The mind is assailed, as it were

Edward Thorndike, “Reading as Reasoning: A Study of Mistakes in Paragraph Reading,” The Journal of Educational Psychology, 1917:

Understanding a paragraph is like solving a problem in mathematics. It consists in selecting the right elements of the situation and putting them together in the right relations, and also with the right amount of weight or influence or force for each. The mind is assailed as it were by every word in the paragraph. It must select, repress, soften, emphasize, correlate and organize, all under the influence of the right mental set or purpose or demand.


It thus appears that reading an explanatory or argumentative paragraph in his text-books on geography or history or civics, and (though to a less degree) reading a narrative or description, involves the same sort of organization and analytic action of ideas as occur in thinking of supposedly higher sorts.


It appears likely, therefore, that many children fail in certain features of these subjects not because they have understood and remembered the facts and principles but have been unable to organize and use them; or because they have understood them but have been unable to remember them; but because they never understood them.

It appears likely also that a pupil may read fluently and feel that the series of words are arousing appropriate thoughts without really understanding the paragraph. Many of the children who made notable mistakes would probably have said that they understood the paragraph and, upon reading the questions on it, would have said that they understood them. In such cases the reader finds satisfying solutions of those problems which he does raise and so feels mentally adequate; but he raises only a few of the problems which should be raised and makes only a few of the judgments which he should make.