03 August 2007

Can You Read Me Now?

Image Credit Unknown

There is an interesting summary in this month's Scientific American about a study identifying factors that affect reading rate. Researchers at NYU identified phonics, context clues, and holistic word recognition (overall shape of words) as the three main factors which influence how fast one reads material. (You can geek out over the published study here.)

Using passages from author Mary Higgins Clark's murder mystery Loves Music, Loves to Dance, Pelli and study co-author, undergraduate Katharine Tillman, manipulated passages to block readers from using each of the word-deciphering processes. 

To muffle context clues, they shuffled words in a sentence ("contribute others. The of Reading measured"); discrimination via word shape was covered up by inserting random capital letters ("ThIS tExT AlTeRnAtEs iN CaSe."); and to eliminate letter by letter decoding, they substituted similar-looking letters into a word, thereby retaining the ability to use word shape and context, once a reader figured out a previous word ("Tbis sartcrec bes lctfan suhsfitufas"). 

In an effort to determine the impact of the absence of each aid, researchers directed 11 subjects to read passages that were either pure text, had one alteration or two of these manipulations combined. Their findings: that phonics, not surprisingly, the largest component of reading speed, determined 62 percent of the rate. The stunner was that the other two processes consistently contributed the same amounts to reading speed. (Context clues controlled 22 percent of reading speed and word shape governed 16 percent, according to the study.)

Pelli says this research paves the way toward better understanding and addressing the deficiencies of young students who fall behind early in reading. 

"It's possible that doing the phonics intervention is the ideal intervention," he says of the most common type of reading training. But "it would be interesting to know how phonics is affecting the other two processes rather than just overall reading speed. We think that it would be very interesting to break down reading rate into these three components in the evaluations of [possible] interventions."

It doesn't appear that the researchers considered an outcome of reading which I think would be more important than rate: comprehension. Does anyone know why rate would be a more desirable aspect of reading to impact with young readers (or, I suppose, anyone of any age learning to read)?


ms-teacher said...

If you are having problems with reading fluently, it makes it more difficult to comprehend what you are reading.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Interesting question, SG. I'm no reading expert, but I'm thinking that the quoted article deals with tightly focused aspects of reading "fluency," which has a strong bearing on comprehension, but precedes it.

Here's an article on reading fluency:


It would be interesting to read more comments on your question.

The Science Goddess said...

Ah---that helps explain things. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

How old are these "11 subjects"? Six? Ten? Sixteen? Eighteen? If they are recruited college students who can already read, this result may have very little relevance for pre-teens who are learning to read.

The Science Goddess said...

Good question...don't know the answers. But I think you have an excellent point.