The Reading Process Riddle

July 31, 2009

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?