New research from New York University suggests that a combination of three different mental processes our brains use to decode words determine how fast we read. One of the processes, phonics (the familiar method of sounding out a word), accounts for 62 percent of a person's reading rate. "Each reading process always contributes the same number of words per minute, regardless of whether the other processes are operating," the researchers write in their PLoS One scientific paper. According to co-author Denis Pelli, professor of psychology and neuroscience, understanding the role of these processes could lead to better ways of helping remedial readers. The way they conducted the study is fascinating. From Scientific American:
The three processes: phonics (a letter by letter sounding out of words); contextual clues (earlier parts of sentences that help readers anticipate upcoming words); and holistic word recognition, or the physical shape of words...Link to Scientific American, Link to PLoS One paper
Using passages from author Mary Higgins Clark's murder mystery Loves Music, Loves to Dance, Pelli and study co-author, undergraduate Katharine Tillman, manipulated passages to block readers from using each of the word-deciphering processes.
To muffle context clues, they shuffled words in a sentence ("contribute others. The of Reading measured"); discrimination via word shape was covered up by inserting random capital letters ("ThIS tExT AlTeRnAtEs iN CaSe."); and to eliminate letter by letter decoding, they substituted similar-looking letters into a word, thereby retaining the ability to use word shape and context, once a reader figured out a previous word ("Tbis sartcrec bes lctfan suhsfitufas").