What We Know About How Good Readers Read Words (page 2)
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.
Readers Usually Recode Printed Words into Sound (McCutchen, Bell, France, & Perfetti, 1991; Tannenhaus, Flanigan, & Seidenberg, 1980). Although it is possible to read without any internal speech, we rarely do. Most of the time, as we read, we think the words in our mind. This phonological information is then checked with the information we received visually by analyzing the word for familiar spelling patterns. Saying the words aloud or thinking the words also seems to perform an important function in holding the words in auditory memory until enough words are read to create meaning.
Readers Recognize Most Words Immediately and Automatically without Using Context (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974; Nicholson, 1991; Stanovich, 1991). Good readers use context to see if what they are reading makes sense. Context is also important for disambiguating the meaning of some words (for example, "I had a ball throwing the ball at the ball"). Occasionally, readers use context to figure out what the word is. Most of the time, however, words are identified based on their familiar spelling and the association of that spelling with a pronunciation. Context comes into play after, not before, the word is identified based on the brain's processing of the letter-by-letter information it receives. Several studies have found that poor readers rely more on context than good readers.
Readers Accurately and Quickly Pronounce Infrequent, Phonetically Regular Words (Hogaboam & Perfetti, 1978). When presented with unfamiliar but phonetically regular words, good readers immediately and seemingly effortlessly assign them a pronunciation. The ability to quickly and accurately pronounce phonetically regular words that are not sight words is a task that consistently discriminates between good and poor readers.
Readers Use Spelling Patterns and Analogy to Decode Words (Adams, 1990; Goswami & Bryant, 1990; Moustafa, 1997). The answer to the question of whether phonics should be taught in a synthetic or analytic manner seems to be neither. Synthetic approaches generally teach children to go letter by letter, assigning a pronunciation to each letter and then blending the individual letters together. Analytic approaches teach rules and are usually filled with confusing jargon. (The e on the end makes the vowel long.) Brain research, however, suggests that the brain is a pattern detector, not a rule applier and that, while we look at single letters, we are looking at them and considering all the letter patterns we know. Successfully decoding a word occurs when the brain recognizes a familiar spelling pattern or, if the pattern itself is not familiar, the brain searches through its store of words with similar patterns.
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