both hemispheres.” (Wolf, 2008, pp 124 - 125)
  • “In the beginning, learning any skills needs a great deal of cognitive and motor processing and underlying neuronal territory. Gradually, as the skill becomes highly practiced, there is less cognitive expenditure, and the neuronal pathways become streamlined and efficient.” (Wolf, 2008, pp. 125)
  • “To be sure, adult readers activate some frontal areas more, areas that are involved in these more complex comprehension and executive processes. Other areas in lower layers of the brain play active roles in both children and adults.” (Wolf, 2008, pp 126)

PI 156: The use of this word in the ordinary circumstances of our life is of course extremely familiar to us. But the part the word plays in our life, and therewith the language-game in which we employ it, would be difficult to describe even in rough outline. A person, let us say an Englishman, has received at school or at home one of the kinds of education usual among us, and in the course of it has learned to read his native language. Later he reads books, letters, newspapers and other things. 

Now what takes place when, say, he reads a newspaper? -- His eye passes -- as we say -- along the printed words, he says them out loud -- or only to himself; in particular , he reads certain words by taking in their printed shapes as wholes; others when his eye has taken in the first syllables; others again he reads syllable by syllable, and on occasion one perhaps letter by letter. -- We should also say that he had read a sentence if he spoke neither aloud nor to himself during the reading but was afterwards able to repeat the sentence word for word or nearly so.

“In response to this [reading] request, you engaged an array of mental or cognitive processes: attention; memory; and visual, auditory, and linguistic processes. Promptly, your brain’s attentional and executive systems began to plan how to read [a text] speedily and still understand it. Next, your visual system raced into action, swooping quickly across the page, forwarding its gleanings about letter shapes, word forms, and common phrases to linguistic systems awaiting the information.” (Wolf, 2008, p 8)


The Imagining, Attending Reader (back to top)

Z 13: Certainly I read a story and don’t give a hang about any system of language. I simply read, have impressions, see pictures in my mind’s eye, etc. I make the story pass before me like pictures, like a cartoon story.

Z 623: I read a story and have all sorts of images while I read, i.e. while I am looking attentively, and hence seeing clearly. 

PI II xi: [Learning] and imagining are subject to the will.

Z 673: Attention is dynamic, not static -- one would like to say. I begin by comparing attention to gazing but that is not what I call attention; and now I want to say that I find it is impossible that one should attend statically. 

  • “All reading begins with attention -- in fact, several kinds of attention. When expert readers look at a word (like ‘bear’), the first three cognitive operations are: (1) to disengage from whatever one else is doing; (2) to move our attention to the new focus (pulling ourselves to the text); and (3) to spotlight the new letter and word.” (Wolf, 2008, pp 145) 
  • “How we attend to a text changes over time as we learn to read ... more discriminatingly, more sensitively, more associatively.” (Wolf, pp 156)

Z 674: If in a particular case I say: attention consists in preparedness to follow each smallest movement that may appear -- that is enough to shew you that attention is not a fixed gaze: no, this is a concept of a different kind.

Z 91: Ask: What result am I aiming at when I tell someone: “Read attentively”? That, e.g. this and that should strike him, and he be able to give an account of it. -- Again, it could, I think, be said that if you read a sentence with attention, you will often be able to give an account of what has gone on in your mind, (e.g. the occurrence of images). But that does not mean that these things are what we call “attention”.

PI 533: How can one explain the expression, transmit one’s comprehension? Ask yourself: How does one lead anyone to comprehension of a poem or of a theme? The answer to this tells us how meaning is explained here. Let’s simplify language to the declarative statement that has the capacity to convey the unambiguously.

CV: Often, when I have had a picture well framed or have hung it in the right surroundings, I have caught myself feeling as proud as if I had painted the picture myself. That is not quite right: not “as proud as if I painted it, but as proud as if I had helped to paint it, as if I had, so to speak, painted a little bit of it. It is as though an exceptionally gifted arranger of grasses should eventually come to think that he had produced at least a tiny blade of grass himself.

PI 280: Someone paints a picture in order to show how he imagines a theatre scene. And now I say: “This picture has a double function: it informs others, as pictures or words inform -- but for one who gives the information it is a representation (or piece of information?) of another kind: for him it is the picture of his image, as it can’t be for anyone else. To him his private impression of the picture means what he has imagined, in a sense in which the picture cannot mean this to others.” - And what right have I to speak in this second case of a representation or piece of information - if these words were used in the first case?


The Committed Reader (back to top)

"In real reading … the reader is positioned in a state of conviction in relation to the words in the text." (Fulford, 2009, pg. 52)

"The reason computers have no understanding of the sentences they process is not that they lack sufficient neuronal complexity, but that they are not, and cannot be, participants in the culture to which the sentences belong. A sentence does not acquire meaning through the correlation, one to one, of its words with objects in the world; it acquires meaning through the use that is made of it in the communal life of human beings.” (Monk, 2013)

“Cognitive neuroscientist Marcel Just and his research team at Carnegie Mellon hypothesise that when experts make inferences while reading, there is a least a two-stage process in the brain, which includes both the generation of hypotheses and their integration into the reader’s knowledge about the text.” (Wolf, 2008, pp 160)

“Reading is a neurally and intellectually circuitous act, enriched as much by the unpredictable indirections of a reader’s inferences and thoughts, as by the direct message to the eye from the text.” (Wolf, 2008, p 16)

"In the classroom, the child in the primary school can exercise a level of responsibility. She can be encouraged to predict the end of a story; to say how a particular word resonates with her; why she thinks the author used a particular word; to explore what the story means to her, and to respond to it." (Fulford, 2009, pg. 50)

"It is to recognise that reading is characterised by a particular relationship to language; that this relationship awakens us to the further possibilities of language and that our learning to read is an ongoing task throughout our lives." (Fulford, 2009, pg. 48)

“We bring our entire store of meanings to whatever we read ... If we apply this finding to [any] passage ... it means that your executive planning system directed a great many activities to ensure that you comprehended what was there, and retrieved all your personal associations to the text.” (Wolf, 2008, p 9)


The Embodied Reader (back to top)

“You know Yeat’s poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree: ‘I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore,’ ‘there midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, and evening full of the linnet’s wings,’ ‘I’ll live alone in the bee-loud glade.’ Here S is, in this multi-sensory environment ... S [is imagining] a garden of [his] cottage close by ... He is taking in the stimuli at this eyes, ears, skin. S feels the waves of his ancient sensory responses,, which at the same time, separately, he perceives, the lake, the sky, the trees ... Here is the organist inside him, playing to the ever-changing picture, while the complex many-stranded lines of music create those vibrations in his soul.” (Humphrey, pg 95 - 97)

“It is said that Machiavelli would sometimes prepare to read by dressing up in the period of the writer he was reading and then setting a table for the two of them.” (Wolf, 2008, p 7)

“In much the way reading reflects the brain’s capacity for going beyond the original design of its structures, it also reflects the reader’s capacity to go beyond what is given by the text and the author. As your brain’s systems integrated all the visual, auditory, semantic, syntactic and inferential information from [a] passage ... you, the reader, automatically began to connect with your own thinking and personal insights.” (Wolf, 2008, p 15)

“ ‘having’ ‘a’ self is a process of moving to, and from, nexts’ (Cavell 1990, 12).

“As the twentieth-century Russian psychologist Leo Vygotsky said, the act of putting spoken words and unspoken thought into written words releases and, in the process, changes the thoughts themselves. As humans, we learned to use written language more and more precisely to convey their thoughts, their capacity for abstract thought and novel ideas accelerated. Every child who learns to read someone else’s thoughts and write his or her own repeats a cyclical, germinating relationship between written language and new thought, never before imagined.” (Wolf, 2008, p 65 - 66)


End Note

“From this perspective, an engaged reader is one who is motivated, knowledgeable, strategic and socially interactive. The engaged reader is viewed as motivated to read and write for diverse purposes, an active knowledge constructor, an effective user of cognitive strategies and a participant in social interactions.” (Rueda et al., 2001, p. 2)


References  (back to top)

    • Cavell, S. (1990). Conditions handsome and unhandsome: The constitution of Emersonian perfectionism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    • Freebody, P., & Luke, A. (1990). Literacies programs: Debates and demands in cultural context. Prospect: An Australian Journal of TESOL, 5(3), 7-16.
    • Fulford, A. (2009). Cavell, literacy and what it means to read. In Ethics and Education, 4: 1, 43 - 55
    • Humphrey, N. (2006). Seeing red: a study in consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
    • Monk, R. (1999). Wittgenstein's Forgotten Lesson. In Propsect Magazine. 29 July 1999. Retrieved from on 22 November 2013.
    • Rueda, R., MacGillivray, L., Monzo, L., and Arzubiaga, A. (2001). “Engaged Reading: A multilevel approach to considering sociocultural factors with diverse learners”, CIERA Report #1-012, University of Michigan: Centre for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement (CIERA).
    • Wittgenstein, L. (2001). Philosophical Investigations. 3rd Edition. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
    • _____________  (1967) Zettel. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
    • _____________   (1980). Culture and value. Translated by Peter Winch. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
    • Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain. Cambridge: Icon Books.