Psychology of Reading

Reading is among the most common and highly developed human skills, yet it has received little sustained attention from psychologists and remains largely the area of therapists and educators. As a result there are more studies on how one learns to read and why he or she may fail to read, than on how one does read when he or she can. Interest in reading appeared as early as the beginning of the 20th century. In 1908, Edmund Burke Huey (1870 to 1913) published The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading. He and his contemporaries examined the eye movements in reading; the nature of the perceptual span or, in other words, the amount of information one can perceive during a fixation of the eye; word-recognition processes; inner speech; reading comprehension and reading rate. The discoveries of Huey, despite the unsophisticated equipment available to him at the time, have held up when replicated using more advanced and accurate recording systems. With the beginnings of the behaviorist revolution in experimental psychology in the early 20th century, there were few studies made to continue Huey’s work, as behaviorism recognized as worthy of study only activities that could be seen, observed and measured. Not until the 1960s did reading regain its appeal to psychologists, with Huey's book republished in 1968.

The behaviorists also tried to study the process of reading. In 1957, Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904 to 1990) published Verbal Behavior, in which he tried to observe language from a behaviorist point of view. The linguist Noam Chomsky (1928-) responded with a scathing review of both the book and behaviorism. He argued that it was impossible for behaviorist principles to account for language learning or language processes as a whole. Out of the increased interest in language processes in general, interest towards the reading process appeared once again in the early 1970s. By the late 20th century, there were many more psychologists interested in the process of reading.

Much of what is known about the psychology of reading and of learning to read is the result of careful studies of the eye movements during reading. The simplest methods of observation have included techniques as simple as using a hole in a newspaper or a mirror on the table, or even the watching of a person who reads. Although these demonstrated the general character of the eye movements in reading, direct observation methods did not allow an accurate count of the number of pauses, as smaller movements could be missed even by the most experienced observers. Thus other, more accurate methods were born, including the photographic recording of eye movements and the electrical recording of eye movements.

Psychologists have spent a great deal of time studying the key component processes of reading - visual perception, recognition, memory and language. These topics are part of the mainstream of cognitive psychology - the branch of experimental psychology that examines the way the mind functions and how it is structured. Cognitive psychologists that study reading have their different approaches to the issue. Some of them, who have a background in perception research, consider the study of word recognition, for example, as a way to study perceptual processes or pattern recognition with the help of well-defined stimuli. Others approach the study of reading with a background in memory processes and verbal learning theory. They usually examine comprehension processes. There is another group of cognitive psychologists who are interested in reading of itself. They believe, as Huey did, that in order to understand what the mind does during reading would be "the acme of a psychologist's achievements, since it would be to describe very many of the most intricate workings of the human mind, as well as to unravel the tangled story of the most remarkable specific performance that civilization has learned."

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read
Frank Smith.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004 (6th edition)
The Psychology of Reading
Keith Rayner; Alexander Pollatsek.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1989
The Psychology of Education
Martyn Long.
Routledge Falmer, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "Literacy"
The On-Line Study of Sentence Comprehension: Eyetracking, ERPs and Beyond
Manuel Carreiras; Charles Clifton Jr.
Psychology Press, 2004
The Psychology of Reading Instruction
Ediger, Marlow.
Reading Improvement, Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall 2004
Handbook of Reading Research
P. David Pearson.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 16 "Individual Differences and Underlying Cognitive Processes in Reading"
Reading by Design: Evolutionary Psychology and the Neuropsychology of Reading
Johnson, Eric L.; Hetzel, June; Collins, Sarah.
Journal of Psychology and Theology, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring 2002
Understanding Readers' Understanding: Theory and Practice
Patricia L. Anders; Judy Nichols Mitchell; Robert J. Tierney.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1987
Reading and Writing Acquisition: A Developmental Neuropsychological Perspective
Virginia Wise Berninger.
Westview Press, 1996
Basic Processes in Reading: Visual Word Recognition
Derek Besner; Glyn W. Humphreys.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991
Beliefs about Text and Instruction with Text
Ruth Garner.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994
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