Word Identification

College students typically read at about 300 words per minute, thus averaging only 200 milliseconds to identify each word. It has proved hard to decide exactly how long word identification normally takes, in part because of imprecision about the meaning of "word identification". The term can refer to accessing either the name of a word or its meaning. However, reading rate is slowed by only about 15% when a mask appears 50 milliseconds after the start of each eye fixation (Rayner et al., 1981). This suggests that word identification in both senses takes only a little more than 50 milliseconds.

Automatic processing

Rayner and Sereno (1994) argued that word identification is generally fairly automatic. This makes intuitive sense if you consider that most college students have read between 20 and 70 million words in their lifetimes. It has been argued that automatic processes are unavoidable and unavailable to consciousness (see Chapter 5). Evidence that word identification may be unavoidable comes from the Stroop effect (Stroop, 1935). Participants have to name the colours in which words are printed as rapidly as possible, and naming speed is slowed when the words are conflicting colour names (e.g., the word RED printed in green). The Stroop effect suggests that word meaning is extracted even when participants try not to process it.

Cheesman and Merikle (1984) replicated the Stroop effect. They also found that the effect could be obtained even when the colour name was presented below the level of conscious awareness. This latter finding suggests that word identification does not depend on conscious awareness.

Context effects

Is word identification influenced by context? This issue was addressed by Meyer and Schvaneveldt (1971) in a study in which the participants had to decide whether letter strings were words. On this lexical decision task, the decision time for a word (e.g., DOCTOR) was shorter when the preceding context or prime was a semantically related word (e.g., NURSE) than when it was an unrelated word (e.g., LIBRARY) or when there was no prime. This is known as the semantic priming effect.

Why does this semantic priming effect occur? Perhaps the context or priming word automatically activates the stored representations of all the words related to it due to massive previous learning. Alternatively, controlled processes may be involved, with a prime such as NURSE leading participants to expect that a semantically related word will follow.

Neely (1977) used an ingenious technique to distinguish between the two explanations of the semantic priming effect. The priming word was the name of a semantic category (e.g., "Bird"), and it was followed by a letter string at one of three intervals: 250, 400, or 700 milliseconds. In the key manipulation, participants expected that a particular category name would usually be followed by a member of a different, pre-specified category (e.g., "Bird" followed by the name of part of a building). There were two kinds of trials with this manipulation:

1. The category name is followed by a member of a different, but expected, category (e.g., Bird-Window).

2. The category name is followed by a member of the same, but unexpected, category (e.g., Bird-Magpie).

The findings are shown in Figure 11.6. There were two priming or context effects. First, there was a rapid, automatic effect based only on semantic relatedness. Second, there was a slower acting attentional effect based only on expectation. Subsequent research has generally confirmed Neely's (1977) findings, except that automatic processes can cause inhibitory effects at short intervals (see Rayner & Pollatsek, 1989).

It is hard to know whether Neely's (1977) findings apply to normal reading, because the situations are so different. However, context does influence reading. For example, Ehrlich and Rayner (1981) found that words fitting the sentential context were fixated for 40 milliseconds less than other words.

The time course of inhibitory and facilitatory effects of priming as a function of whether or not the target word was related semantically to the prime, and of whether or not the target word belonged to the expected category. Data from Neely (1977).

Business Correspondence

Business Correspondence

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