[ Back to EurekAlert! ] Public release date: 31-Jul-2007
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Contact: James Devitt
james.devitt@nyu.edu
212-998-6808
New York University

Phonics, whole-word and whole-language processes add up to determine reading speed, NYU 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 findings appear in the Aug. 1 issue of PLoS ONE, a journal published by the Public Library of Science. The paper, “Parts, Wholes, and Context in Reading: A Triple Dissociation,” is available at http://www.plosone.org/doi/pone.0000680 beginning Aug. 1.

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.”

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