Phonics, Whole-word And Whole-language Processes Add Up To Determine Reading Speed, Study Shows
Reading specialists have often pitted phonics against holistic word recognition and whole language approaches in the war over how to teach children to read. However, a new study by researchers at New York University shows that the three reading processes do not conflict, but, rather, work together to determine speed.
The NYU study, by professor of psychology and neural science Denis Pelli and research scientist Katharine Tillman, measured the reading rates of 11 adult readers. It examined how three reading processes contribute to reading speed:
1) phonics, in which words are decoded letter by letter;
2) holistic word recognition, in which words are recognized by their shape; and
3) whole language, in which words are recognized by the context of the sentences.
Readers in the study read passages from a Mary Higgins Clark novel. The text was manipulated to selectively knock out each process in turn while retaining the others. Whole word shape was removed by alternating case: “sHe LoOkEd OvEr hEr ShOuLdEr.” To knock out the whole language process, the order of the words was shuffled. To knock out phonics, some of the letters were replaced with others.
Pelli and Tillman’s results show that letter-by-letter decoding, or phonics, is the dominant reading process, accounting for 62 percent of reading speed. However, both holistic word recognition (16 percent) and whole-language processes (22 percent) do contribute substantially to reading speed. Remarkably, the results show that the contributions of these three processes to reading speed are additive. The contribution of each process to reading speed is the same whether the other processes are working or not.
“The contributions made by phonics, holistic word recognition, and whole-language processes are not redundant,” explained Pelli. “These three processes are not working on the same words and, in fact, make contributions to reading speed exclusive of one another.”
“The fact that letters, words, and sentences are all involved in reading is nothing new,” Pelli added. “But finding that their contributions to reading speed are additive is startling.”
PLoS ONE. 2007 Aug 1;2:e680.
Parts, wholes, and context in reading: a triple dissociation.
Pelli DG, Tillman KA.
Psychology and Neural Science, New York University, New York, New York, United States of America. Research in object recognition has tried to distinguish holistic recognition from recognition by parts. One can also guess an object from its context. Words are objects, and how we recognize them is the core question of reading research. Do fast readers rely most on letter-by-letter decoding (i.e., recognition by parts), whole word shape, or sentence context? We manipulated the text to selectively knock out each source of information while sparing the others. Surprisingly, the effects of the knockouts on reading rate reveal a triple dissociation. Each reading process always contributes the same number of words per minute, regardless of whether the other processes are operating.
PMID: 17668058 [PubMed – in process