Why is reading difficult?

As a psychotherapist, formerly as a teacher, and sometimes still as a writer, I have met so many people who have found reading difficult. At points in my life, in spite of my love of reading and of books, I have found it almost impossible.
       It seems fashionable now to try and look for neurological or other, possibly related, organic reasons for why people find reading difficult – such as allergies. It’s easier to medicate something that seems to have a material cause.
       Does this kind of diagnosis ever really help? I’ve met people who can read again, or perhaps for the first time, properly. But the ones I have know, although they feel somehow more free, also seem to have reached a point where something still seems blocked. They can absorb words from a page, but they can’t do things with them that they have an idea they might.
       I can suggest here, very briefly, some things that may be blocking your relationship with written words. All of them are things which can be addressed without medication and outside of a classroom.
       I should add that nobody I have known finds reading easy. Even the most avid reader has to connect with a book and that reader is sometimes the most lucid in being able to describe what can get in the way. For the sake of simplicity I have numbered these thoughts about reading difficulties. I am aware that if you are reading this you may be experiencing some of them.

  1. Dissociation. Reading can be made difficult by the process of dissociation. The feeling of losing one’s place, not taking words in, or not absorbing information is so common it is rarely talked about. The effect of these things happening when you are a student, especially in a classroom, as a very young child, is that she or he will be treated in ways that will leave them feeling ashamed. Shame acts a horrible censor, making it harder than ever for someone to say what they are finding difficult. Dissociation can arise for many reasons. It is highly treatable. There are reading techniques I can recommend for people who find it hard to read more than a few sentences without getting lost.
  2. Getting stuck. To read you need to be able to make connections – associations – that help the text come to life. Some of this can be to do with dissociation; some comes from an unfamiliarity with words that might be rooted in a difficulty to read. Talking and reading out loud to interested people can help. Theres so much more I could say about this, and may in another place.
  3. The audience. Effects of the imagined or real expectations of an audience. Although this it is something of a dissociative process, it’s less directly so. The dissociation occurs not when a book is already open in front of someone, but before the book ever gets opened.  It takes a wonderful teacher, or a very enlightened parent to realise that the reasons why a someone, child or adult, procrastinates, reads the wrong thing, or gets involved in a volatile situation which prevents something getting done is most likely to be connected with a barely acknowledged set of assumptions relating to what will happen if nothing gets in the way. Emotions govern what we do. Thoughts arise out of emotions that are sometimes spectacularly misguided attempts to do a version of the right thing: the right thing by that individual. The thing which will lead to the best path through life for them.
  4. Enlightened resistance. Some children, and some adults, become aware very early on that what they are reading is not what’s good for them, and unlike in the kind of situation I have described in point three, they are correct.
           I was depressed, recently, to see some of the material currently being read as part of an A level syllabus and on an undergraduate English Literature programme. The texts were sentimental, simplistic and brutal. Perhaps in the name of openness, or as a reaction to long-lost censoriousness of emotional honesty, some teachers seem to have lost their protective sense. Reading can be re-traumatising. People who choose not to read something that merely repeats horrors of which they are already well aware need to be rewarded, not punished. Unfortunately terrible things are often written about in ways that remain attached, even if it is barely consciously, to the dynamics that repeat them. Witness the effect, for example, of the millions of journalist’s words devoted to describing why Donald Trump should never be president of the USA. Much of the writing feels frightening and seems part of how the Trump takeover keeps happening.
  5. Poor teaching. I used to teach English undergraduates and was horrified by the number of mediocre students (in addition to a very few excellent ones) who decided to become English teachers.
  6. Our schools. Until relatively recently I was involved in helping children from difficult backgrounds try to receive a good education. What I would recognise as a good education is currently unlikely to occur in an English school.

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