Most of us are taught early on how to extract basic meaning from these little symbols on the page. We learn the fundamental mechanics of reading. Studying literature, we’ll likely also learn a few things about how language gets things done – tone and mood and characterisation and whatnot. If you also study history as a young human you’ll learn something about biases, and assessing sources for reliability. That’s as much as most of us get.
Many, perhaps most adults don’t read that widely, focusing on a genre or two, an area of interest, or maybe just a few authors. Moving between genres, authors, styles and subjects can actually be hard to the point of off-putting, and not everyone picks up on their own how to approach that.
I’ve always ranged widely with the fiction. Thanks to the kind of work I do, I’ve ended up reading all kinds of things alongside that. Technical content, legal content, political content… it all has its own forms, language and assumptions and engaging with anything unfamiliar also requires you to learn how it works. The first few encounters with anything unknown can be confusing and off-putting. A great deal of writing is intentionally or unconsciously manipulative and seeing how that works depends on understanding how a community uses language in the first place. The differences between persuasive writing from scientists and persuasive writing from pseudo-scientists are considerable, for example.
Much as I love literature, I wish I’d had a lot more time at school being shown how to read more diverse kinds of writing. How to read a newspaper article and pick out what’s opinion and what is hard fact. How to read a house of commons white paper, a legal contract, a scientific paper and so forth. In my experience what makes this even harder is that often the biggest issue is what’s missing, and you need to know quite a lot to have any clue what to be looking for on that score.
Reading, like so many things we do, is considered basic and widely available. The actual skills required are many, and complicated and we’re not actually taught them. If you haven’t done science beyond A level the odds are you’ve never read a scientific paper. If you’ve not tried to work in politics, you’ve probably never read the kinds of documents that are created when policies are being developed. These are barriers to participation and understanding.
You can be incredibly skilled and informed reading in one area and have no idea how to approach another kind of writing.
These last few years have really shown us how problematic it is when people don’t know how to scrutinise different kinds of writing and how well we need to be able to read if we are to effectively inform ourselves.