About 400 years ago, Francis Bacon in his ‘Essays’ wrote “ Reading maketh a full man”. He also said,

“Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested”.

That advice remains true even today in the emerging age of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. In fact, now more than ever before, the only truly competitive advantage lies in being able to learn faster than one’s competitors. The most successful business leaders of today like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are voracious readers and talk extensively about the benefits of being strong readers.

The reader of today is surrounded by a mind boggling variety of things to read throughout their regular day. In addition to books, newspapers and magazines are also materials worth reading. So are websites, blogs, tweets, comments and other online sources of information including Wikipedia, Quora and MOOCs. A discerning reader goes beyond the obvious information in the literal reading, and is able to read between the lines. In the present times, reading has extended beyond text to images as well. Not only mathematical and chemical equations but diagrams, Pins on Pinterest and infographics are also ‘read’; nd we know that in the year 2015, ‘emoji’ was declared as the Oxford Dictionaries ‘word of the year’.

A vice-Chancellor of Harvard University, Eliot held the view that the essence of a good liberal education could be obtained by spending 15 minutes a day reading from his collection of classics that sat on a five-foot shelf. Now of course they are available in a digital form as well. But putting more effort gives greater rewards. If you are an adult in a competitive environment, and choose to read for one hour per day in your chosen field, you could be reading about 50 books a year, and become a leading expert in your field in about 3 years.

Like many other acquired skills, reading skills can be improved with deliberate practice. One has to continually strive to reach higher levels of reading abilities as well as to have a better reading speed. This is especially true in the case of children reading a foreign language e.g. English.A widely accepted scale for reading abilities is the CEFR Scale at 6 levels beginning from A1 and progressing through A2,B1,B2,C1 to the highest level of C2. Each level is described in terms of ‘can do’ statements that a person at that level can demonstrate.

But what are the markers of a good reader? Is it speed or comprehension or both?

Reading rates expressed as words per minute, vary amongst readers, but for most readers it would be about 200 words per minute with 60% comprehension. A systematic measured approach to better reading would be along 3 dimensions: moving up on the CEFR scale, improving reading rate and enhancing the comprehension percentage.

Reading with comprehension transcends mere vocabulary knowledge to include critical thinking to ‘weigh and consider’ as Bacon said. Especially in this age of post truth, fake news and alternative facts, being a discerning reader is very important.

Developing reading skills with technology may appear to be an oxymoron but it is not. UNESCO has appreciated the importance of reading as a skill and also realised that the mobile Phone and Apps are the only way forward to make reading resources accessible to large numbers at modest costs and in an adaptive manner.

The level of cognitive skills of a nation’s students has a large effect on its subsequent economic growth rate. Hence the importance of learning and reading is vital for nation building (Eric Hanushek, a Stanford Professor in his book ‘ The Knowledge Capital of Nations’).

James Addison says ‘ Reading is to the mind, what exercise is to the brain’. Like starting an exercise regime, the hardest part is getting started. Once we get that out of the way, we’ll find the rest of the journey much easier. A thumb rule for physical fitness is to move 10,000 steps per day. Reading fitness would be if one read 10,000 words per day. With systematic efforts at Reading,it is possible to have a reading speed of about 350 words per minute, and total reading time per day for about 30 minutes, which is worth it in view of its rewards.

While there might hardly be a person who would refute the importance of reading, what is needed is an urgency to recognize this as critical at all stages of life. The endeavour of parents, educationists and eventually children themselves should be to move from Learning to Read to Reading to Learn and eventually to Reading to Think and Lead. It is only then can one find one’s true purpose and place in the world.

This article has been written by Prof. (Dr.) MM Pant, as a guest writer and webinar speaker for Stones2Milestones.

Professor M.M. Pant is pursuing next generation learning, using blogging, wikis, podcasting and social networking tools, delivered on mobile phones and other handheld devices. He is a former Pro-Vice-Chancellor IGNOU. He has been on the faculty of IIT, Kanpur, NIT, Allahabad and Visiting Professor to the University of Western Ontario, Canada.

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