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Friday, April 06, 2012

The importance of reading what you don't understand

On Woman's Hour a head teacher apparently said there's no point presenting young children with texts that they don't understand. Michael Rosen wonders why not and points out that his kids were always reading things they didn't understand. That's how they learned.

I have always read things I didn't understand. I still do. In my twenties I would read Herbert Marcuse or Richard Brautigan and didn't get more than one sentence in ten. I did the same with NME and Rolling Stone and the underground press. I groped my way towards an imperfect understanding of all kinds of things. If it had been easier I probably wouldn't have bothered.

I've always pretended to know more than I do. Seems better than pretending to know less. I often think my education has been as much about picking up fragments as anything else. I think Rosen's point is important. A man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for? Which is, funnily enough, the only bit of Robert Browning I know.


  1. I bet it isn't. (The only bit of Browning you know I mean.) It's only the only bit you know you know is Browning.

    Try "Oh to be in England" for a start...

    PS I agree.

  2. How do you know whether you understand something unless you try to read it anyway?

    And how will you ever grow and develop unless you are taught / encouraged to find out what stuff you don't understand means?

    And doesn't this apply to children from 4 to 104?

  3. Exactly the same applies to television. David Simon said he knew lots of viewers didn't understand everything in The Wire, but he got his audience interested. Engaged. They sat forward in their chair. That's what's important. The brain is a muscle: it needs to be stretched.

  4. David Mitchell made a similar point in his podcast, in particular about why people are frightened that they'll "turn off" the listener/reader by referencing something possibly obscure: surely, in this day and age of Wikipedia etc, anything we don't immediately understand is more quickly discovered than in our own childhoods?

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  6. And furthermore, anybody who's aware of the fact they don't understand something will either guess what it means or look it up. Those who are curious will never be in the dark for long. Those who are incurious won't take any notice anyway. It's a bit like spelling. People who can spell always suspect they've got the word wrong. While those who can't just plough on regardless.

  7. It's the old C P Scott thing, surely? Never underestimate your reader's intelligence, never overestimate their factual knowledge.(The willfully obscure is destined for deserved obscurity.)

  8. My English master got me into Kafka by telling me I wasn't ready for him yet. Whether that was a cunning plan or just him being insulting I've never worked out.

  9. Totally agree with all the above. I wouldn't want that teacher within a mile of my kids. I learnt vast amounts of stuff reading things that were well outside of my comfort zone. The same approach applied to listening to music.