This finding, described in the July issue of Psychological Review, suggests that teaching young children the relationships between spellings and sounds - or phonics - not only makes learning to read easier, but also allows the flourishing of other skills that lead to faster, better reading.
When it comes to reading, there's a general disconnect between educational practices and basic research, despite the fact that science has started to develop a picture of the biological and behavioral processes that guide how we read, says Mark Seidenberg, UW-Madison psychology professor and co-author of the paper.
"Given the role of literacy in society," he says, "it's important to understand how the process of reading works."
To provide a clearer picture of the reading process, Seidenberg and former graduate student Michael Harm, now at Stanford University, designed a computer model that learns to read just like children. It may not simulate everything that goes on in a classroom, says Seidenberg, but the model uses the same principles and factors that guide reading ability.
For example, the researchers first exposed the model to sounds until it developed a spoken language vocabulary, just as toddlers do as they listen to the speech around them before reading instruction even begins. Once the model could figure out meaning from sounds, the researchers showed it word spellings. Then, they asked it to read a variety of words and figure out what they meant. The model could use sounds, visual patterns or a combination of both.
"The beauty of the model is that you can test out many different ways of teaching how to read words," says Seidenberg. "You can see