The multiple senses of reading

The multiple senses of reading

Commentary 3

Not too long ago, I had a discussion with my students (grades 10-12) about books and movies. We were discussing the fact that we always prefer the book – the written text form, but generally want to see the movie – the visual screen form. There were comments about how they enjoyed creating their own images from the words they read, but enjoyed seeing the film version of the book to see how someone else envisioned the same words. Others said that they never want to see the film of the book they read because they do not want their own interpretations altered. Even though our students are growing up in a highly stimulating time filled with text, sound, images, and film, all modes of reading are still relevant. Reading is not limited to deciphering words in a text. When I place my mouse over the word ‘reading’ in the former sentence and right click for a list of synonyms, Office provides me with this list: interpretation, understanding, analysis, construing, appraisal, evaluation, impression, and sense. Therefore, when I am teaching my students how to read, I am (or should be) teaching how to understand, analyze, evaluate, and so on. These actions are not limited to text. Thus, it is important for teachers today to embrace all modes of representation, whether textual or visual, in order to guide our students to become constructive citizens in this digital world.

J. D. Bolter and G. Kress both contend that we are witnessing a decline in textual modes of representation due to a rise of visual modes of representation. I would agree to an extent with their arguments. However, I believe that it is not necessarily a decline in textual modes of representation but a decline in printed modes of representation. Bolter commented on how “[Graphics] seem to bubble out of the prose and appear before our eyes, transforming us from readers into viewers. This process … is renewed for us by the techniques of animation and interactivity in digital media” (2001, p. 56). This observation leads to the fact that media in the 21st century is digital as opposed to traditional printed, hand-delivered information. Visual modes of representation have been around for many years. Newspapers, which began as political pamphlets in Europe during the mid- to late 14th century, have become a multimodal form of representation including text, images, and colour today (Weber, 2006). The billboard, which originates from the 1830s, is another form of representation that tends to be more visual than textual, but both nonetheless, and has evolved into digital networks, which the OAAA first installed in 2005 (OAAA, 2012). According to the OAAA, “Outdoor advertising can trace its lineage back to the earliest civilizations. Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians employed a tall stone obelisk to publicize laws and treaties” (2012). It is important to note that the ancient Egyptian language was a system of hieroglyphics – a language that was visual. Therefore, it seems that the concept of reading, and its modes of representation, has gone through a cyclical transformation of remediation.

Reading is a diverse and complex skill for one to learn due to its multimodal forms of representation. Kress explains that reading should be thought of as “taking meaning and making meaning from many sources of information, from many different sign-systems” (2005, p.17). Therefore, in order for our students to survive in this multimodal time, they must learn to use many of their senses to read life. The digital environment of today allows people to read with their eyes, ears, nose, touch, and even their tongue. Think of the many magazines that have perfume or, lotion samples that they can smell and touch, or the concept of scratch and sniff advertising. In the digital world of iPads and smartphones, reading leans toward the combination of the eye and ear where people watch and listen to videos. Reading, or its many available synonyms, requires us to take and make meaning in ways that our ancestors never would have dreamt.

Because reading today requires people to be multimodal, education is undergoing a paradigm shift. In B.C., “the current provincial curriculum includes more than 164 discrete learning outcomes for grade two” alone, which includes reading outcomes (B.C. Ministry of Education, winter 2012). This is one reason that B.C. has decided to re-think the curriculum. Many of the courses taught in the secondary levels require our students to read something and then write or talk about it. How can we expect our students to do well in school if they do not know how to read various types of texts? Dave Gregg, E-Learning Officer of the Learning Division of the Ministry of Education, explains how the Ministry of Education wants “to identify the technological knowledge and skills learner need to be fully prepared for 21stcentury learning environments and workplaces” (2012, p. 21). They defined digital literacy as

“the interest, attitude and ability of individuals to appropriately use digital technology and communication tools to access, manage, integrate, analyze and evaluate information, construct new knowledge, and create and communicate with others in order to participate effectively in society” (as cited in Gregg, Winter 2012, p.21).

This definition is important because it recognizes the fact that literacy in this digital world is different and that reading, a key component of literacy, now requires learners to do more than turn a page in a book or a newspaper. Therefore, if the students of tomorrow are to participate effectively in society, teachers need to embrace all modes of representation – to use the multiple senses of reading.


B.C. Ministry of Education. (Winter 2012). Transforming BC’s curriculum to enable personalized learning. Learn: The Magazine of BC Education, (3), p. 12-13.

Bolter, J.D. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Gregg, D. (Winter 2012). Developing digital literacy standards. Learn: The Magazine of BC Education, (3), p. 21.

Kress, G. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge and learning. Computers and Composition, 22(1), p. 5-22. Retrieved from

Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA). (2012). History of Outdoor. Retrieved from

Weber, J. (2006). Strassburg, 1605: The origins of the newspaper in Europe. German History 24(3), p 387–412. Retrieved from doi: 10.1093/0266355406gh380oa

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1 Response to The multiple senses of reading

  1. mckay says:

    I am uncertain about how ‘time’ figures into the senses, but there may be a connection between your observation of the sensory aspects of reading with my project that covers a unique novel that plays with voice and time.

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