What We Know About How Good Readers Read Words
We know a great deal more about how word recognition occurs than can be explained in this article. The theory that explains the incredibly fast ability of the brain to recognize words and associate them with meaning is called parallel distributed processing. This theory is complex but its most important tenets are easily understood. Information about a word is gained from its spelling (orthography), its pronunciation (phonology), its meaning (semantics), and the context in which the word occurs. The brain processes these sources of information in parallel, or simultaneously. The brain functions in word recognition, as it does in all other areas, as a pattern detector. Discussion of parallel distributed processing and its implications for word identification can be found in McClelland and Rumelhart, 1986; Rumelhart and McClelland, 1986; and Seidenberg and McClelland, 1989. The theory is translated and explained simply and elegantly in Adams (1990). Beyond the fact that the brain responds to many sources of information in parallel and that it functions as a pattern detector, the following specific facts seem particularly pertinent to the question of what kind of phonics instruction we should have.
Readers Look at Virtually All of the Words and Almost All the Letters in Those Words (McConkie, Kerr, Reddix, & Zola, 1987; Rayner & Pollatsek, 1989). For many years, it was generally believed that sophisticated readers sampled text. Based on predictions about what words and letters they would see, readers were thought to look at the words and letters just enough to see if their predictions were confirmed. Eye-movement research carried out with computerized tracking has proven that, in reality, readers look at every word and almost every letter of each word. The amount of time spent processing each letter is incredibly small, only a few hundredths of a second. The astonishingly fast letter recognition for letters within familiar words and patterns is explained by the fact that our brains expect certain letters to occur in sequence with other letters.
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