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Towards a universal model of reading

  • Ram Frost (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 August 2012

In the last decade, reading research has seen a paradigmatic shift. A new wave of computational models of orthographic processing that offer various forms of noisy position or context-sensitive coding have revolutionized the field of visual word recognition. The influx of such models stems mainly from consistent findings, coming mostly from European languages, regarding an apparent insensitivity of skilled readers to letter order. Underlying the current revolution is the theoretical assumption that the insensitivity of readers to letter order reflects the special way in which the human brain encodes the position of letters in printed words. The present article discusses the theoretical shortcomings and misconceptions of this approach to visual word recognition. A systematic review of data obtained from a variety of languages demonstrates that letter-order insensitivity is neither a general property of the cognitive system nor a property of the brain in encoding letters. Rather, it is a variant and idiosyncratic characteristic of some languages, mostly European, reflecting a strategy of optimizing encoding resources, given the specific structure of words. Since the main goal of reading research is to develop theories that describe the fundamental and invariant phenomena of reading across orthographies, an alternative approach to model visual word recognition is offered. The dimensions of a possible universal model of reading, which outlines the common cognitive operations involved in orthographic processing in all writing systems, are discussed.

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