Reading and Testing
Rick Garlikov

The power of reading does not lie in the mechanics of it. The mechanics of reading merely grants the ability to follow printed simple directions, get superficial information, or kill time with beach novels. The miracle of reading lies in the transcendent manner with which the finest written words, in the form of contrived marks on a printed page or computer screen, can transfer stimulating ideas from one mind to another, sometimes with an eloquence that bestows beauty as well as insight. But schools teach and test primarily the mechanics of reading – part of the so-called basics. And in doing so they too often poison it. 

The current mania for testing objective elements of reading in short-answer tests misses the point that reading is not primarily about getting surface information from descriptive sentences, but is about gaining and understanding concepts and ideas – often important, and occasionally truly great, ideas – that other people are trying to communicate. It is the insights that are important, not whether you can recognize and pronounce, or repeat and paraphrase for tests and grades, the words that try to express those insights. 

Even understanding what individual words mean does not guarantee one understands the ideas or insights they collectively express, or their significance. Comprehending ideas is a much more involved and complex process than simply reading words you can pronounce or whose individual meanings you understand. That is why interpretations of works like the Bible and the U.S. Constitution are abundant and not infrequently contentious.   

Objective tests about surface material do not satisfactorily indicate the truly important aspect of reading, and, even worse, they do not inspire children to want to read. Neither does having students summarize material they have read, or write reports on it, when they do not care about it. This is particularly true when the teacher does not care about the material either and does not help “bring it to life” to the students. Students typically write reports about their reading simply by paraphrasing the words, which is just one small step above parroting, and which, like parroting, does not necessarily rise to the level of insight or understanding. When assignments only serve as a vehicle for dispensing grades about the mechanics of reading, they are of little educational value and less personal significance. They do not use reading to nurture joy or impart understanding. 

Reading is about communicating ideas where speech or other means of communication, such as drawing, photography, or video, alone are not sufficient. Pictures are not worth a thousand words when explaining abstract concepts or when giving a profound characterization of something rather than a surface depiction of it. Most interesting ideas and concepts require conscientious writing to explain, and judicious study to absorb. Reading allows one to contemplate multiple, related passages in juxtaposition with each other until assimilating them and comprehending the ideas they express. 

Communication is not as easy or as straightforward as we tend to think. Ideas do not come to us in words; they come in insights generally that we try to put into words so that others may understand our thoughts. It is far more difficult to speak or write precisely than we think or pretend. We express our ideas in words, but the words come after we have the ideas; the words are not themselves the ideas. And it is often more difficult to explain or express an insight or idea than it is to have it. Writing helps us explain and clarify our ideas to ourselves and to others. 

While some facts one reads are important or are interesting in themselves, generally the real merit in reading is gleaning the ideas expressed. Sometimes the way those ideas are expressed is also very interesting; sometimes even beautiful and powerful. But multiple-choice tests do not tend to discover whether students have gained insight or been stirred by beauty of expression – just whether they have attained the barest factual knowledge about some passage out of context that is of no importance or interest to them other than to serve to give them a grade. 

Reading for grades too often crowds out reading for personal pleasure or intellectual insight. One of the most telling signs of that is the response people give when you tell them some thick book is really good. They will take one look and say it is too long, as if pleasure that lasts a long time is worse than pleasure that lasts a short time. Obviously they cannot equate reading with experiencing pleasure, but see it as work instead. Students seldom say “We have a really interesting reading assignment this week” instead of “I have to read 30 pages for school.” 

It is not testing nor grading, but involved, stimulating discussion about their reading that helps students find the joy and wonder in it and helps them improve their reading ability.  And during such discussions, teachers can see whether, and how well, students read, understood, and absorbed or thought about, the material. However, instead of fostering animated and meaningful discussions between teachers and students, schools today primarily test using simplistic tests. When there is a discussion about something that was read, that discussion is either a test itself or a preparation for a test. The ideas themselves are not important to either the teacher or the student; at best they are just the material for administering tests and doling out grades.   

That is not the way it should be. Reading should be a pleasure and it should be intellectually and aesthetically stimulating, not just factually informative. But students do not often get introduced to the joy of reading, and it is getting worse as testing becomes more pervasive.  
Reading good works lets you make intimate friends with the finest minds that have ever lived – no matter how long ago or how far away, unlike watching television, which too often only lets you make friends with people whose intellects and social skills qualify them to be guests on the Jerry Springer show.  

Reading and writing are wondrously amazing inventions. They allow studied contemplation, and they allow transmission of some ideas that might not be communicated nearly as well in any other way between generations separated by time, and between contemporaries separated by distance. It is not just the mechanics of reading that should be emphasized. The joy and inspiration that comes from the wonder and miracle of it should be fostered in schools.