The Reading Process Riddle

Yesterday, my wonderful and beautiful wife (who, incidentally, is also an amazing photographer) forwarded me an email containing the old “Count the number of F’s” brainteaser. Of course, I didn’t fall for the puzzle this time, owing to the fact that I had done it before. However, it occurred to me that the puzzle does a great job illustrating a couple of important points for language teachers about the reading process.

The Puzzle
But, before we get on to the boring teacher stuff, here’s the puzzle, in case you haven’t done it before:

Quickly count the F’s n the next text – how many are there?


Most people only count 3, failing to count the F’s in the 3 Of’s. There are actually 6 F’s (I think!).

For Language Teachers

Now, 3 reasons why I deem this to be worth blogging about:

1. It shows that when fluent readers read, they don’t process texts letter by letter, word by word – rather they take in all the letters simultaneously, recognising all the letters in the word at once. Furthermore, research suggests that we recognise related pairs of words more quickly than unrelated pairs or words.

2. It demonstrates that fluent readers don’t process all of the words in a text – according to studies, we process fewer than half of the function words (words such as of, the, and to which don’t contain lexical meaning) in a text and around 80% of the content words.

3. More generally, it highlights the inadequacy of bottom-up approaches (on their own) for explaining the reading process and provides support for the view that reading more is likely characterised by the continuous interaction between top-down and bottom-up processing skills.

As Celce-Murcia and Olshtain (2000) point out:

“Good and effective reading must…be viewed as combining both rapid and accurate recognition and decoding of letters, words, collocations, and other structural cues with sensible, global predictions related to the text as a whole”

There are obvious implications here for work that we do with written texts in the classroom.

Now, what about the one about the colour and the tool?


4 Responses to The Reading Process Riddle

  1. What a great post, Mark! It’s been a while since I thought about some of these issues, and the puzzle certainly brought it home hard (I only counted 3 Fs, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd time!).

    And the “boring teacher stuff” was anything but boring – very succinct and to the heart of the matter.

    Great stuff!

    ~ Jason

  2. I’ve done this puzzle too before and, as a result, I found the 6 Fs too, but what you wrote is very interesting to take into account when planning a reading class.Most of the teachers (I count myself too)are trying to reach the perfection into reading or writing when not everybody reads word by word in the text, even us as teachers skip some of the words when reading. Once I made a test in which they try to probe that we can perfectly understand every word which actually had all of their letters scrambled but the first and last one, it was a very interesting one; they said that our brain automaticcally remember every word and do not really need to read the wholeword but for the forst and last letter.

    I’ll try to find that test again to show you.

    Hope you have a god day


    • markarthur says:

      Hi Oscar
      Thanks for taking the time to stop by – it makes me happy that the people that I’m writing for – the teachers like you that I’m currently working with – are reading some of this stuff that I post on here.

      I would really like to see the puzzle that you refer to.

      Have a great weekend and I’ll speak with you next week, no doubt.


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