How do we understand and remember what we read?

It is essential to recognise the paramount importance of comprehension when we read. There is little point in just being able to de-code the words on the page without being able to understand what the words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters mean. There would be no pleasure or purpose in reading and boredom and frustration would be inevitable. Furthermore, if we do not understand what we read, remembering what we read becomes so much more difficult.

What are the three main stages of reading?
  1. Track our eyes across the lines of words on the page, from left to right and line-by-line.
  2. Say the words inside our head with our own internal voice.
  3. Make an internal representation of what we are reading which, for most of us, is making a video or pictures in our head.

The last stage is the key to comprehension, which is to say to a full understanding and appreciation of what we have read.

As reading skills develop, most of us bypass the third stage which leads to considerably increased reading speeds.

How do eye-tracking difficulties affect reading?

The first stage in the process of reading is to track our eyes across the lines of words on the page, from left to right and line-by-line, and in Chapter 5 we discussed how some eye-tracking problems could arise. We will now look specifically at how eye-tracking problems affect comprehension.

If a child has an eye-tracking problem a large amount of concentration is used just to track the eyes across the lines of words and make an effort to recognise those words. There is a limited amount of concentration left for the child even to say the words inside his head let alone make a picture or video so that he understands what he has read. Without understanding, concentration will decrease still further.

This is why a person with dyslexia who also has an eye- tracking problem will have limited comprehension and memory of what they have just read.


Find a descriptive passage in a novel and read it. Put the book down and recall the details of the passage.

The method you use to do this, albeit unconsciously, is to describe the picture or video you made in your head whilst reading the passage. The more details you have in the picture or video in your head, the greater will be your degree of comprehension and recall.

Some people make very detailed pictures or videos in their head and sometimes the videos will have associated sounds, voices and atmosphere. A reader who has a particularly vivid imagination will use “special effects” to add to the atmosphere of a story. The imagination of the human mind knows no bounds! It is limitless and this is probably the reason why people complain, when they watch the film of a book they have read, that “the film was not as good as the book!” When we read a book, we are our own movie director and that is why everyone interprets the same book in so many different ways. That is why, when we discuss with our friends a book we have read, we get so many different views. This perhaps is the main joy of reading, providing material with which our imagination can play.

Students with an eye-tracking problem are so often denied the opportunity to make these wonderful pictures and movies in their heads because they have to expend so much energy just de-coding the words.

What is mechanical reading?

A person who reads without comprehension is termed a “mechanical reader”. Many of the people who have an eye-tracking problem are mechanical readers to some degree and do not make a visual representation in their head when they read. However, this is not the only reason why people are mechanical readers.

Once we have learned to read and, at the same time, make a picture of the story in our heads it is impossible not to do so. However, the following demonstration, whilst being quite difficult, is not impossible and gives great insight into how a mechanical reader reads.


Find a descriptive passage in a novel but, before starting to read it, make a picture in your head of a place you know that gives you great pleasure. It could be somewhere you were on holiday, a particular Christmas Day as a child or a room in the house you grew up in of which you were particularly fond. Make the picture really vivid with lots of colour. Keep this picture in your mind and at the same time read the descriptive passage. You may find that your mind will wander and want to make a picture of the material you are reading. Try to concentrate on the picture of the place that gave you great pleasure.

At the end of the passage you may be amazed how little you remember of the passage you have just read.


Please read the following:

Wind revolver about saddle then wispy hills wastepaper under special, potatoes rudder icecap television tissues although name underneath impossible mountain track paper and reverse steel almighty.

It doesn’t make sense, does it? You can recognise the words easily, decode the words, understand the words and say them to yourself. The trouble arises when trying to do step 4, make an internal visual representation of your internal dialogue.

Welcome to the world of the mechanical reader!

By making the picture of the place that gives you great pleasure you actually blocked out the ability to make a picture in your head of what you were reading. This has the same effect as not actually being able to make a visual interpretation and you experienced what it is like to be a mechanical reader.

Why do people read in a monotone and disregard punctuation?

This is related to the mechanical reader and occurs for the same reason. If a person is reading mechanically, that is to say merely de-coding the words and not making any visual representation in their head, they will have no understanding of what they are reading and consequently are not likely to read with any expression. By and large, punctuation is there to aid comprehension and so, if a person has little or no comprehension, the punctuation appears irrelevant.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the punctuation, which is used to identify when people are speaking. There may be several different characters in a story and the punctuation enables us to use different voices for the different characters thereby adding more detail to our videos and increasing our understanding. We may also choose to vary the speed, accent and tone with which the characters speak.


Find a passage, about a page long, in a novel where two or three people are talking to each other. Place an audiocassette tape recorder beside you. Make the same picture that gave you great pleasure in your head as in the previous demonstration and take time to construct it properly. Keeping this picture in your head, read the passage out loud and record yourself.
Next, read the same passage out loud again and record yourself but this time make pictures of the characters in your head and add intonation to each character’s voice.

Listen to the difference in your voice in the two recordings. Have you paid equal attention to punctuation in each reading session? Now you will understand why mechanical readers read with very little intonation or expression in their voice and ignore punctuation.

The reverse is that, when they write a story, they also leave out punctuation. When someone who has been labelled as having dyslexia writes a story, a possible characteristic is a lack of paragraphs and punctuation. Now that you have carried out the above demonstrations you will understand why.

Why does my child complain that reading is boring, yet enjoys a book being read to him?

If a child complains that reading is boring, despite the parent selecting reading material that they know the child would be interested in, it causes great confusion and frustration for the parent. Eye-tracking problems may provide an explanation in some cases.

If a child has an eye-tracking problem, he is unlikely to make a visual interpretation when he is reading to himself. As a result he will have little or no comprehension of what he is reading and will inevitably find it boring. On the other hand, if the story is being read to him, the eye-tracking difficulty is side stepped, he is free to make wonderful pictures and movies in his head and become absorbed in the story.

The visual interpretation we make when we read is different for each of us. Some people make photographs or still pictures in their head whereas others make movies or a video. Some readers make black-and-white pictures whilst others use vivid colour. Some people make large pictures in their heads whilst others make small pictures. Some people see two-dimensional pictures whilst others see pictures in three dimensions. These are some of the variations but by no means all. However, if a child has an eye-tracking problem then it is difficult for them to make any degree of interesting picture in their head when they are reading.


Imagine watching an exciting video such as “Titanic” on the television and, half way through, someone turns the brightness on the screen down until the picture disappears and you can only hear the sound. How long would you continue to watch the video? Not long, I would suggest, in fact, you would probably become bored, stop watching and perhaps even turn the television off.

When we read a book, it is important for most of us to have the visual picture in our head much in the same way as watching a video. If we cannot see the picture in our head then we too would become bored.