Reading With Understanding

waterloo 1815
... it was impossible in the complicated situation for Grouchy to distinguish the essential.
Becke, p. 280

I'm giving up on Major A. F. Becke's 1939 study Napoleon and Waterloo: The Emperor's Campaign With The Armee Du Nord 1815. I'm reading it, but I'm not comprehending it.

I shouldn't like to say it's a poorly written history, but it isn't a history written for beginners.

For example, Becke assumes his readers know a good deal about how the armies of the early 1800s moved and fought, whereas I know only a little. Consequently, I miss the point with the author tries to explain the import of some tactical decision.

I am also unused to the geography of north-west Europe in 1815. I can't picture the right maps in my head when the author talks about a line of retreat or the location of an army camp between two rivers. The same thing happens when I read about European battles fought during the Great War. If I'm not supplied with some very comprehensive maps, I lose the narrative among unfamiliar locales and landmarks.

I actually know many useless facts about the French revolution as well as the on-again off-again Franco-Prussian (becoming French-German) wars of the mid and late 1800s. But of Napoleon and Waterloo I know little.

So, Becke's book is, for me, difficult because I lack background knowledge.

Now, listen. The world is full of books I can't understand, and I mostly don't care about it. But I'm thinking about this right now because a few nights ago, at a community meeting, someone asked if I helped people with comprehension.

What do you mean? I asked.

Well, she said, sometimes I can read something - read the words - but I don't understand what I'm reading. Can you help me with that?


We set a time and place to talk about it. I'll take a range of reading materials (types and levels) and some informal assessment tools and we'll talk.

But, meantime, I'm thinking "not understanding" is a pretty complex state of affairs.

Let me give another example.

We started our summer Storytent program this week. At one tent I was happy to read a new (to me) book called The Great Paper Chase or something like that. It was about a bear and paper airplanes and missing branches. As I began reading the book to a child, a bit of noise called my attention to another part of the tent. Although I didn't stop reading aloud, I watched a situation a few feet away build toward conflict and then resolve itself. With that, my attention came back to the book, and I found myself reading the final page.

Now, here's the thing: I had no recollection of what was on the six or eight pages in the middle, despite having read them aloud just moments earlier.

I hadn't skipped these pages, you understand. I read each word, pausing at commas and periods. But I couldn't recall reading them. I had to look back and read them again before the story made sense to me.

Sometimes, apparently, reading is not a cognitive task. Sometimes, it is possible to read accurately and well without actually thinking about what's being read.

This, too, I assume, falls under the heading of reading without comprehension.

In both these cases - lacking background knowledge and reading while distracted - the reading level of the material is unimportant. At least, my assessed reading level would indicate that I ought to be able to read these two books with understanding.

As well, physical concerns like poor eyesight or malnutrition were not causes of difficulty.

In the latter case - the children’s story - my attention could have been further engaged in the story by a series of predictive questions. But, of course, that's a little beside the point since the predictive questions would probably have had no more command of my attention than the book itself. I really was interested in what was happening in the story. However, I was more interested in what was happening in the tent a few feet away.

In the former case - the history book - I was not the least distracted. I just didn't understand what was going on. Look at this bit:

General Monthyon was instructed to push out reconnaissances towards Wavre. But, as it was expected that only stragglers would be encountered, the reconnaissances were conducted conventionally and they were late in reporting their efforts.

I have no trouble with any of the words. The sentences are not long or tangled. My problem is I forget who Monthyon is. I have no mental picture of Wavre or the surrounding region. I don't know what a recon team looked like in 1815 (probably not 4 guys in a jeep or a 20 man squad), and I don't know what a "conventional" recon would be - nor what an unconventional one would look like. I don't know what it means to report "late" or early or on time.

In short, I don't get this paragraph. Moreover, I don't know a single reading strategy that would help me get it.

Yeah, "not understanding" is a pretty complex state of affairs. But not, I think, an uncommon one. It's often hard - in books or in life - to distinguish the essential.

At those moments I mostly just go read something else.

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