The Four Levels of Reading Explained

The purpose of this post is to talk to you about the four levels of reading as conceptualized by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren in their classic work How to Read a Book. The book was first published in 1940 and several editions have since been published.

In How to Read A Book, Van Doren and Mortimer talked about four main levels of reading: elementary reading, inspectional reading, analytical reading, and syntopical reading. Note here that the authors deliberately call them levels and not ‘types’ or ‘types’.

According to Mortimer and Van Doren, the term ‘types’ denotes disembedded and separate entities, while ‘levels’ denotes a notion of embeddedness and interconnectedness. In other words, levels of reading are symbiotically related.

Below is a visualization I made based on Mortimer and Van Doren’s explanation of the four levels of reading. Feel free to download and share it, provided you credit us as the source.

What are the four reading levels?

According to Mortimer and Charles Doren, the four reading levels are:

1- The elementary reading level

Elementary reading is also called introductory reading, rudimentary reading, or basic reading. Once this level is mastered, readers move from non-literate to beginning literate. By mastering this level, one learns the rudiments of reading, receives basic training in reading, and acquires initial reading skills (p. 16). The question asked at this level is: what does the sentence say?

2- The inspection reading level

This is also called pre-reading or skimming. This level “is characterized by its special emphasis on time. When reading at this level, the student is given a set amount of time to complete an assigned amount of reading.”

The authors further added that “another way to describe this level of reading is to say that its goal is to get the most out of a book in a given amount of time—usually a relatively short amount of time and always (by definition) too short time to get out of the book all that can be had.” (p. 18)

When you finish reading at this level, you should be able to answer the following questions: What kind of book is it (a novel, a history book, a scientific treatise, ect)? What’s the book about? What is the structure of the book? (pp. 18-19).

3- The analytical reading level

This is a more demanding level for readers. It is more complex than the previous levels and represents a thorough and complete form of reading. Analytical reading is ‘hardly ever necessary if your goal in reading is simply information or entertainment. Analytical reading is largely for the sake of understanding”. (p. 19)

4- The syntopic reading level

It is also called comparative reading. This is the most complex and systematic reading level. A syntopical reader reads different texts on the same subject and compares them with each other in order to arrive at a holistic and more nuanced understanding of the subject.


Leave a Reply