Subconscious Word Recognition

Posted by Rezwan Razani on Oct 07, 2013 at 01:23 AM

The goal of literacy is subconscious word recognition.  If, while you read, you can recognize words as a whole without having to analyze them, you’ve achieved literacy! How can we make this happen?

Effortless Word Recognition

Poor readers transform into fluent readers once their brains are able to recognize words as a whole, on a subconscious level, without having to analyze them. This doesn’t happen automatically.  It takes time and exposure to words.

There is a section of the brain devoted to this process. Once you become fluent, that part of your brain glows while you read. (OK, maybe it doesn’t glow, but somehow researchers have mapped this activity in the brain. Here is a link to more information on the subject.)

Getting to whole word recognition takes a few steps. Reading starts with “phonological awareness” - learning the alphabet and the sounds that correspond to each letter or group of letters. Then you see the letters coming together into words.  Your first encounters with a word involve a struggle as you approach it letter by letter, sounding out the letters from beginning to end.  For example, in your first encounter with “blue” you might read it as “buh…loo…ee.”

38 Encounters

Once you’ve learned your letters and phonics, it still takes about 38 encounters with a new word before you learn to recognize it on sight.

Language is about exposure and familiarity. 38 encounters may seem like a lot, but when you are immersed in a textified world, it happens quicker than you think.

What does Whole Word Recognition look like? See this Scrambled English Paragraph

A while ago, this paragraph was circulating around the internet. Try to read it and see if you notice anything strange:

The phaomnnehil pweor of the hmuan mnid.

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is that the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the human mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Smiply amzanig huh?

When I first read this paragraph I was amazed!  It’s a demonstration of the fact that the “human mind does not read every letter by itself, but the word as a whole.”
I found it easy to read English scrambled. Of course, it’s not as easy as they make it sound. Click here for Matt Davis’ website that discusses the limits of this word scrambling phenomenon.  Bonus:  It features the above paragraph, unscrambled.

And click here for Josh Nimoy’s site that has a text scrambler. You can type in any English text and it will scramble it for you, keeping the first and last letter in place.

Neat! Does that work in Persian?

It might work in English, but can you scramble words and still recognize them as a whole in Persian (a.k.a. Farsi)? Written, the Persian language seems more complex than English. There are two reasons for this.

  1. Persian has a semi-cursive script. Sometimes, even unscrambled, you’re not sure where the word begins or ends.  If you re-order the letters, the shape of the letters within the words may change as they take on a different cursive form.
  2. In Persian, half the vowels (the short vowels) are not shown in writing.

How much of a difference does this make? Will it be harder to decipher scrambled Persian script than it is to decipher English script? If so, would that mean that English is a more practical script in terms of being easier for the mind to map/decode/subconsciously recognize?

To answer this question, we have translated this paragraph into Persian and scrambled it (see below. Also, for the unscrambled version, click on the scrambled version and compare. We suggest you try the scrambled version first, otherwise you’re “cheating”). I found it readable while scrambled, but I am biased because I translated it. I’ve run it by a few other people of mixed reading ability, and results have been mixed. There must be a systematic way to test if this is readable (eyeball trackers?). It would be great to assess the relative readability of different languages/different alphabets. 

In any case, contact us and let us know your level of Persian reading ability, and on a scale of 1-10 how easy it was to read (with 10 being the easiest). Also, let us know from 1-10 how easy the English was to read.

Scrambled Persian:


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