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Review of  Understanding Reading

Reviewer: Maria Isabel Kalbermatten
Book Title: Understanding Reading
Book Author: Frank Smith
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 16.374

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Date: Fri, 04 Feb 2005 17:00:01 CST
From: Maria Isabel Kalbermatten
Subject: Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis ..., 6th ed.

AUTHOR: Smith, Frank
TITLE: Understanding Reading
SUBTITLE: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read, 6th
YEAR: 2004
PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

María Isabel Kalbermatten, Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies,
University of Minnesota.


Since its first edition in 1971, this book aims to understand reading and
learning to read. It also is intended "to be an objective (and scientific)
review of every field of study that had anything relevant to say about
reading and about learning to read." (p. viii) This sixth edition is
organized in thirteen chapters. The theoretical issues discussed in each
chapter are supplemented with notes at the end of the book. Key terms,
which are printed in italic, can be found in the Glossary, where the way
that they are employed in this book is presented.

Chapter 1: The Essence of Reading
In this new chapter, the view of reading as a natural activity is
discussed. That learning to read should be a natural activity, just as any
other comprehensible aspect of existence, is proposed. The rest of the
chapter deals with three issues (alphabet, language, and brain) that,
according to Smith, lead to misconceptions about the nature of reading.

Chapter 2: Comprehension and Knowledge
Chapter 2 deals with the relationship between comprehension and knowledge.
First, the chapter focuses on the structure of our knowledge or theory of
the world. The three basic components of our information system (the
categories, the rules for specifying categories membership, and the
interrelations among the categories) are presented. After that, how we use
our knowledge in order to predict and to comprehend the world is
discussed. Finally, thinking and "meta-thinking" as constant reflective
activities are presented.

Chapter 3: Spoken and Written Language
In this chapter, four aspects of language are discussed. The first one is
the relationship between the physical surface structure and the meaningful
deep structure of language. How meaning is brought to the language is
presented. The second aspect discussed is the distinction between spoken
and written languages. After the presentation of obvious and common
differences between them, the chapter focuses on the distinction between
situation-dependent and context-dependent languages, and relates them to
spoken and written language. The third aspect discussed is the
organization of texts, and how they help not only the readers to read a
text, but also the writers to write a text. Finally, the fourth topic is
the conventional nature of language and how the familiarity with these
conventions helps the reader to predict.

Chapter 4: Information and Experience
Chapter 4 explores the difference between information and experience.
First, the technical definition of information is examined, and the
relationship between information and uncertainty is analyzed. Then, how
information can be related to comprehension and redundancy is discussed,
followed by limitations in the use of information. Finally, the chapter
focuses on information and experience.

Chapter 5: Between Eye and Brain
The topic of Chapter 5 is the distinction between visual and non-visual
information and how they are reciprocally related in reading and learning
to read. Three important characteristics of the visual system are
considered, that: we do not see everything that is in front of our eyes;
what we do see we do not see immediately; and we do not receive
information from our eyes continuously. Finally, the implications of those
characteristics for reading and learning to read are discussed.

Chapter 6: Bottlenecks of Memory
In this chapter, three aspects of memory (sensory store, short-term
memory, and long-term memory) are presented. The weaknesses and strengths
of short-term memory and long-term memory according to four specific
operating characteristics of memory (input, capacity, persistence, and
retrieval) are discussed. Finally, the memory limitations are considered.

Chapter 7: Letter Identification
In Chapter 7, two models for letter identification are examined: template
matching and feature analysis. The advantages of the futures-analytic
models over template matching model are pointed out. Finally, the feature
analysis model is used in order to explain how readers identify letters.

Chapter 8: Word Identification
Chapter 8 deals with the identification of words. Three theories of word
identification (whole-word identification, letter-by-letter
identification, and spelling patterns) are discussed. The remainder of the
chapter considers a feature-analytic model for the identification of
individual words in isolation. Two aspects of learning to identify words
are discussed: the establishment of appropriate visual features lists for
immediate word identification, and the association of a name with a
category. Finally, the difficulties of counting the number of words that a
reader knows -because of the problematic definitions of "word"- are

Chapter 9: Phonics and Mediated Word Identification
The topic of Chapter 9 is the use of phonics generalizations and other
methods of mediated word identification. First, the problems with spelling-
sound correspondence in English, and to what extent the knowledge of the
sounds associated with the alphabet's letters helps the reader to identify
words are examined. Then, arguments in favor of the present spelling
system are presented, and the cost of its reform is discussed. The
relationship between spelling and meaning is also analyzed. After that,
some strategies of mediated word identification used by experienced
readers and children who are gaining experience in reading are presented.
Then, the chapter focuses on the identification of unknown words using
analogy with words that are already known, and discusses its advantages
over the uses of phonics generalizations. Finally, learning mediated word
identification strategies in a meaningful context are referred to.

Chapter 10: The Identification of Meaning
This chapter considers the identification of words in meaningful
sequences. In the first part of the chapter, the immediate identification
of meaning is discussed. That readers identify meaning without and before
the identification of individual words is shown. How meaning
identification is accomplished and how it is learned are also discussed.
In the second part of the chapter, the mediated identification of meaning
is considered. The use of the meaning of a sequence of words as a whole to
provide possible meaning for an individual word is analyzed. Finally, the
third part of the chapter deals with how a text is understood when the
words are familiar, how unfamiliar words are understood, and how they are
read aloud.

Chapter 11: Reading, Writing, and Thinking
In this chapter, what reading means to readers is dealt with. In the first
part of the chapter, definitions of reading are discussed. Then, the
interconnection of global and focal predictions of readers, global and
focal intentions of the writer, and specification of a text (global and
local) are presented. After that, fluent reading and difficult reading for
both beginning and experienced readers are analyzed. At the end of the
chapter, comments on writing and thinking are made.

Chapter 12: Learning About the World
This chapter is concerned with learning. First, how learners construct
their own theories of the world by testing hypotheses is explained. Then,
how language is learned by understanding the situation in which it is used
is discussed. After that, what is modified or elaborated by learning (the
category system, the set of distinctive features, and the interrelations
among categories) is presented. Then, the chapter refers to the
underestimation of learning by adults, and to the risks and rewards of
learning. Three constituents (demonstrations, engagement, and sensitivity)
that determine what is learned, when it is learned and if learning will
take place, are also discussed. Finally, learning as a social event is

Chapter 13: Learning About Written Language.
Learning to read is the specific concern of chapter 13. First, how
children learn to read by being involved in situations where written
language makes sense to them and allow them to generate and test
hypotheses is discussed. After that, the chapter focuses on two special
insights that children must have in order to learn to read (print is
meaningful and written language is not the same as speech). Then, the
instructional methods, "the Great Debate," and how the computers should be
used in the classroom are referred to. The rest of the chapter discusses
how to teach reading, the value of test and standards, and how children
learn about reading and writing by being members of "The Literacy Club."


Understanding Reading is presented as "a handbook for language arts
teachers, a college text for a basic course on the psychology of reading,
a guide to relevant research literature on reading, and an introduction to
reading as an aspect of thinking and learning." (p. xii) However, as it is
stated by the author in the Preface to this sixth edition, this book is
not a recipe for teaching reading, but an aid for teachers who
should "make their own decisions, based on research about reading, which
is accessible to anyone, and their experience and personal knowledge of
their students, which only they possess." (p. viii)

Regarding that perspective, the following quote is one of the interesting
comments and observations that Smith makes throughout the book:

"We live and learn in a world where no final answers are guaranteed, and
must make profound decisions for ourselves (even if only to accept
unquestioningly the opinions or decisions of someone else). Throughout
their professional lives, teachers are confronted by conflicting points of
view, frequently urged with compelling authority and conviction, and they
must be able to take a position. The first responsibility and right of all
teachers and students must be to exercise independent thought - although
in their own education they are often denied that opportunity with
rationalizations that they 'aren't ready,' 'shouldn't be confused,'
or 'lack thinking experience' (Smith, 1990, 1993)." (p. xi)

Smith's book is a valuable contribution to the study of reading and
learning to read because it provides the reader with a complete
understanding of the subject. In general, my impression of the book is
very positive. Its organization is excellent. Each assertion is carefully
supported and evidence is well documented. The same information is
provided in different forms in the main body of the chapter, in the
chapter Summary and in the Notes. The bibliography is substantial.

In conclusion, Understanding Reading is a comprehensive and thoughtfully
written text that provides a good overview of research in a variety of
disciplines related to the subject. Anyone interested in the subject will
find it a fascinating read.


Bruner, Jerome S. (1986) Actual minds, Possible Words. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.

Freyre, Paulo (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and

Downing, John (1979) Reading and Reasoning. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Ferreiro, Emilia and Ana Teberosky (1982) Literacy Before Schooling.
Exeter. NH: Heinemann.

Lakoff, George (1987) Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories
Reveal About the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moll, Luis C. (1990) Vygotsky and Education: Instructional Implications
and Applications of Sociohistorical Psychology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press.

Piaget, Jean (1976) To Understand is to Invent. New York: Penguin Books.

Vygotsky, Lev S. (1978) Mind in society: The Development of Higher
Psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


The reviewer is a PhD student of Hispanic Linguistics at the Department of
Spanish and Portuguese Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is
writing her dissertation on verbal irony as a prototype category in
Argentinean Spanish conversations, and working in interactional units,
repetitions and repairs in Argentinean Spanish conversations. Previously
she was an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the Catholic University
of Santa Fe, and a Member of the Central Committee of Teacher Training in
the Ministry of Education of Santa Fe Province (Argentina). She has also
done extensive research in Applied Linguistics, taught Spanish at
secondary and post-secondary institutions, and served for five years as
Principal of a High School in Santa Fe, Argentina.

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