Psychological Research In Reading

Article: Reading Research and Instruction, A look at how children learn to read.

The History Of Psychological Research In Reading
By Sophia Hayes

As reading involves perceptual and cognitive processes as well as knowledge of language and grammar, these three basic processes have been the subject of experimental research for some time. Such processes include the identification and extraction of meaning, processes involved at sentence/phrase level and the processes involved in understanding thematic structures.

Learning to read in preliterate societies and learning in societies awash with print may have vastly different cognitive consequences. Cognitive psychologists today look at the many facets involved in reading such as reading speed for example. But can one relate any conclusions drawn to the reading speed of an 8-year-old in the early 16th century, whose instruction may have been only in Latin with an 8-year-old today?

The roots of cognitive psychology (the experimental study of how the mind works) can be traced to Wundt's interest in memory and language processes in Leipzig in 1879. Shortly after this, there was a spurt of interest in reading processes; this reached an apex around 1908. The equipment used then was somewhat archaic and very dissimilar to the more sophisticated and often computer based equipment of today. This form of research continued for a while until around 1913 when behaviourism became popular. Behaviourists believed that the proper scientific subject matter for psychological investigation should only be observable and measurable behaviour, and since cognitive processes can not be observed and directly measured, with the exception of some educational work there was little work done in this area until the 60's.

The revival of cognitive psychology some 40 years ago brought with it a new format, often expressing theories as flow charts or 'box and arrow' diagrams. This type of expression was more explicit, and highlighted cognition as a series of more describable information processes (that is, a sequence of operations by which representations are formed and transformed). Of course, the use of diagrams was not really new, as the 19th century neurologists interested in the effects of brain damage on cognition (e.g., Wernicke & Lichtheim), used visual box and arrow diagrams. The boxes/centres representing brain regions, and arrows neural pathways. Each of the centres had a particular cognitive function, thus likening diagrams to the organisation of the mind rather than the organisation of the brain.

The combination of this mode of neurology and cognitive psychology led to the development of cognitive neuropsychology. Possibly the first published paper in this field was by Marshall & Newcombe in 1973 who described three types of acquired dyslexia, and offered a reading model in flow chart form to interpret the deficit in terms of damage to specific components of the model. The use of a box and arrow approach has continued in other areas as well as reading.

In contrast there is now substantial support for a connectionist viewpoint (an approach that simulates the connections between information nodes in a hierarchical network that is suggested to be equivalent to connections in the brain; also referred to as parallel distributed processing). From around 1980, computational models of reading were used as a tool for detecting previous ambiguity and vagueness. It is claimed that computer simulation programs can be altered to reflect human subjects' performances by cutting connections or adding noise to the models to mimic different types of reading practices. Both approaches have developed impressively but are not perfect.

About the Author: Sophia Hayes has studied how adults and children read, the processes involved and remediation techniques over several years. provides a series of articles on the subject and available resources.

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