There have been many attempts to describe the many things we do as we read. See for example the 'matrix' p 360-361 in 'Understanding Teenagers' Reading, Reading Processes and the Teaching of Literature' by Jack Thomson.
I've had several goes at it on this blog.
Here's my own quick summary of these processes, in particular for reference for teachers attending courses that I've been speaking on. I expand on this in the talks:
1. We use our life's experience in order to understand what the language, images, characters, scenes mean. This will always be full of matters to do with our identity, self-image, social position, our sexuality, our sense of self, our sense of what cultures we are part of.
2. We use our experience of other texts ('intertextuality') to understand the text we are reading - its language, themes, plot lines etc. ('Texts' = anything written but also can include eg songs, films, musicals etc)
3. We use our empathy, sympathy, antipathy as regards characters, their actions and thoughts ie how our emotions 'flow' towards or against characters and scenes.
4. We identify with characters', we think about what we would do in those situations. We 'go with' them on their journeys, adventures, with their problems. We might want to 'be' them. Or very much not want to 'be' them.
5. We make judgements about what's going on - whether things are fair, or unfair, right/wrong, OK/not OK ('evaluation').
6. We figure out 'causation' - why or how things are happening in a particular way. The key word is 'because'.
7. We are affected by the 'music' of the language ('prosody').
8. We experience 'emotional flow' - feelings of tension, release, anger towards characters, envy, hopes etc.
9. We have a sense that the text expresses ideas, messages, 'ideology'.
10. We have contextual thoughts about eg the period or place of the story from our knowledge from eg history or real life.
11. We become aware of the text's structure eg that it's like another text in the way that it unfolds, or the 'genre' of the text eg sci-fi, biography etc. Or a text's 'motifs' eg sibling rivalry, or 'loss'.
12. We become aware of how the text's language is structured eg what kind of sentences, whether it's figurative or not, whether it uses some or a lot of dialogue, what its grammar is like, how the grammar changes.
13. We notice how the story is narrated (eg first person/third person?) reliable/unreliable narrator.
14. We become aware of the text's 'time frames' (eg flashbacks, flash forwards?)
15. We become aware of whose 'point of view' we view through. This will change as the text unfolds.
16. We become aware of how the tension is being created - often through 'reveal-conceal'.
17. We speculate about what might happen next.
18. We make predictions about what might happen next or later.
19. We are surprised if our predictions are wrong or not quite right.
20. We 'harvest' what we have read. This is 'intratextual' reference.
21. We puzzle. Why is this happening? What does this mean?
22. We speculate about 'authorship' - why did the writer write this or that?
23. If we think that we have an 'unconscious' (see psychoanalysis), it will come to play in how we read eg feelings and thoughts we have repressed might be 'given voice' by our reading of the text. Similarly, our wishes, fantasies might be 'realised' by our reading of the text eg yearnings, desires, wishes for domination etc. And the classic Freudian processes of transference, displacement, condensation, cathexis (ie obsessive preoccupation) and projection.
The thinking here is that the reader can behave when reading as if they are encountering people in real life. To take each of these in turn:
transference: this involves transferring feelings that one has for eg your father to a character in a book. So we might 'read' eg a male, patriarchal figure as if he is 'my' father.
Displacement: perhaps a story might confront us with a person or situation which we can't tolerate or makes us feel uncomfortable. We might 'displace' our discomfort on to another scene or character.
Condensation: we might discover that the reason why we have feelings for a character or a scene is because we pour feelings from other situations into or onto this one. (A good deal of popular music works this way.)
Cathexis: an obsessive reaction towards a character based (according to Freud) on one's libido.
Projection: where we project feelings we have on to a character. We might say, for example, 'I know what she wants to do now...' when in fact that's what 'I' would do. Arguably, this is one of the main 'motors' of response through 'identification'.
(There's also a view in psychoanalysis that texts (stories and myths in particular) can 'contain' our feelings, in particular ones that give us suffering or uncontrollable anger etc. Stories give us a safe space in which we can experiment with our feelings in situations which we don't have to live or re-live. We might have some sense of this as we read along the lines of 'this is like me'.)
24. Awareness of the way the text has symbols, how what we're reading 'represents' something else outside of the text, 'bigger' than the the text, bigger than a particular image, motif etc.
25. Awareness of how there are patterns, repetitions in the text in terms of language, repeated images, repeated plot lines, motifs, characters' actions.
26. Academic Fiona Maine suggests adding 'immersion in story-worlds'. As we read, we go into the whole world of a story, which we can inhabit by building on the given details adding in eg sensations that are not there - smells, tastes, sights etc. Another way of talking about this is that every text invites us to 'play the game' in a particular way eg rom-com, or tragedy, fairy tale, or epic. Or again, it might be what Bill Corcoran calls 'picturing'. That is, where the reader can translate what they read into images. Many readers can or will say what a character or scene 'looks like' even if the writer hasn't described that person or place.
27. So, 26 is in part about genre. We become aware that what we are reading belongs to a genre. We might implicitly or explicitly say to ourselves, 'I am reading a fairy story' or 'I am reading a narrative poem' or 'This is a rap' and so on. We are positioning the text in relation to texts it is 'like' or 'unlike'. M.A.K. Halliday says that language-choice i is in part determined by genre. It flows from this that our reading of language would be similarly affected by a sense of genre.
28. Fiona Maine also adds 'dialogic interaction'. There's a way in which as we read, we are in effect having a conversation with the text: asking it questions, trying to answer questions that are often posed by texts as in eg 'I didn't know what to do next...' The reader might (in their mind) start thinking up possible scenarios of what the character could do or should do.
29. Texts work hard to make us feel we are there. We could call it the writer's 'being-there work'. The texts often run through some or all of the senses when describing scenes, people etc. They tell us what things look, sound, smell, taste or feel like to touch. As we read we might just absorb these. (Part of the reading process itself.) We might also 'notice' these more consciously, and think to ourselves, 'he had curly hair' or some such.
30. Resistant reading ie refusing to accept what appears to be the bias/message/ideology of the text. This may well be very important when thinking about old texts in relation to modern ideas (eg Shylock, Othello etc) Also resistance in the Freudian sense of resisting empathy or recognition of tropes for reasons of repression. Or indeed to refuse to read the text! (I can remember my 3 year old throwing a book away because it was too scary.)
31. What about wish-fulfilment? Stories are full of living out what we might want to happen to us. A fantasy in which we are given a part, through reading? Perhaps we read with this kind of hope and/or satisfaction...'this could be me...with this kind of power to...eg attract others, beat others, overcome others, achieve this or that...etc.
32. What about the opposite of wish-fulfilment? Fear-fulfilment or shame-fulfilment? We read with a fear for the characters that they will behave as we feel we are, or are ashamed we are? A kind of negative fantasy about ourselves. Or, 'I don't know what I would do in that situation'.
33. Reading 'motive' and 'intention': as we read, we are sometimes told what people (characters, protagonists) want to do and sometimes we are told why they want to do something. (This can be done with 'tags' - eg 'she thought', 'he wondered' etc or by versions of 'indirect discourse' eg 'what should she do next?' (without the 'tag').) And other ways. Sometimes, we aren't told and we have to guess, infer, interpret what people's motives are. We do this based on our experience of life (see above) and/or our experience of texts ('intertextual' - see above) and our experience of 'genre' (see 26 and 27).
34. Dramatic irony: many texts create situations where the reader knows more than the character. (Famous one: 'Romeo and Juliet' eg where Juliet's father says that Juliet will marry Paris but we know that she is already married to Romeo and that she has spent the night with him.) We read this through 'harvesting' (see 20 above), ie 'intratextual' awareness. When people talk about 'heart-in-mouth' moments in fiction or films, these are sometimes caused by dramatic irony. Can also of course be created by 'jeopardy'/'peril' where we share the fear (usually) of the protagonist based on 'what would I do/how would I feel' in that situation of danger.
35. At this point, it's interesting to talk about 'distancing' and/or 'alienation effect'. This raises the question of who does the work, when reading? Author? Reader? Both? Distancing is the idea that writers can use various techniques which ask the reader or viewer to be more dispassionate about what's going on in the story - the opposite of 'identification', 'immersion', 'escapism', 'lost in the story' and the Aristotle idea of catharsis through immersion. Brecht tried to create dramas where the viewer 'came out' of the emotional involvement and considered the why's and wherefores of what the drama had just shown. Methods he (and Brechtians since) used were eg an on-stage narrator, sudden juxtapositions, use of slogans and light boards with information, mixing of media, deliberate use of sets or lighting to make the drama 'non-realist'. Fiction can do similar things eg multiple narration, mixing of fiction with use of headlines, non-realistic artwork , mixing of genres and so on. So some (eg John Stephens) have argued that this requires or creates 'sophisticated' reading but he sees the work being done here is by the text doing the distancing ie distancing the reader. Another view would be that the reader perceives the text as eg being non-realistic through their intertextual awareness. If the alienation methods are accessible (eg a light board with information about how many soldiers were being killed during WW1 in Joan Littlewood's production of 'Oh What a Lovely War') then it's the reader/viewer who does the work of relating the light board info to the dramatic scene unfolding in front of it. Again, in the book 'Dance on my Grave' by Aidan Chambers, there is the distancing effects of multiple narration where the main character both observes and is observed. The reader has to weigh up questions like 'what is real?', 'What is really going on?' 'Who is telling the truth?' If the reader does this work, then they are not immersed in the usual sense of the word. They are immersed in their minds in a debate about what is the truth here.
36. Reading picture books, comics, graphic novels: this clearly involves other ways of thinking and interpreting not mentioned so far. One thing that happens with this kind of reading is a 'relay' between picture and text. Our minds can synthesise the two in order to perform the processes above. Perhaps talking about 'the text' or 'the story' is wrong with graphic books. Perhaps we should say 'texts' and 'stories' going on simultaneously, intertwined with each other, commenting on each other. Even the word 'illustration' may be wrong. After all, the pictures don't really 'illustrate' the text. The reader is doing a lot of work to interpret the pictures and make them work with the text that they're reading (or, in the case of a young child, hearing). Does the one refer to the other, tell something different, if so how? The classic scholarly work on this 'two stories' view is Margaret Meek's 'How Texts Teach What Readers Learn'. It's a masterpiece of exploration of how a child interprets 'Rosie's Walk', a fine example of two stories being told that the child will synthesise. I'll draw attention to another. Look at Max's bedroom in 'Where the Wild Things Are'. What 'story' does it tell? Is it busy, friendly, full of loving care from adults? Or is it bare and lonesome? Or what? Does Max find the place 'where someone loved him best of all'? If so, where though? If not, how do we know not? If maybe, why the doubt?