Reading teachers, diagnosticians, interventionists, tutors, and all readers interested in honing reading skills might appreciate reading (or re-reading) the classic work Practical Criticism by I. A. Richards—at least the part where he explains the principal difficulties of readers. His list deals specifically with reading poetry, and the difficulties his students have with critiquing poetry, but I think the same difficulties can occur in other types of reading as well. Interestingly, his book was first published almost a century ago in 1929.

Here is a brief summary of the interpretive and critical difficulties he describes, as I understand them:

1. Students fail to make out the plain prose sense of the reading

2. Students failing to appreciate the sensuous aspects of the language—its motion and rhythm, for example

3. Readers differ in their power to visualize or appreciate other kinds of imagery

4. “Mnemonic irrelevances” – being overly influenced by one’s personal connections when reading

5. Stock responses – something in the reading elicits an already fully developed set of ideas in the reader

6. Sentimentality – emotional over-reaction

7. Inhibition –emotional under-reaction

8. “Doctrinal adhesions” – fixed ideas the reader has about the world—about what s/he perceives as truth—getting in the way of experiencing a work of literature for what its purpose is.

9. Technical presuppositions – judging the work by its technical aspects

10. “General critical preconceptions” – prejudices toward a certain kind of writing, genre, etc.

It seems when we read, we can learn almost as much about ourselves as the subject of the writing.