Rose Katz Ortiz – Increasing Teacher Awareness of the Mental Processes Involved in Reading

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Rose Katz Ortiz

Rose Katz Ortiz


“One cold day recently, I had a day off, and I decided to go shopping downtown. Even though it was cold, I stopped at every shop window. One in particular caught my eye. It had a very elaborate window dressing. In the window I saw a train. I thought it would be great fun to own it. It was the longest train I’d ever seen on a gown.”

I told the preceding story as the introduction to an exercise I designed for a reading workshop for teachers. First, the teachers gave their responses to several questions about the story:

“What color was the gown?”
“Did you see it?”
“Did you see anything else?”
“Where were you?”
“Was anyone somewhere else?”

This particular exercise lasted for one hour. During that time the teachers provided a wide variety of responses:

“I pictured you at Fulton Street [in Brooklyn] looking in an A & S window at a toy train. When you said, ‘gown,’ I dropped my image of a toy train and substituted a wedding dress.”

“My attention wandered when you mentioned shopping. I wanted more paragraphs on the cold…the only train I saw was a subway train with you on it. There was no gown.”

“I saw you in front of F. A. O. Schwarz [in Manhattan]. When you said ‘gown,’ I was annoyed. I continued to see the model train, refusing to see a gown.”

“Why is it so deliberate? What’s her motive? What’s she going to do afterwards?”

These comments highlighted several aspects of what we do when we listen.

  1. Sometimes we spontaneously produce images, and sometimes we don’t. When we evoke images quickly, it feels automatic; when we don’t, we become aware of the work it takes to recall or create appropriate images.
  2. There are important differences between recollection and imagination. In this case, those who had previous experience with “downtown” and department stores could more easily evoke an image because they were recalling their past experience instead of imagining new images.
  3. Sometimes we refuse to let go of inappropriate images. We want or expect a different story than the one someone else is trying to tell us.
  4. Sometimes knowing or making assumptions about an author influences the images we make. In this case, a person who knew where I lived, assumed that “downtown” was Fulton Street in Brooklyn, whereas another person, perhaps thinking I lived in Manhattan, identified “downtown” with Fifth Avenue.
  5. Sometimes people can be more concerned with the telling of the tale, as in the case of the teacher who wondered about my motives.

Until the members of the group heard each other’s comments, they didn’t appreciate the complexity of comprehension. Obviously, there is more to this activity than just “thinking about what you hear,” as we often tell students.

In another exercise at the same workshop, I asked participants to illustrate a sentence from each of four different subject areas:

  • the Pythagorean Theorem,
  • the geochemistry of uranium and pitch blend,
  • Freud,
  • moonlight as reflected sunlight.

All of the teachers struggled to draw pictures conveying their comprehension of the sentences. Their attempts made visible their imperfect understanding of the sentences. Like the train story, the illustrated sentences demonstrated the role of imagery in comprehension. Obviously, there is more to it than just “trying to picture what you read,” as we often tell students.

In another workshop, I asked the participants to read an abstruse passage from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality. They found that they could not be sure of the phrasing and meaning even though it was written in English. It seemed that one could know the meaning of individual words and still not arrive at the meaning of the passage as a whole, or even the phrasing of some parts. It became clear that we need experience with particular language, syntax and subject matter to understand complex materials. Clearly, there is more to reading abstract passages than “just concentrating,” as we often tell students.

On another occasion, I asked participants in a workshop to read a backward, mirror image, unspaced sentence. Everyone had difficulty and some could not complete the task. But the effort required led members of the group to discover the necessity for several processes we often take for granted, such as:

  • reading from left to right (both for words and sentences);
  • respecting the spaces and marks of punctuation between words;
  • taking care in simply looking at what is printed on the page;
  • using questioning to evoke mental images and test hypotheses about appropriate phrasing and intonation in giving meaning to a text.

Finally, the participants observed certain emotional aspects of their behavior, such as:

  • the fear of facing the unknown and the fear of making mistakes;
  • the roles of resistance and avoidance, anxiety and frustration in both helping and hindering learning;
  • drifting and day-dreaming;
  • dealing with competition in a classroom setting.

Obviously, there is more to reading with concentration than just “motivation,” as we often tell students. In order to approach the teaching of reading in a way that respects the complexity of the reading process, we have to work on ourselves first. Only when we, the teachers, become aware of our own thought processes as readers can we gain insight into the mental processes of our students. And only in this way can we learn to teach in a way which allows students to have access to their thought processes. The workshops outlined above afforded opportunities to attend to the invisible activities of reading we may not take the time to observe on our own. As we worked, we generated the following list, which also includes items added at other workshops.

Activities a Reader Engages in While Reading

Note: This is not to be regarded as a linear sequence or as all-inclusive.

1) Recognizing conventions of the written language (in this case English) such as:

  • Proceeding from left to right both within words and sentences.
  • Spaces in between words indicate ends and beginnings of words, and sometimes—but not always—represent spaces in time in speech.
  • Punctuation is used to clarify meaning.
  • Letters or groups of letters represent sounds and/or words. (Context is necessary to identify the sounds and—sometimes—words represented.)
  • There are both upper-case and lower-case letters.
  • Each letter has a unique structure which distinguishes it from all the others.
  • Certain words begin with upper-case letters.
  • Sentences begin with upper-case letters.

2) Making a decision to do and to continue doing the task

3) Preparing for the task: recognizing what this means for oneself

4) Approaching the task with an open mind

5) Maintaining self-awareness and self-observation

6) Maintaining an active interior dialogue

7) Maintaining attention:

  • recognizing lapses of attention; drifting off, tuning out, worrying, praying, comparing oneself to others
  • recognizing interferences and distractions (inner and outer) and controlling them

8) Recognizing and dealing with a range of emotional responses:

  • frustration, disappointment, anxiety, fear, anger, insecurity, embarrassment, resistance, desire to please, discomfort
  • exuberance, joy, happiness, excitement

9) Maintaining confidence:

  • overcoming feelings of fear, frustration and self-doubt
  • using anxiety as a spur to initiate or continue work rather than as something which paralyzes
  • keeping ego from negatively interfering with task
  • being aware of false sense of confidence
  • keeping over-confidence in check

10) Creating and sustaining interest in task or material

11) Taking responsibility for understanding and learning

12) Approaching the task with care:

  • preventing carelessness
  • observing with precision

13) Recognizing purpose(s) for reading and adjusting reading to suit purpose(s)

14) Making sense:

  • assessing whether one has sufficient information to construct an interpretation
  • evoking, constructing, arriving at, creating meaning
  • making and/or recognizing connections or relationships between and among words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, ideas, diagrams, illustrations, details
  • looking for patterns

15) Imaging:

  • evoking, refining and creating appropriate images (visual and/or sensory)
  • making material vivid

16) Voicing:

  • using appropriate expression, intonation, melody, phrasing (silently and aloud)

17) Making and using associations:

  • recall of previous experience and prior knowledge, definitions (checking whether one has prior knowledge to associate with text)
  • remembering, comparing, understanding
  • relating the known to the unknown

18) Respecting the text:

  • not recreating the text to distort the author’s intent
  • understanding one’s egocentricity
  • checking one’s accuracy of approach to material

19) Using context for interpretation and understanding

20) Questioning the material and oneself; finding answers, when possible.

21) Making inferences

22) Recognizing ambiguities in language and thought, inconsistencies, contradictions, conflicting elements

23) Recognizing figurative language, metaphors, euphemisms

24) Recognizing analogies

25) Recognizing assumptions (one’s own and the author’s):

  • checking for evidence
  • knowing when one has enough information to validate an inference, a hypothesis, an assumption, a generalization

26) Recognizing bias, point of view and frame of reference (one’s own and author’s)

27) Recognizing and dealing with one’s expectations

28) Picking out main points, themes

29) Analyzing and synthesizing material

30) Evaluating material and one’s feelings towards it; making judgements about content and writer

31) Deciding whether to adjust previously held ideas in light of newly presented information

32) Giving the task the time it takes, and dealing with the time one has

© Rose Katz Ortiz
The Science of Education in Questions – N°8, Une Education Pour Demain, France. January 1993.


Rose Ortiz, a member of the Department of English, Speech, and World Literature at the College of Staten Island teaches Reading, Composition, and Speech courses.

She coordinates the college’s Reading Program, directs the Freshman Workshop Program, and Supervises the Faculty Development component of the Coordinated Freshman Program Linked Courses Project.

She has been working with Words in Color and The Silent Way for about three decades.

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“Increasing Teacher Awareness of the Mental Processes Involved in Reading” by Rose Katz Ortiz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.