At the close of the nineteenth century, the perceptual and cognitive processes involved in reading were central topics of theory and research (e.g., Cattell 1885; Pillsbury 1897). Yet, as learning theory came to dominate academic psychology, this interest waned. Across most of the twentieth century, reading was broadly viewed by research psychologists as the product of paired-associate learning and, thus, as largely understood at least in principle, despite the heated debate in the educational arena as to whether the effective stimulus in learning to read corresponded to letters or words (e.g., Chall 1967; Flesch 1955).

This attitude changed abruptly with the onset of the cognitive era. Text, after all, was language. If bottom-up learning theories were not adequate to explain the acquisition or comprehension of oral language (see LANGUAGE ACQUISITION), then neither, by extension, were they adequate to explain the acquisition or comprehension of written language (Smith 1971). Moreover, written as opposed to oral language had the amenably investigable property that its units were discrete, lending themselves to physical alteration, substitution, and rearrangement at every level, from letters to discourse structure. Thus, according to Besner and Humphreys (1991), research on reading has filled more pages in books and journals than any other topic in cognitive psychology. In consequence, few subdomains of cognitive psychology have seen as much progress -- empirical, theoretical, and applied -- as has the field of reading research.

During the 1970s and 1980s, working collaboratively with the fields of linguistic science and artificial intelligence, cognitive research on reading focused on two issues: how higher-order knowledge is organized and how, by virtue of that organization, the partial and temporally messy information of text might be restructured and implemented into coherent events and images.

The results were a wealth of empirical work demonstrating that readers can interpret and evaluate an author's message only to the extent that they possess and call forth the vocabulary, syntactic, rhetorical, topical, analytic, and social knowledge that the author has presumed, as well as a number of theories and models of the psychological structures and processes involved in bringing such knowledge to bear (for review, see Anderson and Pearson 1984; Sanford and Garrod 1981). Alongside, text was shown to differ from normal oral discourse in language, content, and communicative modes and purposes. The implications were, first, that beyond learning to listen or speak, LITERACY demands more knowledge in depth, breadth, and kind and, second, that unlike learning to listen or speak, the processes of becoming literate require reflective access to such knowledge at every level. Of applied relevance, researchers also demonstrated that among younger and poorer readers the requisite knowledge, inferential capabilities, or comprehension monitoring tendencies were generally underdeveloped to a greater or lesser extent (for review, see Baker and Brown 1984), and instructional implications of this work quickly found its way into classroom materials and practice (see METACOGNITION).

An equally important outcome of this work was that it forced the field's awareness of its explanatory limitations. First, although this work helped make explicit the syntactic and semantic infrastructure on which text comprehension depends, it begged the question of how such knowledge might be accessed in process or acquired developmentally. Second, there was the issue of words. Much of the research of this era had been designed to elucidate how skillful readers might use the higher-order constraints of text to reduce or finesse the demands of word recognition while reading. Yet, as many times and as many ways as this question was empirically probed, the results contradicted the premise. Instead, skillful readers' recognition of printed words proved itself almost wholly indifferent to the type or strength of bias introduced by researchers; only among poor readers does the speed or accuracy of word recognition tend to be measurably influenced by context (Stanovich 1980). Furthermore, poorly developed word recognition skills were shown to account for much of the difference in good and poor readers' comprehension of text (Perfetti 1985).

The invention of parallel distributed processing models of perception and memory have been key in the theoretical reconciliation of the word recognition and comprehension research (see COGNITIVE MODELING, CONNECTIONIST). These computational models have demonstrated that many of the microphenomena of word recognition -- including effects of word frequency, orthographic redundancy, spelling, sound irregularities (aisle) and inconsistencies (head, bead), and sensitivity to syllabic and onset-rime boundaries -- reflect statistical properties of the language's orthographic and orthophonological structure and, as such, emerge through associative learning (Seidenberg and McClelland 1989; see VISUAL WORD RECOGNITION). More critically, perhaps, in positing such associative learning not just among letters but also between spellings and both phonology and meaning, the models provide means of understanding how, even as the print on the page is the raw data of reading, it might serve to activate and to reinforce and extend learning of the language and meaning on which text comprehension depends (Adams 1990).

With the help of a variety of new technologies, research has now affirmed that for skillful readers, regardless of the difficulty of the text, the basic dynamic of reading is line by line, left-to-right, and word by word. Further, during that fraction of a second while the eyes are paused on any given word of text, its spelling is registered with complete, letterwise precision even as it is instantly and automatically mapped to the speech patterns it represents (Rayner 1998; see also EYE MOVEMENTS AND VISUAL ATTENTION).

Although scientists are only beginning to understand the various roles of these spelling-to-speech translations, they are clearly of critical importance to the reading process. To the extent that knowledge of spelling-to-speech correspondences is underdeveloped (as evidenced, for example, by subnormal speed or accuracy in reading nonsense words), it is strongly and reliably associated with reading delay or disability. Moreover, given an alphabetic script such as English, research affirms that learning to recognize or spell an adequate number of words is essentially impossible except as children have internalized the spelling-to-speech correspondences of the language (Ehri 1992; Share and Stanovich 1995).

Although results of the 1992 and 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicate that more than 40 percent of U.S. fourth graders are unable to read grade-appropriate text with minimally acceptable levels of understanding or fluency (Campbell, Donahue, Clyde, and Philips 1996), research indicates that, with the exception of no more than 1-3 percent of children, reading disability can be prevented through well-designed early instruction (Vellutino et al. 1996). As in method comparison studies of past decades (e.g., Bond and Dykstra 1967; Chall 1967), contemporary investigations (e.g., Foorman et al. 1998) affirm that initial reading instruction is most effective if it includes explicit, systematic attention to phonics as well as an active emphasis on practicing and using that knowledge both in isolation and in the context of meaningful reading and writing.

In addition, building on the seminal work of A. Liberman, Cooper, Shankweiler, and Studdert-Kennedy (1967) and I. Liberman, Shankweiler, Fischer, and Carter (1974), research has amply demonstrated that learning to read an alphabetic script depends critically on the relatively difficult insight that every word can be conceived as a sequence of phonemes (see PHONOLOGY). Indeed, poorly developed phonemic awareness has asserted itself as the core and causal factor underlying most cases of severe reading disability (Lyon 1995). Conversely, for normal as well as at-risk populations, activities designed to develop children's awareness of the phonemic structure of words have been shown to ease and accelerate both reading and writing growth (see Adams, Treiman, and Pressley 1997; Torgesen 1997). The relationship between phonemic awareness and learning to read is bidirectional such that some basic appreciation of the phonological structure of words appears necessary for grasping the alphabetic principle, while instruction and practice in decoding and spelling serves reciprocally to advance the child's phonemic sensitivity. In terms of cognition and metacognition, the important lesson of this work is that, no less than for higher-order dimensions of literacy growth, productive learning about decoding and spelling necessarily builds on prior knowledge and active understanding.

See also

-- Marilyn Adams


Adams, M. J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Adams, M. J., R. Treiman, and M. Pressley. (1997). Reading, writing and literacy. In I. Sigel and A. Renninger, Eds., Handbook of Child Psychology, 5th ed., vol. 4, Child Psychology in Practice. New York: Wiley, pp. 275-357.

Anderson, R. C., and P. D. Pearson. (1984). A schema-theoretic view of basic processes in reading. In P. D. Pearson, Ed., Handbook of Reading Research. New York: Longman, pp. 255-292.

Baker, L., and A. L. Brown. (1984). Metacognitive skills and reading. In P. D. Pearson, R. Barr, M. Kamil, and P. Mosenthal, Eds., Handbook of Reading Research, vol. 1. New York: Longman, pp. 353-394.

Besner, D., and G. W. Humphreys. (1991). Introduction. In D. Besner and G. W. Humphreys, Eds., Basic Processes in Reading: Visual Word Recognition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1-9.

Bond, G. L., and R. Dykstra. (1967). The cooperative research program in first-grade reading instruction. Reading Research Quarterly 2:5-142.

Campbell, J. R., P. L. I. Donahue, M. R. Clyde, and G. W. Phillips. (1996). NAEP 1994 Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States. Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Statistics, US Department of Education.

Cattell, J. M. (1885). The inertia of the eye and brain. Brain 8:295-312. Reprinted in A. T. Poffenberger, Ed., James McKeen Cattell: Man of Science (1947). York, PA: Science Press.

Chall, J. S. (1967). Learning to Read: The Great Debate. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ehri, L. C. (1992). Reconceptualizing the development of sight word reading and its relationship to recoding. In P. B. Gough, L. C. Ehri, and R. Treiman, Eds., Reading Acquisition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp.107-143.

Flesch, R. (1955). Why Johnny Can't Read. New York: Harper and Row.

Foorman, B., D. J. Francis, J. M. Fletcher, C. Schatschneider, and P. Mehta. (1998). The role of instruction in learning to read: Preventing reading failure in at-risk children. Journal of Educational Psychology to appear.

Liberman, A. M., F. Cooper, D. Shankweiler, and M. Studdert-Kennedy. (1967). Perception of the speech code. Psychological Review 74:431-461.

Liberman, I. Y., D. Shankweiler, F. W. Fischer, and B. Carter. (1974). Reading and the awareness of linguistic segments. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 18:201-212.

(1995). Toward a definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia 45:3-27.

Neisser, U. (1967). Cognitive Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Perfetti, C. A. (1985). Reading Ability. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pillsbury, W. B. (1897). A study in apperception. American Journal of Psychology 8:315-393.

Rayner, K. (1998). Eye movements in reading and information processing: Twenty years of research. Psychological Bulletin to appear.

Sanford, A. J., and S. G. Garrod. (1981). Understanding Written Language. New York: Wiley.

Seidenberg, M. S., and J. L. McClelland. (1989). A distributed, developmental model of word recognition and naming. Psychological Review 96:523-568.

Share, D., and K. Stanovich. (1995). Cognitive processes in early reading development: Accommodating individual differences into a mode of acquisition. Issues in Education: Contributions from Educational Psychology 1:1-57.

Smith, F. (1971). Understanding Reading. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Stanovich, K. E. (1980). Toward an interactive-compensatory model of individual differences in the development of reading fluency. Reading Research Quarterly 16:32-71.

Torgesen, J. K. (1997). The prevention and remediation of reading disabilities: Evaluating what we know from research. Journal of Academic Language Therapy 1:11-47.

Vellutino, F. R., D. M. Scanlon, E. Sipay, S. Small, A. Pratt, R. Chen, and M. Denckla. (1996). Cognitive profiles of difficult-to-remediate and readily remediated poor readers: Early intervention as a vehicle for distinguishing between cognitive and experiential deficits as basic causes of specific reading disability. Journal of Educational Psychology 88:601-638.

Further Readings

P. B. Gough, L. C. Ehri, and R. Treiman, Eds. (1992). Reading Acquisition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 107-143.

Juel, C. (1994). Learning to Read and Write in One Elementary School. New York: Springer.

Just, M. A., and P. A. Carpenter. (1987). The Psychology of Reading and Language Comprehension. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

National Research Council. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Olson, D. R. (1994). The World on Paper. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Plaut, D. C., J. L. McClelland, M. S. Seidenberg, and K. Patterson. (1996). Understanding normal and impaired word reading: Computational principles in quasi-regular domains. Psychological Review 103:56-115.

Rack, J. P., M. J. Snowling, and R. K. Olson. (1992). The nonword reading deficit in developmental dyslexia: A review. Reading Research Quarterly 26:28-53.

Rayner, K., and A. Pollatsek. (1989). The Psychology of Reading. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Shankweiler, D., S. Crain, L. Katz, A. E. Fowler, A. M. Liberman, S. A. Brady, R. Thornton, E. Lundquist, L. Dreyer, J. M. Fletcher, K. K. Stuebing, S. E. Shaywitz, and B. A. Shaywitz. (1995). Cognitive profiles of reading-disabled children: Comparison of language skills in phonology, morphology and syntax. Psychological Science 6:149-156.

Treiman, R. (1993). Beginning to Spell: A Study of First Grade Children. New York: Oxford University Press.