The Four Levels of Reading Every Student Should Know About

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Today, I want to talk to you about the four levels of reading as conceptualized by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren in their classic work How to Read a Book . The book was first published in 1940 and since then several editions have been released.

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 call them levels and not 'types' or 'kinds'.

According to Mortimer and Van Doren, the term 'kinds' denotes disembedded and separate entities while 'levels' denote a notion of embeddedness and interconnectedness. In other words, levels of reading are symbiotically related.

Below is a visual I created based on Mortimer and Van Doren's explanation of the four levels of reading. Feel free to download and share it the way you want.

What are the four levels of reading?

According to Mortimer and Charles Doren the four levels of reading are:

1- Elementary Reading

Elementary reading is also called initial reading, rudimentary reading, or basic reading. Once this level is mastered, readers go from nonliterary to 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 special emphasis on time. When reading at this level, the student is allowed a set time to complete an assigned amount of reading." The authors further added that, "another way to describe this level of reading is to say its aim is to get the most out of a book within a given time-usually a relatively short time-usually a relatively short time, and always (by definition) too short a time to get out of the book everything that can be gotten"(p. 18)

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 book, a scientific treatise, ect)? What is the book about? What is the structure of the book? (p-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 or entertainment. Analytical reading 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.