As part of the Development Lexicon Project study, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin are currently studying how words are read by people ranging from first-graders to seventy-year-olds. The researchers are focusing on three different characteristics of a word: its length, its frequency of use within the language, and its similarity to other words. They have discovered that both length and frequency of words are used less often to read a word as a person ages. “The effects decrease continuously,” comments Sascha Schroeder, a psychologist, linguist, and musicologist. “Because the more often a word is used in the language, the quicker we recognize it with increasing age when reading.”
This particular study is one of a range of interdisciplinary studies conducted by Schroeder and his staff from the REaD (Reading Education and Development) Research Group, which started working on the issue four years ago. At that time, they found some startling information. One out of five German adults is functionally illiterate, unable to understand simple texts, and that is true across all social groups. Those who cannot master this critical skill are unable to participate socially, politically, or economically. Schroeder comments that, “In our modern information-based society, people with lesser reading abilities are being marginalized. They often have little access to the working world. We cannot simply carry on as before. We have to do something to counteract this major problem at an early stage, and the solution has to be sustainable and successful.” Reading development programs often yield inadequate results “because the processes which reading is based on have been insufficiently researched in the German language compared to English. “[With REaD], we are taking a step back and looking at the cognitive mechanisms behind reading before subsequently tackling the issue of improving the development of reading in concrete terms. Only new insights can create new prospects for effectively supporting people with reading difficulties.”
One large-scale project underway to glean those insights is ERIC (Effects of Reading Instruction on Cognitive Processes). The focus is on learning opportunities in primary school reading classes, as well as finding out which instructional methods support students acquiring the necessary reading skills. Simon Tiffin-Richards, who works with ERIC as an academic staff member of Max Planck says, “We are not only evaluating the pupils, but also the teachers. We are therefore integrating cognitive reading research with research into teaching methods.”
There are four main aims of ERIC:
- The investigation of the relevant cognitive processes involved in reading, such as the vocabulary of children and how well they understand the relationship between sentences.
- The investigation of how teachers diagnose learning processes and how they assess the vocabulary and text comprehension of their primary school students.
- The way in which German teachers structure their German lessons.
- The determination of which measures in the teaching of German have a particularly positive impact on cognitive processes that are important for learning to read in the fourth grade.
The initial results of the study showed two important findings. First, in fourth grade, reading comprehension and spelling proficiency stem from students’ abilities with word identification processes. These are, in turn, substantially influenced both by students’ word knowledge and their reading experience. Second, fourth grade students are good at recognizing the phonemes of words, but they have difficulties in spelling and recognizing spelling errors, which may come from unfamiliarity with the words.
Though these studies applied specifically to teaching and reading in German, the results apply equally to teachers and students of English. Increased exposure to words, obtained by reading more, leads to a greater ability to quickly process and understand new reading material. The AceReader program strongly emphasizes the need for regular exposure to words (practice), especially when they are in context – only through practice will students be able to master the words together with the new reading skills they are learning. That’s why, in addition to reading comprehension tests, we focus on word recognition in the Eye Span and Eye Span-Comprehension Games, vocabulary development in the Flash & Recall Game, and leveled vocabulary development in the Reading Strategies & Tips section of the Menu Mode. Used in combination with other classroom instruction, the program can be a powerful tool to ensure students are able to read fluently at grade-appropriate levels and grow to be fully literate adults.