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In ordinary reading, as in general language comprehension, the cognitive system draws upon a variety of sources of information to construct mental models of a situation the writer or speaker is describing. Marslen-Wilson (1975) referred to sentence perception as an "interactive parallel process [with] on-line interaction between structural, lexical, and phonetic levels."

Phonetic processing is sound-based processing; decoding the sounds of words by looking at letters.

Structural processing involves the rules for assembling words or other idea units into larger scale struc­tures. It includes grammar and also the organization of paragraphs and larger structures such as the plots of stories.

Lexical processing involves knowing word meanings. ("Lexicon" can be a synonym for "dictionary.")

What are phonetic, lexical, and structural components of text processing?

To say all these interact in a parallel process is to say they influence each other all at once. They do not occur in a rigid sequence, one after another.

All the processes proceed at the same time. For example, structure helps determine meaning, and meaning (at the same time) influences which of several word pronunciations are chosen.

Phonetic Decoding and "Phonics" as a Method

The first stage in reading is phonetic decoding or word attack, also called "sounding out words." This is an important part of early reading for many students. It is at the heart of a reading instruction method known as phonics.

What is phonetic decoding? What was the phonics debate about?

In the 1950s and 1960s phonics was controversial. Many reading profes­sionals recommended the opposite approach: the look-say method of instruction, in which a beginning reader recognized one whole word at a time.

In the post-WW II era, young readers received simple reading materials like the famous Dick and Jane books. They repeated certain words over and over. "Look look, Dick," said Jane. "Look at Spot. Spot runs."(etc)

This approach was based on the observation that skilled readers were able to recognize words as a whole without conscious phonetic decoding. By the 1990s, that was called the whole language approach.

The whole-language approach was based on getting young readers en­gaged with reading material, rather than requiring them to sound out words laboriously. If words were simple and familiar, and a story was interesting, then (the reasoning went) children would learn to read faster

However, many beginning readers appeared to benefit from phonics instruction. Researcher Jeanne Chall addressed the question in a book titled Learning to Read: The Great Debate (1967). She summarized the available research and concluded that phonics produced better results with beginning readers.

What techniques are commonly used to teach reading now?

Educators continued to disagree about the best way to teach reading. Marilyn Jager Adams addressed the same issue again in a book titled Beginning to Read: Learning and Thinking about Print (1990).

Adams agreed with Chall that phonics was helpful in the context of other reading activities, but she did not recommend phonics alone. She argued that beginning readers benefitted from a mix of activities, including writing.

Thiry years later, phonics, writing, and whole-word recognition are typically mixed together in today's reading programs. That is what Adams recommended in 1990.

What tactic by readers can produce embarrassing results?

Like any cognitive skill that is repeated often enough, word attack (the ability to "sound out" a word quickly) becomes automatic with experience. A proficient reader does not have to stop and sound out a word like "proficient."

However, many students, even in college, are hobbled by poor word-attack skills. Faced with a college-level text, they must slow down frequently to sound out difficult words.

The worst tactic is to skip over large words entirely. Students who do this end up being unable to use the words, or mangling the pronunciation and embar­rassing themselves.

My standard example when we discussed this during the Cognition chapter was students who could not pronounce the word "cognitive" when coming into an office hour to discuss a low grade on the quiz for that chapter. The only way this could happen, after reading the word 74 times, was to ignore a pronunciation key like COG-nit-iv, then skip over the word or mispronounce it from that point on. Not reading the chapter at all would do the trick, too.

But what about lectures and class­room discussions? Surely the students heard that word, over and over. They must not have connect­ed it to the mysterious word in the chapter.

What alternative is recommended?

After you sound out a word like "cogni­tive" or "acetylcholine" a few dozen times, it begins to roll off your tongue like an expert. The best tactic, for a serious student, is to slow down and sound out a word whenever the pronunciation is unfamiliar.

If a word cannot be sounded out, a stu­dent can consult a dictionary. They can also type a word into a search engine or smart phone, asking it to "pronounce cognitive" (or any other word) and hear the pronunciation. Very handy.

The Resource Allocation Problem

A student with poor phonological encoding (word attack) skills must devote conscious attention to the process of decoding letters into sounds. This takes a toll on comprehension.

Mental resources consumed by con­sciously "sounding out" words are not available for representing the meaning of the text. To experience resource compe­tition, sound out the following passage (from Bragstad & Stumpf, 1982).

(Legislative Issues)

At a recent gathering at the Capitol here in Madison, a number of ledgusllaitelve yshooz were dhyscust. All dealt with tuhrizuhm in Wisconsin. Klyph Kharlsuhn who onze a small phische-pharm nier Wabeno, lead the phyte for tacks braxe for state bisnusmuhn whooze prauphutz halve bin slciascht beakuz ov the enuhrjee chrysusse. Other similarly kuhnsyrnde sytazunze joined hymn in demanding immediate rheleaph for psuch pursonze.

If you read that passage, you know what it feels like to be a student with poor word-attack skills. It is a struggle just to figure out what words you are reading. Now you get a comprehension test.

Comprehension Test

1. The preceding selection dealt primarily with:

a) the ecological ramifications of certain legislative decisions.

b) the economic plight of a particular group of business people.

c) the judicial directions being taken by the State Bar Association.

d) the philosophical issues inherent in several new state laws.

e) tourism at fish farms

Which is the correct answer? You would have no trouble finding the correct answer if you had not been putting all your mental effort into sounding out the words.

Why do poor word attack skills harm comprehension?

When a person has to put conscious attention into word attack, this may leave few remaining mental resources to think about the meaning of the text. That is why basic word attack skills are so important. If word attack is not automatic, comprehension suffers.

Reconstructing the Author's Meaning

Good readers try to decipher the intended meaning of an author. There are cases in which a reader is not expected to understand the author, such as James Joyce's Ulysses, written in a stream-of-thought style.

But in most cases, the re-constitution of mental states is the whole point of reading. The reader attempts to re-create the meanings the author had in mind when writing the passage.

Ference Marton (1975) found that top performing students put all their effort into reconstructing an author's intended meanings. They did not necessarily use fancy study systems.

They simply tried to understand what they read. When Marton asked successful students what they looked for in a lecture or a written passage, the students reported concentrating on...

What did Marton discover about the reading habits of A students?

"the central point..."

"the point of the whole thing"

"what the basic idea was"

"basic concepts"

"what lies behind it"

"the whole thing"

"the total picture"

"what it boils down to"

"what the author actually means"

"what's at the bottom of it"

Poor students, by contrast, reported concentrating on vocabulary words, or trying to memorize answers to questions. They could study for hours without grasping the main ideas in a passage.

Summarization Processes

If you give students a summary or a good outline, they often study the summary or the outline instead of the original text. That might be a smart strategy.

Lynn Reder and John Anderson, cognitive psychologists, found that sometimes students who read a summary of a large passage understood more of it. They also remembered it better than students who read the text itself (Horn, 1982).

The summarization process is essential to reading. There is no way a person can memorize every word of a book. People must summarize as they read.

It helps if you can study a good sum­mary provided by a writer, or by an expert (in the case of Cliff's Notes and similar resources). That may result in more accurate, better organized knowledge than reading the original and making your own summary.

Summarization processes are crucial for gathering and organizing know­ledge. A summary is based on value judgments that are informative. When you read a summary or review, you learn what somebody considered important.

By implication, you also learn what the person thought could be left out. Only small portions of a work can be mentioned in a summary.

Why might a student gain more from reading a summary (in some cases) rather than an original work?

A review (in the world of scientific journals) is a summary. It can include some evaluation or criticism, like a movie review. If it is short, it might just be a recommendation of a book (or a warning about it).

A longer review article, in a scientific publication, may attempt to summarize all the important recent research on a topic. That might take 20-50 pages. Some journals, such as The Annual Review of Psychology, or Psychological Review, specialize in these types of articles.

Reviewing and summarizing is so commonplace in science that Stebbins (1974) found himself reviewing a book he described as "essentially a review of reviews." A textbook chapter, also, is a form of review.

So, for what it is worth, when you review this chapter, you a reviewing (studying) a review (chapter) which includes a review (brief mention) of a review (by Stebbins) of a review of reviews. That shows the ubiquity of summarization processes.


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

Bragstad, B. J. & Stumpf, S. M. (1982) Study Skills and Motivation. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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

Horn, J. C. (1982, April). Just the facts, M'am. Psychology Today. pp.12-14.

Marslen-Wilson, W. D. (1975). Sentence perception as an interactive parallel process. Science, 189, 226-228.

Marton, F. (1975) What does it take to learn? in N. Entwistle & D. Hounsell (Eds.), How students learn, pp. 125-138. Lancaster, England: Institute for Research and Development in Post Compulsory Education.

Stebbins, G. L. (1974). Biological continuities. Science, 186, 134-135.

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