To most competent readers, reading is something they do naturally, much like walking or talking: things we do that we have developed to the point of automaticity. Because we seem to be unable to look at text without gaining meaning, we are rarely aware of the cognitive processes that go into this most complex of skills.
In fact, when we read, our eyes are moving forward very rapidly and stopping a number of times along each line of written text. Each one of these rapid movements is called a saccade and it these saccades that carry the eyes forward from one part of the text to another in staccato fashion. I say ‘staccato’ because in between each of these saccades, the eye pauses and becomes relatively still and it is in these moments of stasis, known as ‘fixations’ that we gain information from whatever it is we are reading.
According to Ashby and Rayner*, each saccade lasts for about a quarter of a second [see also Crystal’s Encylopedia of the English Language, p.218], making the reading process, as they put it, ‘similar to a slide show, in which the text appears …, is interrupted briefly by a saccade, then reappears, and so forth’.
There is good reason for why this happens. The human visual system enables us to see with greater acuity in the centre of what is known as the fovea, the area of the retina which offers the best visual detail, hence the need to fixate on a limited group of letters before moving on to fixate the next group. Outside the fovea in the parafoveal and peripheral regions of the retina, our visual receptors are unable to discriminate the detail of letters to distinguish one from another: in other words, the further from the fovea, the poorer our perception of difference in detail.
The authors of the piece liken the visual field to a bull’s eye, with the fovea at the centre, surrounded by the parafovea, which is, in turn, encircled by the peripheral region. However, to be more accurate, you would need to imagine a bull’s eye skewed or attenuated to the right for readers of English. Thus, perceptual spans are not symmetrical, extending three or four letters to the left and, in the case of skilled readers, ‘only seven or eight letters to the right of fixation to support their recognition of upcoming words’. However, as they point out, much of that information is parafoveal. [Perceptual span also varies according to the writing system, with perceptual span in Arabic and Hebrew, for instance, operating in the reverse direction.]
For obvious reasons, fixations are also influenced by factors such as word length and by lexical access. So, when a word is less frequently encountered or it contains a less frequent spelling, fixations are longer. This factor would appear to link ‘lexical access processes that operate very efficiently during skilled reading’ to eye movements. Furthermore, skilled readers are, as you would expect, able to glean syllable information parafoveally during a fixation.
So, how do young, beginning readers differ from skilled readers? The answer is that their eye movements reflect the problems they have in decoding words in connected text: fixations last longer, their perceptual span is shorter, and they tend to regress more often. Neither in the beginning stages of learning to read is fixation symmetrical, as it is in more fluent readers.
What the authors speculate is that more fixations and shorter saccades, as well as a more restricted perceptual span, limit the amount of text a reader can hold in foveal view.
What are the implications of this for teaching beginning readers? In my next posting, I shall be looking at some of the suggestions put forward by the authors.
* Ashby, J. & Rayner, K., ‘Literacy Development: Insights from Research on Skilled Reading’, in Dickinson, D.K and Neuman, S., Eds, (2006), Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Vol 2, London, Guilford Press, pp 52-63.