Reading comprehension: how much sinks in?Posted: June 21, 2013
At my seafood restaurant workplace, there’s a guest satisfaction survey we encourage all the customers to take. This week, we got a very negative review. Someone ordered a meal that consists entirely of deep-fried seafood, then complained bitterly that the meal was all deep-fried seafood. That much fried food on a plate was apparently very off-putting to the customer. And we restaurant staff are thinking, uhh, it says on the menu that this particular meal is all deep-fried. Didn’t this customer bother to read?
Funny thing about reading comprehension, though: the average person isn’t that great at it. I was looking at this reading comprehension test (which cites academic-sounding sources but the webpages seem defunct). If that test speaks truth, then the general public retains about 60% of what they read. Barely a passing grade! So if our dissatisfied guest understood that the meal contained scallops, shrimp and a fish fillet, but missed the word “deep-fried”? That’s actually a slightly above-average rate of reading comprehension. Huh. Surprisingly weak for a skill we use daily, in our mother tongue. Exceptional readers can allegedly read over 1 000 words per minute with an 85% comprehension rate. Someone like that could get through an entire novel in two hours and probably understand the thing!
But there’s one problem with this whole premise: I can’t find any information on how those reading comprehension statistics were obtained. Some kind of study, I guess — but which factors did that study test? Reading comprehension in a workplace setting? School? Casual reading? Were the test participants reading a technical manual or some light fiction? Was it a subject they remotely cared about? Did any of them have ADHD or other conditions that would affect concentration? I mean, I took that website’s comprehension test and scored 640 words per minute, 80% accuracy. But I was interested in the subject matter, and reading in my nice, quiet bedroom. If a restaurant customer is trying to read the menu on a busy, loud night while comforting their screaming child, and also they have to pee? They can’t be expected to have a very good comprehension rate at all. Language is always subjective. Why wouldn’t our comprehension of that language depend on the time, place, subject, vocabulary level, etcetera, etcetera?
I couldn’t Google up any definite information for adult reading comprehension, so I think I’m on to something here. There are many factors involved in our reading. Suggesting a standard rate of human comprehension is a best useless and at worst insane. People are just too varied. Reading material is just too varied. So that comprehension webpage I linked is probably using one obscure clinical trial as evidence to sell their speed-reading software. Ehh, I still enjoyed testing myself, I don’t know about anyone else.
Long story short, we bring a lot of ourselves to a reading experience. Definitely something as complex as reading a novel. But also something as simple as reading a restaurant menu. It’s anyone’s guess what a particular reader will really see.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have an existential crisis over all these words I write. (I’m kidding. …Mostly.)
- E-Readers Don’t Cut Down on Reading Comprehension (blogs.smithsonianmag.com)
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