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Reading Readiness and Concept Imagery:
"In One Ear and Out the Other"

The Langsford Learning Center, Louisville, Kentucky Why do good readers, ones who have learned to read words with ease and fluency, sometimes have difficulty understanding what they read?

People often wonder if this difficulty is due to not trying hard enough or a lack of attentiveness. While attention can sometimes be involved, often the difficulty is due to an under-developed learning process important to understanding what we read: concept imagery. The ability to develop concept imagery from words is an important underlying process that all readers need in order to develop into life-long independent learners.

Research conducted by cognitive psychologist Allan Paivio has shown that children and adults with good comprehension have the ability to "dual code." This is the process of turning words read or heard into images, pictures and/or movies in the mind and then turning those images back into words. This interplay between verbal and visual information within the brain is important for true understanding and learning to happen. As the thinker Thomas Aquinas said, "Man's mind cannot understand thoughts without images of them."

Falling Through the Cracks

In the early grades most schools have a "learn-to-read" focus and teachers are primarily concerned that the actual mechanics of reading and spelling are in place. Then a gradual shift occurs and schools move toward "reading-to-learn." We can see this shift by simply looking at books. Books for young children have lots of pictures and images, but as the reading level increases, the words on the page increase and pictures gradually decrease.

The basic idea is that with continual practice and increased fluency, imaging and understanding will progress naturally. However, this is not always the case. Some students have to work much harder than their peers to get good grades, or can't progress at the same rate as their peers. They seem to read the text just fine, yet can't understand it, or they only understand parts rather than the whole. This can happen despite good vocabulary and good fluency.

Readers who do not process the information through dual coding often find other ways to compensate, such as relying on memorization. Memorization may help these readers do well on tests, but eventually they hit a wall where this just doesn't seem to work anymore, usually because the content required is simply too much information to memorize. This might happen in 5th grade, high school, college, or maybe not until doing graduate work. It all depends upon the individual's ability to compensate.

Memorization can be very helpful if the underlying ability to generate concept imagery is in place, but when that foundational piece is missing, other strategies are not nearly as effective. Relying on memory to study and learn puts the focus on the facts. In addition, good memorizers often don't do well on tests that require them to think about the material in a different manner from how they memorized it. Strong concept imagery improves the ability to process, organize, verbalize, and write information, independent of rote learning. Imagery is also very important for higher order thinking, which includes the ability to critically analyze, infer, predict and evaluate.

They're Just Words

The reason to read is to get meaning from the printed word. Learners who are not efficient at generating concept imagery and also struggle with memorization are just reading the words. These words seem to go in one ear and out the other if there is no picture or image created to anchor the meaning in the brain. Such readers often find themselves reading and re-reading information in order to recall even basic facts. Until an image is created, critical and analytical thinking cannot even begin to happen. A person can't read between the lines when they are only focused on the lines.

To learn more about comprehension, go to Langford Learning Center's website:

Article submitted by: The Langsford Learning Center, Louisville, Kentucky. For more information, call (502) 473-7000 or see
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Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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