Crystal Part 2: Reading by Ear or by Eye?

We cited Chapter 34 of Professor David Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language in Part 1, ending with the introduction to his review on the theories of reading.  Let’s pick up where we left off, with his section titled Reading by ear or by eye?

Crystal Cover

“Most people have encountered the struggle that takes place as a child is learning to read.  A major feature of this task is that words and letters are ‘sounded out’.  It is as if reading is possible only if the symbols are heard – reading ‘by ear’.  One theory of reading therefore argues that a phonic or phonological step is an essential feature of the process – a theory of ‘phonetic mediation’.  The view implies that reading is a serial or linear process, taking place letter-by-letter, with larger units gradually being built up.”  Professor Crystal offers the following diagram to represent that process:

IMG_4482He continues:

“The alternative view argues that there is a direct relationship between the graphology and the semantics, and that a phonological bridge is unnecessary (though it is available for use when reading aloud).  Words are read as wholes, without being broken down into a linear sequence of letters and sounded out – reading ‘by eye’.  Readers use their peripheral vision to guide the eye to the most likely  informative part of the page.  Their knowledge of the language and general experience helps them to identify critical letters or words in a section of the text.  This initial sampling gives them an expectation about the way the text should be read, and they use their background knowledge to ‘guess’ the reminder of the text and fill in the gaps.  In this view, a text is like a problem that has to be solved using hypotheses about its meaning and structure.”  Professor Crystal represents that model with this diagram:


Permit me to highlight two crucial points implicit in what David Crystal has written:

  1. The commonality to both of these models is that the process of reading printed text (as opposed to Braille or audio books) always begins with visual analysis.
  2. Covering one eye to address binocular vision problems comes at the price of reducing peripheral vision substantially, impairing the important role of parafoveal preview in reading.

The arguments for and against the two distinct models of reading, ‘by ear’ and ‘by eye’, are complex and multifaceted, as Professor Crystal points out.  He summarizes these arguments as follows.

Support for the ear:

  • Associating graphemes and phonemes is a natural process, which cannot be avoided when first learning to read.
  • Letter recognition is very rapid – about 20-30 milliseconds per letter – which is enough to account for the average reading speed of 250 words per minute.  However it is similar for both silent and oral reading, and close to the norms for spontaneous speech.
  • Most words in a text are of very low frequency, occurring only once over long periods, and some will be completely new to a reader.  This limits word expectancy, thereby requiring some degree of phonological decoding.
  • When people read difficult material, they often move their lips, as if the phonology is needed to help comprehension.
  • It is difficult too see how the ‘eye’ theory can account for the relative ease of reading the many variations in font typology and handwriting.
  • Reading ‘by eye’ would seem to be a complex process of each word going through a retrieval process, and we tend to prefer parsimonious explanations.

Support for the eye:

  • Fluent readers are not confused by homophones such as two and too, for which phonology is no help.
  • For homographs like tear (a word that has the same spelling as another word but has a different sound and a different meaning) there is no way of deciding which pronunciation is involved until after the reader has selected a meaning.
  • The fact that different sounds are written identically, and different letters can have the same pronunciation, complicates a phonological view, with some orthographic rules seeming totally unrelated to phonology.  At least 25% of English words have irregular spelling where phonology doesn’t work, and these words are among the most frequently used in the language.
  • Individuals with phonological dyslexia are unable to pronounce simple nonsense words (e.g. pob), but are able to read real words, showing that a non-phonological route from print to meaning must exist.
  • The ‘ear’ theory doesn’t explain how some people are able to read at speeds in excess of 500 words per minute, given the time to convert letters to sound.  This poses less of a problem for the ‘eye” theory, simply requiring that readers increase their sampling as they speed up.
  • In tachistoscopic exposures, individuals identify whole words more rapidly than isolated letters.  For example, for brief exposures of BAG, BIG, A, I, or IBG, and asked whether they have just seen an A or I, people perform best with familiar words.  This is known as the word superiority effect.

Crystal concludes that a compromise theory is in order.  Neither approach explains all aspects of reading behavior.  It is likely that people make use of both strategies at various stages in learning and in handling different kinds of reading tasks.  The ‘ear’ or phonetic approach is important during the initial stages.  Likely after repeated exposures to a word, a direct print-meaning pathway is established.  The ‘eye’ or whole word approach better accounts for how we become fluent readers.


Many of the points underscoring the importance of visual input and visual analysis in silent reading efficiency are made in two other books that I commend to you.  One is Eye Movements and the Fundamental Reading Process, authored by Taylor, to which I contributed a chapter.  Another is Models of the Visual System edited by Hung and Ciuffreda that contains a chapter on Models of Reading Disability and Their Implications authored by Harold Solan.  As fond as I am of these sources, the Encyclopedia of Language further crystallizes the salient points.

One thought on “Crystal Part 2: Reading by Ear or by Eye?

  1. His last diagram suggests you hear or see it with no meaning taken to the task. Because I know language, meaning should drive my anticipation of new words, thus making my attempt to recognize them earlier. Thus meaning drives auditory and visual analysis. Prediction and anticipation should lead the reading process via meaning. Just like anticipating what someone is to say makes listening easier. He should move the ‘meaning’ component sooner in the process.

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