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The Four Levels of Reading Every Student Should Know About

January 20, 2016
How to Read a Book  by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren is one of the most celebrated classic works in the reading literature. It was first published in 1940 and then revisited and updated in an edition that was released in 1972. Since its publication millions of copies have been sold and is still widely circulating among education circles as a required reading text. It’s true that the book was conceived in a ‘pre-digital’ era but its content is still relevant even now that the digital text is predominantly prevalent.


In How to Read A Book, Van Doren and Mortimer talked about four main levels of reading: elementary reading, inspectional reading, analytical reading, and syntopical reading. Note here that the authors deliberately named them levels and not kinds because, according to them, kinds can be distinct from one another while levels denote a notion of embeddedness with lower levels included in higher ones. In other words, levels of reading are cumulative. Below is an infographic we have created encompassing these four levels of reading we want to bring to your attention. Please have a look and share with us your feedback.

levels of reading

The four levels of reading as conceptualized by Mortimer and Charles  Doren:

1- Elementary Reading:
it’s also called initial reading, rudimentary reading, or basic reading. Once this level is mastered, readers go from nonliterary to at least beginning literacy. In mastering this level, one learns the rudiments of the art of reading, receives basic training in reading, and acquires initial reading skills.(P. 16). The question that is asked at this level is :what does the sentence say?

2- Inspectional reading:
This is also called pre-reading or skimming. This level is characterized by its emphasis on time…its aim is to get the most out of a book within a given time’. This is usually done through an examination of the surface of the book checking things such as the the title of the book, its preface, table of contents, index, publisher’s blurb if available..etc. Upon finishing reading at this level, one should be able to answer the following questions: What kind of book is it (a novel, a history, a scientific treatise)? What is the book about? What is the structure of the book? (P.18-19).

3- Analytical reading:
This is a more demanding level for readers. It’s more complex than the preceding levels and represents a thorough and complete form of reading. Analytic reading is ‘hardly ever necessary if your goal in reading is simply information of entertainment.{It is} preeminently for the sake of understanding”. (P.19)

4- Syntopical reading
it’s also called comparative reading. This is the most complex and systematic level of reading. A syntopical reader reads different texts on the same subject and compares them to each other to arrive at a holistic and more nuanced understanding of the subject.