This article is primarily focused on the topic of how to read the news.
I doubt that many people today would consider themselves to be illiterate but in reality many people are effectively illiterate because they don’t know “HOW” to read and analyze the news. For example, since Donald Trump became president of the United States the mainstream media has gone absolutely crazy with stories about him and for a while there I read everything that they published. And then I stopped. Why? Because I actually do know “HOW” to read and I realized that almost every headline was misleading¹ and every article devoid of anything approaching relevancy. In short, I realized that I would not learn anything from the reading. Let me explain.
Words have power, and words used the right way trigger people’s emotions. In my English classes for Chinese students for example, I will ask students what they think of Taiwan. They immediately reply ‘Taiwan belongs to China.’ They have been trained – propagandized – psychologically conditioned to respond to the topic in a deliberately engineered way.
After they reply I ask them what they think about Beijing / Shanghai / Hong Kong / Macau / Sichuan, and in reply they tell me what they think about those places. Beijing is the capital of China; it is a big city; it is a rich city etc.
What is the difference between asking ‘what do you think about Hong Kong’ and ‘what do you think about Taiwan?’ The difference relates to their programming. For them, the word Taiwan triggers both conscious and subconscious responses.
I will also write on the blackboard, ‘Is this sentence correct?‘ and then I write underneath, ‘Taiwan Island will never come back to the mainland!’ Students then will carry on and tell me that I am wrong and that Taiwan will come back. Then I ask a student to draw a rough map of China including Taiwan. Then I ask what it is on the blackboard separating China and Taiwan. It is the sea of course. Then I ask how is it possible that Taiwan Island can move to the Mainland and ask if it did come back, would Taiwan still be an island.
Students then laugh and usually tell me that they thought my written statement was about Taiwan independence. At that point I highlight both my question and my statement. ‘Is this sentence correct?’
What has this got to do with learning HOW to read? The answer is simple. When you read, you must first look at the actual words used and determine from the sentence construction, the meaning of the written sentence. This is called primary text reading. This term is usually used to refer to historical source documents but for my purposes here, I am using it to mean ‘what do the words actually mean, and what does the sentence mean?’ (I have provided some sources at the end for those who want to explore this topic further²)
Disciplining yourself to pay attention to the actual words used and the actual meaning of the sentence is very important, especially so since so much of what purports to be news is little more than the writer’s opinion about the facts of the news. For instance, I recently read a headline that announced President Trump’s new plan for something or other. I got halfway through reading it before I came upon the statement which said that this plan has not yet been given to the President for consideration. Therefore, the headline misrepresented the facts. I did not continue reading because I understood that whatever followed was not actual news.
When a writer offers an opinion about the news, it is just that, an opinion and it is always interesting to read people’s perspectives on the news. But that is quite different to presenting opinions, assumptions and presumptions as facts.
QUESTION: Did you read that President Donald Trump may have early onset of Alzheimer’s disease?
Do remember playing Chinese Whispers when you were a kid? I whisper something in your ear and you whisper it into someone else’s ear until finally when it comes back to me, what I get told is not what I actually told the first person. Now here is a test. Did I cite the source of information when I told you that Donald Trump has early onset Alzheimer’s disease? No, of course I didn’t. In fact I did not even say that Donald Trump had early onset Alzheimer’s. Go back and read what I wrote. I absolutely did not state that he was in any way at all ill.
Though my language was precise, most people will go away from the reading and say ‘Did you know Donald Trump has Alzheimer’s?’ Or else they will in stating their disbelief in the veracity of my statement, accuse me of promoting falsehoods. I did no such thing. What I did was manipulate you by using precise language that gave you an impression that I was saying something that I was not.
I recently read an article about a new discovery in relation to dinosaurs. The headline presented a fact, but the article was full of things like ‘perhaps,’ ‘it is possible that,’ ‘scientists believe that,’ and ‘if this is correct then ….’ The article was what is called ‘fluff.’ Like cotton candy it looks big and delicious but it really doesn’t have much substance.
One must first analyze both the words used and the obvious meaning of sentences. Unfortunately, people easily succumb to emotive language such as ‘Donald Trump demonstrates his stupidity again!’ Such a headline is designed to reinforce in the minds of those who don’t like Trump, that he is an idiot. But for those who like him, it causes a negative reaction, and of course the ultimate aim is to create tension and division in society because this type of news sells newspapers. It is quite deliberate.
Discerning the meaning of words and sentences however is not enough. We must determine what is fact and what is hyperbole (exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.) We need to research the facts involved in important news (especially political and economic news) because often what we are fed is a misrepresentation of real facts. For instance, how many times have we read about Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall on the Mexican border? How many people are aware of the legislation passed in 1994 and 2006 specifically in relation to this wall? How many people have read that Donald Trump implemented a ‘Muslim Ban’ when he put a hold on visa applicants from seven different countries? How many people actually know that this list was created during the Obama administration? Facts are often misrepresented in the news. It is about playing with words.
Living in China, I remain cognizant of the exchange rates and keep a log which lists the date and the amount of a standard currency exchange. How often I have read headlines such as ‘The Dollar Takes Massive Tumble.’ I then check the rates and enter them into my log and find the last time that a currency exchange was at that level. Often I find that while the dollar did take a massive tumble, the current rate is still much higher than what it was a year ago. Great headline but quite misleading.
Many years ago I was in the library reading a book by a famous academic and he stated that the year in which a certain event occurred in antiquity was such and such, and beside the date was a footnote. The footnote cited another famous academic and so I went and found his book and went to the cited page number and found that when he quoted the same date, there was a footnote beside it. When I went to the footnote I found that he had cited the first academic. They were citing each other but actually offering no proof of what they were asserting.
Being careful to understand the meanings of words and sentences, and having checked the facts to ensure that we have not been misled, and having separated factual news reporting from opinion, there is still another aspect to reading which is very important. And that concerns our personal rose colored glasses or worldview.
To explain this within the context of Donald Trump’s Presidency, anything written which warns that Donald Trump is going to cause great harm to this, that or some other situation is bound to trigger our prejudices; our worldview. When Donald Trump became president, something like $30 billion was wiped off of the Australian stock exchange and people on my Facebook page were actually blaming the President. What did he do? He did nothing! All those protestors during his inauguration were accusing him of tyranny, and yet he was not officially president.
As for the stock exchange, several months down the track we read that the economy is now stronger than it has been in decades. Did Donald Trump cause that? I’m sure he and his followers would say so, but his opponents know with certainty that he is leading the world into World War Three. I am sure that they will be thrilled to have been proven right if it happens and thoroughly disappointed if it doesn’t happen. Such is the logic of prejudice.
Another thing of which to be careful when reading is the inclination to ‘interpret’ what we read within the context of our religious, cultural and political worldviews. For example:
In one school I gave the students a set of oral instructions and made them memorize them. Within a few minutes all students were able to clearly state the instructions. We were all going to walk to the door, go down the stairs, walk across to the school gates, exit the school and then turn left and walk down the street. I then asked the students a question. “Which way will we go when we exit the school?” They all correctly replied that we would go left. But then using my arms to signal directions, I asked again in which direction we would go. They all indicated that we would go right. Why is that? Because it didn’t make sense that we would go left because the road only went for one hundred yards. Though they understood the instruction and knew what they were saying, when it came to actual action they would have done something different.
We often read into something, something that is not actually written. In the comments section to an article, I once used the expression ‘democratic countries’ and copped a long written lecture correcting my statement that the United States was a democracy when in fact it is a republic. But nowhere did I state that the U.S. was a Democracy.
In my student textbook there is a reading passage about a man named John who goes well and truly out of the way to help his very old sickly neighbor who is referred to as Grandma. Every year I ask students to read and translate the story and then to do a précis, recording just the ‘facts.’ And every year 90 percent of students write about what John did to help his Grandma. But the story clearly states that John is a neighbor and in the latter half introduces us to Grandma’s granddaughter. Why do the student’s not see this? The answer is simple. Within their cultural mindset it is not reasonable to believe that a mere neighbor would do all of these things for Grandma, and so Grandma must be ‘his’ grandma.
In both of these examples from class, students overlaid their own cultural thinking onto the situation and even though their eyes and ears told them correctly what they were seeing and hearing, their brains did not.
It has never ceased to amaze me that even though Hamas in Gaza repeatedly says in the press that there will never be peace with Israel, and even though Hamas repeatedly states that their charter requires the complete removal of all Jews from Palestine, apparently mindless idiots in the liberal progressive camp keep insisting that if only Israel would make concessions, there would be peace.
These mindless liberal progressives see and hear what we all see and hear, but unfortunately their minds have succumbed to their ideology to such a point that within the deep recesses of their minds they don’t actually believe what Hamas keeps saying. They are so sure that appeasement brings peace that they simply can’t believe that Hamas will still seek to destroy the Jews even if they agree to every demand.
(Years ago in Wuhan I was with seven Muslims from different parts of the world when I asked. ‘What would happen if Israel caved in to every demand of the Palestinians?’ They all fell down laughing. ‘They would cease to exist!’ was their reply.)
Another important lesson in learning how to read is to learn to pay attention to the SPECIFIC words contained in an article. A good journalist knows which words to use and which words not to use and so does a propagandist.
I recently read an article about domestic violence and several cases were cited. There was the case of this husband who did that, and that boyfriend who did this, and another husband who did that, and yet another boyfriend who did this, and then there was the one which really stood out. It cited the case of a woman’s partner who did this, that and something else, and I just had to wonder why the word partner was used. Could it have been a way of hiding the fact that this partner was a woman? Can’t have people thinking women are violent now can we.
Finally, once we have carefully dodged all the traps into which it is so easy to fall, we have to stop and consider what the writer’s intention was when he put his article together. Why did he write what he did? What was his purpose? Is there some secondary and not so obvious meaning in the article? Has his article been constructed from an original source (the primary text) and if so, is his writing faithful to what was presented in the original source?
Words can be extremely deceptive. A student once performed in a concert and afterward came running down to me to ask what I thought of his performance. I answered him honestly. ‘Wow! I have never heard anyone sing that song like you did!’ He went away happy! The message we take away is not always the truth behind the statements made. We may deceive ourselves or be deceived by the language used.
To summarize then, in order to avoid media manipulation and self-deception, our first duty is to read what the writer actually wrote and think about his/her purpose, goal and meaning in the statements made.
When you have read an article; when you have paid attention to the actual wording; and when you have assessed the writer’s purpose, then and only then should you begin to consider how you feel about what you read, and when you do this, you need to ask yourself why you feel that way.
News articles today are very intentionally designed to TRIGGER responses. This is something which we must not let people do to us. They can try but it is up to us to use our brains and not be triggered.
The bottom line folks, is that we actually have to pay attention to the FACTS displayed in what we read. The FACTS recorded by the writer – not the facts we thought we read or assumed we read. What does the writer ACTUALLY write and what do those words mean. What do we guess is his meaning (if it doesn’t seem to be specifically stated) and how do his words make us feel and more importantly, why do they make us feel that way?
The problem is that people just don’t take the time to analyze what they read. They just REACT.
If I could give President Trump some advice on education it would be to begin teaching students “HOW” to read.
As the end of Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office approaches, now’s a good a time to cut through the fog of misinformation, disinformation, media propaganda, ideological bias and outright hostility that has greeted his arrival in Washington and take a clear-eyed look at how he’s really doing. Answer: much better than you think.
As John J. WALSH point out in his 2010 article titled: We Love to Hate our Presidents:
It is a fact it is for sure, that no matter who is president, one half of the country speaks nothin but bad of him; while the other half thinks that the sun shines out his ass, while the other half pontificates on Presidential suitability without ever having voted at all.
² About primary texts and historical sources
Reading primary sources:
An introduction for students By Kathryn Walbert
What factual information is conveyed in this source?
What opinions are related in this source?
What is implied or conveyed unintentionally in the source?
What is not said in this source?
What do I not understand in this source?
What is the tone?
Who is the intended audience?
What is the purpose of the publication?
What assumptions does the author make?
What are the bases of the author’s conclusions?
Does the author agree or disagree with other authors of the subject?
Does the content agree with what you know or have learned about the issue?
Where was the source made?
Reading comprehension is the ability to read text, process it, and understand its meaning. Although this definition may seem simple, it is not necessarily simple to teach, learn or practice. An individual’s ability to comprehend text is influenced by their traits and skills, one of which is the ability to make inferences. If word recognition is difficult, students use too much of their processing capacity to read individual words, which interferes with their ability to comprehend what is read.
Articles on Speech Writing and Presentation
- Part 1. Planning a Presentation or a Speech in English as a Second Language
- Part 2. Organizing the Points of your Speech or Presentation
- Part 3. The Outline or Bones of a Speech or Presentation
- Part 4. Topic Sentences and Transitions in Speech or Presentation Writing
- Part 5. The Oral/Verbal Presentation of a Speech – English as a Second Language