Redefining the experience of reading Many of us think of reading as being a silent and inward act of mental interpretation, where the reader sits still, scans a page and absorbs information, yet recent studies suggest it’s important to also consider how we use the body. Dr Sarah Bro Trasmundi is conducting a cognitive ethnography study into how students read. The current theoretical
models of reading are primarily built on the idea that all of us have an encoding and decoding system within the brain, which enables us to understand and interpret the meaning of a text. However, recent pilot studies suggest that this doesn’t cover the full picture of how we read, a topic at the heart of Dr Trasmundi’s research. “We believe that we need to investigate reading very differently and see how the body is involved in the process of reading,” she outlines. This means looking at reading as an embodied activity, where different factors need to be considered in terms of assessing the effectiveness of an individual’s approach to reading. “People may organise their environment and use their body in a particular way in reading, so we need to investigate how the body has an impact,” explains Dr Trasmundi. “This is both in terms of how we scaffold the activity, and also how we make sense of it and experience the whole action of reading.”
The study focuses on how reading on paper differs from reading on screen.
What is reading? This research is built on the idea that cognition is distributed rather than being a purely internal and brain-bound phenomenon. While traditionally reading has been understood as a silent, mental process used to interpret ‘text’, Dr Trasmundi says this is just one of the actions involved in reading. “We use hands to fetch the text, fingers to turn the pages or touch the keyboard, the voice to bring forth aesthetic and rhythmic flow and, as we experience the results, we write notes, we draw, imagine sounds, use visible expression and give structure to information. Therefore, much of what we do is future-oriented,” she says. These strategies can help people to focus on challenging or difficult parts of the text, whether it’s on paper or in digital form, and prevent their attention from wandering. “The easy way out when you get to a difficult passage of text is to do something else, but when people read aloud, they are unable to think of other things. So this form of reading helps you to focus your attention,” continues Dr Trasmundi. “We can see that in difficult passages some people rely much more on
Pictures taken during vivid discussions in the core research group.
A student organises his working space before he starts reading.
the materials available and become more creative. They may start to use a ruler, to take more notes, or to read aloud.” Evidence suggests that those individuals who do become more animated and embodied when reading a challenging passage are more effective at dealing with it than those who remain more passive, a topic central to Dr Trasmundi’s research. Based at the University of Southern Denmark, Dr Trasmundi is conducting a research study which brings together researchers from languages and cognitive sciences to investigate reading processes among social education students using cognitive ethnography methods. “One thing we are doing is video recording students when they read. So we can see when they become frustrated and find it difficult to move on,” she outlines. One important aim in the study is to identify what precedes this. “What characterises phases in the reading where students find it difficult? What happens as they struggle?” continues Dr Trasmundi. “We also have physiological measures together with the video recordings. By using physiological measures we can determine the correlation between observational changes in the student’s reading behavior and physiological alterations. So, we investigate how a student’s display of emotional changes such as frustration, relief or laughter is interdependent with physiological alterations, and how such results relate to the function of the overall reading process.” From a recent pilot study Dr Trasmundi conducted, it is clear that the students find it easier to manipulate printed texts than digital ones. Empirically, this was observed as a more tool-based and richer embodied engagement with printed texts, which points towards how students can learn to read more effectively. “We need insight into how rich embodiment can be used as a strategy – for instance to overcome obstacles during reading – as well as informed information about when different media are appropriate for various reading tasks,” argues Dr Trasmundi. The literature is scarce when it comes to explaining how and when students apply different embodied strategies – such as