There’s this joke I enjoy a lot, which goes like this: The teacher asked Johnny to step forward. She gave him a book and asked him to read out some passages from it. The entire class was silent as Johnny read everything out loudly and clearly. When he had finished, the teacher asked him to explain what he had just read. Johnny shook his head. “Sorry, Ma’am,” he said, “I wasn’t listening!”


I enjoy this joke because it makes a very important point about the process of reading: If you simply heard something, that doesn’t mean you have listened to it. And just because you have looked at some text doesn’t mean you have read it.Of course, if Johnny didn’t understand what he’d read, that wasn’t entirely his fault. Think about it: there he was, standing in front of the class, focused on making sure he was loud enough for the whole class, that he wasn’t reading too slow or too fast, perhaps even watching the teacher’s reaction out of the corner of his eye. Not the best circumstances under which to focus on actual content.

And in some ways, this is the kind of reading we do most of the time. All textbooks and guidebooks are read with an eye on the exams looming ahead; we are concerned about how much we remember, whether we can answer the same question if it is phrased differently or different questions that look similar, and we read to find answers to questions from the past three or five examinations.

The primary goal is to memorise, so we read aloud, or we mutter as we read, and even the focus and intensity of our reading depends on the perceived importance of the subject, as well as the ‘weightage’ (‘Weightage’ isn’t a standard English word, by the way.) for specific sections in exams.

Ideal conditions

While this type of studying -- and reading -- is unavoidable, these are not ideal conditions for acquiring actual reading skills. For one thing, we should be able to read for a wide variety of reasons, and ‘reading for exams’ is only one of them. Also, the purpose of reading should be not to remember or memorise as much as possible, but to ask important questions such as ‘why’ and ‘how’ and make sense of the reasoning and the logic involved, rather than just focus on the information.

Private exchange

Good reading needs to be a private exchange between the writer and the reader. There should be no witnesses to this process of reading. If there are any, they can only be a distraction. You can read aloud to people for the fun of it, or prepare for your exams all you want, but none of that should be confused with actual reading.