There is no substitute for reading. Not books on tape. Not podcasts. Not talking to people. Not movies. Reading is far more important than the vast majority of people realize. Here’s why:
The Most Vital Skill for Learning
The average high school student (and maybe the average person) does not fully understand a majority of what they read. And, almost always, they have little or no idea that they are misunderstanding what they read. (I know this from having done thousands of hours of reading passages with students and seeing why they get questions incorrect.) There are numerous causes for lack of reading comprehension (lack of focus, lack of vocabulary knowledge, etc), but the most common cause by far is that people cannot process the correct meaning of sentences. (The average student is not really understanding the reading passages but also not really understanding the questions and the answer choices — which is why the average student gets more than 50% of questions wrong on the ACT Reading section.) Language is incredibly complex and, without a lot of practice, people just don’t have enough exposure to complex sentences to understand what they read. And then, on top of that, people then need to put the meaning of each sentence into the context of each paragraph and understand the paragraph in the context of the whole chapter and piece. Doing so correctly is very, very hard.
But doing so is also the most vital skill for learning. Consider this: For many of our international students for whom English is their second language, the math on the Math section of the SAT and ACT is not what holds back their Math section scores. It’s their reading comprehension of the math problems that holds back their Math section score. The better students are at reading, the better they will be at math without even learning more math– they will simply be able to understand math word problems and apply their existing math knowledge better. Reading ability is also the primary skill needed for almost every other subject in school. Is a student not good at Science because he cannot understand photosynthesis? Probably not. He probably just read about the process of photosynthesis and didn’t understand what he read — but not because he is not good at Science itself but because his reading ability prevents him from understanding most of what he reads, including in this case his reading about photosynthesis. History, Physics, Chemistry, Psychology, Economics, etc, etc, etc — most of what we learn in these subjects comes from what we read. A lack of reading, then, has two consequences on learning: 1) We read less and thus learn less, and 2) We understand less of what we read and thus learn less from reading even when we do read.
The Most Specialized (and inexpensive) Education
As I wrote more about here, a general education is incredibly important. But, if you want a specialized education, then the best, easiest, and cheapest way to get it is typically through reading books on your own. For example, my executive MBA gave me good general knowledge on a lot of business topics, but it gave me expertise on none of them. If a degree has to cover Statistics, Finance, Economics, Marketing, Strategy, Accounting, Data Analytics, Operations, Management, and more, then there is no possible way that you can become an expert on all of them unless you get specific degrees in all of them. And, honestly, I’m not sure even then that you would get the specialization that you need for whatever you are personally pursuing. For example, I did the weeklong IECA (Independent Educational Consultant Association) Summer Institute, which is designed to help independent college counselors run college counseling businesses. Was it useful in that respect? A little bit, but it was packed with so much that I did not need, already knew, etc. Was reading the books “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions” and “The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College” more useful? About 100 times more useful for me. The summer institute took a week’s worth of time and cost $750. The books took me a few hours to read and cost a combined $30.25. So, compared to the summer institute, the books took about 15% of the time, cost 4% of the price, and provided 10,000% of the benefit that I needed.
If you have an idea of what you want to learn and there’s a good book to help you learn it, then a book is usually far and away the best option. There is a ridiculous wealth of expertise out there in books. I mean, really, a ridiculous amount. It is almost mind-blowing how quickly and inexpensively you can gain incredibly valuable knowledge and expertise.
Better than Audio
While there are different types of learners (some people are just better at learning from listening, doing, etc) and while audio provides certain advantages (such as the opportunity to listen while doing other tasks), reading still has some unique advantages:
- Most people (especially those who read quite a lot) can read much faster than people can speak, thus reading a book can take less time than listening to the same book in an audio format.
- It is much easier to re-read a sentence or a few sentences than it is to re-listen to exactly what you want to re-listen to. This ease of repetition in what you read (in order to really take it in so that you remember it, better understand it, etc) makes it easier to memorize and learn from reading.
- You can much more easily underline, star, write notes in the margins, fold down the corner of a page, and write notes in the back of the book than you can write down where in an audio book there was something important.
- With a physical book (and even some ebook platforms), it is much easier to skim through the pages and just re-read what you’ve underlined, to re-read your notes at the end of the book, etc, so you have more access to the knowledge contained in the physical book than in its audio form.
- Many books do not have an audio form, so you will limit much of what you can learn and enjoy if you only stick to audio formats.
Good for Your Health
Want to live longer, think better, decrease your risks of Alzheimer’s, decrease stress, decrease cognitive decline, and feel better about yourself? Consider reading, which accomplishes all of those and more.¹ And, depending on what you’re reading, it can be really fun!
I barely read anything for pleasure throughout all of high school because the books I was forced to read in English class did not interest me and I then developed a distaste for reading even for pleasure on my own. But, if you had or are having a similar experience, try to learn from my mistake: consider just reading for fun on your own even though you felt like or are feeling like reading for school is drudgery. Doing so will not only be enjoyable but will give you so many benefits and advantages that you cannot get from anywhere else. Maybe try out Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink.” Although you will learn a lot from the book, that’s just a happy side effect of how enjoyable a book it is to read. Or, if you like romance or mystery or almost any other genre, then just read those. Even reading fiction for fun will help you develop your reading ability. And increasing your reading ability immediately increases your ability to learn and further set you up for success: you can continue learning on your own and gain specialized knowledge in the least expensive and most efficient way — from reading books.