Book Review: The Reading Mind by Daniel Willingham

This book is designed to introduce the reader to the reading process. And it succeeds. Professor Willingham’s book is extensively researched and presented in a way that a layperson or average teacher will have no trouble assessing its contents. I would highly recommend it if you are a teacher, or a parent trying to learn about reading or how to encourage children to read.


In Chapter 1 he sets out to tell the story of reading by explaining its purpose. He writes that writing is both an extension of and more objective than memory. It is an extension of memory because we can write something to do down and look at it later to remind ourselves. Writing is more objective than memory because it is a physical representation and cannot be easily changed.

Chapter 2 jumps into the code of reading, phonics. Letters are made up of a set of shapes/stroke patterns, some are more easily confused than others, yet it is imperative that each letter be correctly identified because each letter is a cue for a sound. Put together, the sounds make words that have meaning. One misstep along the way can drastically change the word’s  meaning. For example, a child might be reading a story that says, “The man digs a hole.” but the child may mix it up and read, “The man pigs a hole.” In order to correct him/herself, the child must have knowledge about both what a pig and hole are, highlighting the importance of vocabulary for reading comprehension.

Chapter 3 finally gets into the reading process. Students who are accomplished readers have 3 distinct representations for words: the sound, the spelling, and the meaning. For all learners, the sound and spelling of the words a closely linked. If a student is better at hearing the sounds within a word, they will be better able to spell the word and vice versa.

Chapter 4 digs into words and their contexts. We all know that some words mean different things in different contexts. This, then shows one large limitation of having students look up words in a dictionary because dictionaries strive to be context independent (due to space constraints). An implication for teachers, since word meaning depends on context, is to explicitly teach students the word’s meaning while exposing them to the word in a variety of contexts.

Chapter 5 looks at reading comprehension. Willingham concludes that teaching reading comprehension strategies has limited value. The limiting factor in teaching reading strategies is that they are easily and quickly learned (a good thing). Students should be taught reading strategies as the strategies will improve their comprehension and make them better readers, but the instruction should not stay on strategies. After students understand the reading strategies, they teaching should be focused on increasing student knowledge because reading comprehension depends heavily upon background knowledge (see the famous study on background knowledge and comprehension at Reading Rockets website).

Chapter 6 is really interesting in that it looks at the psychology of readers. It finds that readers read because they enjoy it. Hardly groundbreaking, but it is a more revealing finding than it appears. Those who read do so because of emotional reasons, not logical ones. The implication being that telling students, “You should read this to learn more and become smarter.” will not be helpful. We instead ought to incentivize reading to create situations where students are likely to have positive experiences when reading. Another practical finding in this article was that students are interested in reading, but only if the effort of obtaining the book is minimal to non-existent. Put books in the classroom and draw attention to them.

Chapter 7 looks into how the digital revolution has impacted reading. In large part, it hasn’t. Students do read a bit less with television, internet, and video games but the amount children read was already so low, it couldn’t drop much. Another interesting finding was that when using digital books, our comprehension suffers. Even seeing a hyperlink without clicking on it slightly reduces our comprehension. Professor Willingham posits that the digital revolution has not impacted student attention span so much as it has reduced their capacity for boredom. For example, students can still pay attention to an entire movie because it interests them, but they cannot pay attention for an entire class because it bores them.

Check out the book here.