Academic journal article School Psychology Review

Using Eye Movements to Investigate Word Frequency Effects in Children's Sentence Reading

Academic journal article School Psychology Review

Using Eye Movements to Investigate Word Frequency Effects in Children's Sentence Reading

Article excerpt

The scientific study of reading has taught us a good deal about how children learn to read (Rayner, Foorman, Perfetti, Pesetsky, & Seidenberg, 2001). We know, for example, that reading development begins with children grasping the alphabetic principle--the fundamental insight that in alphabetic languages at least, print conveys meaning via sound--that letters map to sounds in predictable ways (Byrne, 1998). From this basic principle, children learn how to decode words, enabling them to learn the characteristics of the orthography that characterizes their spoken language and gradually move from slowly and laboriously decoding individual words to being able to read fluently and accurately (Nation, 2009; Share, 1995, 2008). This, in turn, provides the foundation for successful reading comprehension (Perfetti, 2007). We know the skills and abilities that promote successful reading development and those that are associated with dyslexia and other reading problems (e.g., Hulme & Snowling, 2011; Vellutino, Fletcher, Snowling, & Scanlon, 2004). These scientific discoveries have paved the way to theoretically motivated interventions that can be implemented in classrooms to reduce or even prevent the negative consequences of reading failure (Carroll, Bowyer-Crane, Duff, Hulme, & Snowling, 2011; National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). In many ways, then, the study of learning to read has been a scientific success story with reciprocal links between theory and educational practice leading to a greater understanding of how children learn to read and what can be done to help those who struggle.

Equally, however, there remain important gaps in our understanding. Much of the evidence base underpinning the cognitive psychology of reading development comes from experiments that ask young children to read words out loud. This is for good reason: as experimenters, we want to know whether children can read words correctly and the obvious way to do this is to ask the children to name them out loud. A typical experiment may compare the number of words read correctly in one condition versus another condition, and perhaps the speed with which they are read, and from this, inferences are then made about how children read. This methodology has served us well, but it does have limitations. First, it stands in stark contrast to what we actually do when we read: reading is about reading connected text silently, not pronouncing words out loud. Unlike online measures that measure the actual process of reading as it occurs in real time, offline measures instead reflect the end point of reading, after it has occurred. As an offline measure, reading aloud is also limited in what it can tell us about the cognitive processes that underpin reading, and how these might change with development. Nation (2008) illustrated this point:

   Consider a child who finds it difficult to
   comprehend sentences containing ambiguous
   words. This could be a reflection of lack
   of knowledge, as perhaps the child only
   knows one meaning. Or, it could be a difficulty
   with using context to activate the appropriate
   meaning or alternatively, a difficulty
   with using context to inhibit or sup
   press contextually irrelevant interpretations.
   Offline measures that ask children to answer
   questions or provide definitions can only
   ever measure the endpoint of comprehension,
   not the actual process itself. (p. 187)

In contrast to offline tasks, online tasks measure the temporal dynamics of reading and as a consequence provide a methodology to tap underlying cognitive processes.

An online methodology that allows us to begin to explore children's reading while they read text silently is eye-tracking. During reading, our eyes move in a series of jumps or saccades, between which there are pauses, or fixations, during which the visual information needed to begin linguistic processing is extracted from the text. …

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