Guilford College Writing Manual

This is the official Guilford College Writing Manual. A collaboration between the English Department and the Hege Library.

Levels of Reading

To answer the above question, let's first look at Bloom's taxonomy. This is a chart developed in 1956 to the show the different levels of thinking skills:

 EVALUATION
^
SYNTHESIS
^
ANALYSIS
^
APPLICATION
^
COMPREHENSION
^
KNOWLEDGE

Let's immediately apply this list to reading, for an analogy can easily be made. The idea is that when you read a text, there are several different ways you can be reading, several different levels upon which the reading may be taking place. The levels that are lower on the above chart (e.g., knowledge, comprehension) represent important functions in the reading process, and it's possible to read only at these levels. But reading at the higher, more sophisticated levels is also possible any time you pick up a text. And in fact, it is the higher levels that are most valued and most expected in college.

Let's look at what is involved in reading at each level, beginning with the most basic and working our way up to the most sophisticated:

Knowledge is the lowest level of meaning and simply means processing material so that you can reproduce it--on a quiz, for example.

Let's suppose I asked you to read a chapter in a book dealing with the cultural history of cinema, a chapter which deals with the stereotyped roles which African Americans were forced to play in American films of the 1920s and 30s. Here, knowledge-based reading would enable you to remember information and to list such things as film titles, the types of stereotyped roles, the names of actors.

This type of reading requires only that you be able to decode the actual words and to remember the information.

Comprehension means not only knowing the material but understanding it. It means not just operating with facts but with the ideas that underlie the facts. Activities at this level include: interpreting material, seeing relationships among things, being able to explain the ideas, being able to use the ideas to understand data presented in the form of charts or graphs.

In the context of the above film example, it would mean, for example, understanding the prejudice underlying the treatment of African Americans by the film industry and the effects that the resulting film roles had in perpetuating demeaning perceptions of African Americans.

Application means reading in such a way that you not only passively understand the ideas and principles which underlie the information in your text, but that you internalize them in such a way as to be able to use them to explain new examples should they be presented to you. It means being aware of such outside examples as you read.

In the cultural history of cinema example, it would mean developing a readiness to explain a relevant film not discussed by the book. It could also mean thinking about contemporary films featuring African Americans.

Analysis means breaking material down into its component parts (from analusis, "a cutting") and looking closely at both the structure of the whole and at the relationships among the parts.

Activities here include: comparing and contrasting, uncovering unique characteristics, distinguishing between facts and inferences, evaluating the relevance of data, uncovering unique characteristics. Relevant verbs here include: take apart, differentiate, deduce, examine, separate, subdivide.

If I were doing the film reading analytically, I would inspect closely the data that the author provides, comparing the individual examples and testing the conclusions which the author makes based upon them. I would also be trying to sharpen my understanding of how the individual film examples point to the existence of a system of behavior, a system operating by unstated principles and codes.

Synthesis means putting things together in a new way. It means combining what you are reading with what you already know to develop a mode of understanding that extends beyond the author's.

Such reading enables: (a) hypothesizing, (b) writing papers which take an individual look at what has been read and which combine this reading with other material to establish meaning in a larger context, (c) showing how an idea or practice might be changed, (d) designing new systems.

In the cultural history of film example, synthesis could lead to broad understanding of how systematic prejudice of African Americans in Hollywood operated, of the effects that it caused, of how it interacted with other modes of prejudicial treatment (related, for example, to women, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, gays, and lesbians). It could also lead to one's using this knowledge to develop an understanding of the current system in Hollywood as well as to concrete plans to change unfair practices, whether in Hollywood or in arts communities that are closer to home.

Evaluation is the most sophisticated of the reading levels.

It means looking critically at the text itself and judging the value and worth of what you've read. All written texts are written by fallible human beings. Writers inevitably bring unconscious assumptions and biases to their work; their conclusions may be based on false inferences or on incomplete or misleading data. Your job in this mode of reading involves the following types of activity:

  • determining criteria for how to evaluate the material
  • judging the value of what the author has presented
  • evaluating the logical consistency of the material
  • analyzing the adequacy with which the author has supported his or her conclusions with data
  • looking for evidence of unstated assumptions which slant the presentation one way or another
  • being critically alert for one's own assumptions and biases as a reader of material on this subject

In the film example noted above, I would be asking myself, is this chapter a credible treatment of the issue? Has the author presented enough data to prove his/her case that systematic prejudice against African Americans operated in the Hollywood of the 20s and 30s? Do the concrete examples illustrate what they're supposed to? How do I know what the author may have left out? Is there evidence of objectivity (e.g., do both sides get to tell their stories)? What's my own stake in this? Are my own unconscious assumptions causing me to judge the author unfairly or to let him/her get away with too much?

In sum:

As you can see, reading is a complex enterprise that involves a lattice-work of different kinds of activities.

How would you evaluate yourself as a reader? And what do you see as being the personal implications of the above material?

To begin, decide that you are going to engage in a bit of meta-cognition. That is, you need to develop conscious awareness of yourself as a reader. Instead of just plunging into a reading assignment in the way you're used to, stop and look at yourself as someone who has arrived in a new situation where a new set of rules apply. Take in the scheme sketched out above, part of whose message is that reading is not a one- or two-dimensional jumble of activity but in fact a complex, multi-leveled, and highly sophisticated enterprise.

How will you respond to this new information and use it to thrive in college? Ask yourself such questions as: Which of the above levels do you perform well on, and on which do you need to improve? How can you determine which reading assignments require which levels (for surely you do not have to operate on all levels with everything you read)? How can you determine what your professors' expectations are for any given reading assignment?

Knowledge  . . .  comprehension  . . .  application  . . .  analysis  . . .  synthesis . . .  evaluation.