When You Have No Idea What It’s Saying…

I’ve written about Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” here before, and I have a full lesson on it here. It’s a great story, and it’s one I teach frequently to people learning English.

But, there’s a problem I’ve seen again and again.

It starts early, by the second paragraph:

Sometimes he would walk for hours and miles and return only at midnight to his house. And on his way he would see the cottages and homes with their dark windows, and it was not unequal to walking through a graveyard where only the faintest glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind the windows. Sudden gray phantoms seemed to manifest upon inner room walls where a curtain was still undrawn against the night, or there were whisperings and murmurs where a window in a tomb-like building was still open.

The first paragraph is fine; Leonard Mead enjoys walking out alone at night in this world of 2053 AD. Got it. Even the first sentence above — he’d walk “for hours and miles,” sure. But then, look at the next sentence. Do you see the challenge? Many times by this point, a student says, “What?” Are we in a graveyard? What are “glimmers of firefly light” or “flickers”? “Phantoms,” “manifest upon inner room walls”?

The issue is not just vocabulary, though some of these words may not be common or immediately known. Vocabulary can be dealt with in context. The challenge here is poetry.

The language itself becomes poetic. We’re in a simile, a comparison. Walking on this street “was not unequal to walking through a graveyard,” meaning: Walking on this street was equal to, was “like” walking in a graveyard. The flickers of light are described like fireflies, and ghosts (phantoms) seemed to appear. We maybe hear “whisperings and murmurs,” and a building is described as “tomb-like.”

All of this is hypothetical — maybe, usually. And there is so much figurative, not literal description here. What’s happening literally? It’s dark. It’s creepy. There are no people around. It feels like everything’s dead. There are small “flickers” of light coming from the houses, but very little sound.

So, what do you do when you’re reading a text like this and you have no idea what it’s saying?

One strategy is to “dig in.” I see students do this a lot, especially while reading in a second language. You already feel unconfident in your reading, already anticipating those words you won’t know. The underlying thought is, “I should know more vocabulary.” or “My English isn’t that good.” or “I should work more on my English.”

So when you come across these passages, you’re frustrated. You find the dictionary and look up every word, write definitions above the words on the page. I can see the intensity in your eyes. You dig in and try to solve the puzzle like a watchmaker fixing every tiny part of a watch’s gears with the tiniest screwdriver. Your eyes are strained and tired; you have a headache. You back away from the story and need to take a breath.

Here’s another way: You realize, “This is poetry,” and so you read it that way. You step back from the words. You see the whole paragraph like looking at the Earth from space, the whole, round image of it. You picture what you do know from the words, the images that you see without any intense digging. You take a breath and let your mind and heart and body take it in. Look for the words you do understand. You might be surprised at how much you see without understanding every word.

Then go back to the text. Pinpoint a couple of phrases that are really mystifying. Look up a word or two, still with the goal of seeing the whole image, not getting hung up on every meaning like you’re decoding a legal brief or reading a real estate contract.

A story is poetic, a creative piece. Remember the author is not arguing a point or trying to communicate logical information from A to Z. Remember the author is describing something, creating a mood, a feeling, showing you a world, a person. Your goal as the reader is to see, feel, hear, take in those images and feelings and senses — not to pick apart every word.

The meaning goes beyond the words; the words are only the signs on paper that create a whole world. Your job is to understand the world. Reading poetry is feeling, sensing, seeing — different from logical understanding.

Now, I know that if you really don’t know those words, you’re not going to see the images, not going to understand enough to picture it. Yes, that’s true. So there’s a balance between the “big,” Earth-level view and the intensive, picky, “watch-maker” view. The key is to remember that balance and let yourself shift between ways of reading.

And remember, even native speakers read literature and struggle to understand everything. Native speakers read literature and don’t know every word, sometimes many of the words. In our native language, we tend to skip over what we don’t understand and don’t even realize it. I’ll ask native-speaker students, “Do you know the meaning of ______,” whatever word is in the piece, and many times, they realize, “Oh, no, I don’t.” When we talk about it, they understand the passage differently, get a different “shade” to what they understood before. This is a normal process of reading, whether or not you’re reading in your native language or a second one.

So, give yourself a break. It’s important to find texts that verge on challenging but not frustrating. Texts are enjoyable when you can read much of them easily but encounter new words, ideas, structures. I try to strike that balance with students, listen to where they struggle and understand their reading level in choosing texts.

But the “level” of the text is only half the battle; the mind that reads the text is the other. The more you understand how your mind engages with a text, that you’re engaging in normal “struggles” any reader would have, or can equip yourself with reading strategies, you can not only use reading to build your language, but you’ll enjoy reading more.


Interested in doing this kind of reading work? Send me a message and let me know what you’d like to work on, how I can help! I offer private lessons and small group courses.


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