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Clear and effective communication: Make your readers’ task easier
(Language Update, Volume 7, Number 1, 2010, page 40)
As a writer, do you have any influence over the way your audience reads and interprets your texts? You may not think so, since every reader is different. But your readers do have one thing in common: they use cognitive strategies to make sense of what they read. Therefore, understanding the strategies involved in the reading process can be helpful.
Researchers suggest various ways of dividing the reading process into stages. I have chosen to present a three-stage model: previewing, reading and post-reading.
Even before beginning to read a text, readers glance over it to see what it is about and get an idea of the structure. They can then call to mind any knowledge already stored in their memory on this subject and begin to form theories about the information contained in the text.
At this stage, readers focus on titles and headings, visual elements (images, tables, graphs, etc.) and elements that add emphasis (text boxes, bold font, etc.).
The way your readers carry out this preview depends on their purpose in reading. For example, those who plan to read the text from beginning to end to get an in-depth knowledge of the subject will briefly assess the headings, visual elements and emphasis before starting the in-depth reading process. On the other hand, those who are hunting for a specific piece of information will spend more time looking at the headings and other elements and will read only the relevant sections of the text.
Here are some tips to help your readers preview the text:
- Use specific, meaningful titles and headings.
For example, a vague title such as “Government to the rescue” doesn’t provide any concrete clues to the content of the text. And when there is no obvious link between the title and the subject matter, readers must generate an unnecessarily wide range of theories about the content. This process requires a substantial mental effort. In this case, a title like “Government unveils program to aid homeless” would provide readers with a clearer basis for theorizing about content.
- Make sure that your images, tables and graphs support the content of the text.
To give your readers more guidance, title your tables and graphs and add a caption below pictures where necessary.
- Use text boxes and bold font to draw your readers’ attention to important information.
However, while these elements can provide useful clues about subject matter, be careful: if you overuse them, they can create confusion.
- Keep in mind that your readers have different purposes in reading.
Write for those who read every word and for those who don’t hesitate to skip lines or even entire paragraphs. You can serve the needs of both types of reader if you put the most important information up front, structure your text in a way that is logical and intuitive, and make good use of headings. In some cases, a question-and-answer format may prove effective.
Now that the reader has a general idea of the text, the actual reading process can begin. At this stage, a variety of strategies come into play: readers must decode and process information, while at the same time making links between ideas and comparing the information presented with what they already know. Let’s take a closer look at each of these activities.
Decoding and processing information
When they read a text, readers decode the information by focusing on groups of words and using syntactic cues (word order, punctuation, etc.) to assign meaning to these word groups. In this way, they pick out the important words in each sentence and are thus able to extract the main idea and retain it. They can then link this main idea to the main ideas in other sentences.
Tip for Reading
- Use a subject-verb-object order.
Sentences that reverse the logical progression of an action require more effort to process. Consider the following example:
The water that ecosystems recycle provides living organisms with nutrients and energy.
The sentence below is far easier for readers to process:
Ecosystems recycle water, which provides living organisms with nutrients and energy.
During the reading process, readers must also make links between clauses, sentences and paragraphs.
Tip for Making links
- Check that pronouns, possessives and demonstratives have clear antecedents.
Consider the following example:
The union representative would have liked some insight into the thinking of the firm’s president. She had noticed that she did not share the position of the parent company, which could terminate its activities at any moment.
In this passage, readers have to take time to think about the antecedent for each pronoun. True, they can figure it out. But if the passage were worded more clearly, readers would be able to give their full attention to the content of the sentences:
The union representative would have liked some insight into the thinking of the firm’s president. She had noticed that the president did not share the position of the parent company, which could terminate the firm’s activities at any moment.
As they read, readers verify the accuracy of the theories they generated during the preview and compare the information presented in the text with their own prior knowledge. In the process, they arrive at new questions and form new theories that will turn out to be valid or invalid as their reading progresses. By the end of the reading process, readers will have brought forth from memory a quantity of information greater than that presented in the text.
Even when the reading process is complete, some cognitive effort is still required. Readers continue to go through a series of activities, although not necessarily at the conscious level. In the post-reading stage, readers begin a process of analysis. They reflect on whether they have understood the text, whether they have found the information they were looking for and whether the text met their expectations. They also file new knowledge in their memory banks.
As we have seen, the reading process is a complex one. Readers have to apply cognitive strategies at every stage: while previewing, while reading and while reflecting afterwards on their reading experience. If you take these reading strategies into account when writing, you will make the reading process faster and easier for your readers.
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SMITH, Frank. Writing and the Writer. New York: CBS College Publishing, 1982.
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