School & District Management

Study: Readers Use ‘Visual Dictionaries’

By Liana Loewus — November 16, 2011 1 min read
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A new study finds that skilled readers do not rely on sounds when reading but rather retrieve words purely from a “visual dictionary.” The research, conducted by neuroscientists at Georgetown University Medical Center, may provide insight into the brain-based causes of dyslexia. And it’s sure to provide fodder for debate within the neuroscience community.

The concept of a visual dictionary is not a new one to reading teachers, who tend to call words that do not need to be sounded out “sight words.” Emerging readers often memorize some sight words before they’ve mastered letter-sound correspondence.

But as the study’s lead researcher, Laurie Glezer, Ph.D., explains, there’s been disagreement about how known words are accessed in the brain. “One camp of neuroscientists believes that we access both the phonology and the visual perception of a word as we read them and that the area or areas of the brain that do one, also do the other,” she stated in a press release, “but our study proves this isn’t the case.”

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at 12 volunteers’ neural activity during a word recognition activity. They saw that homonyms with different spellings, like “hare” and “hair,” activated different neurons. “If the sounds of the word had influence in this part of the brain we would expect to see that they activate the same or similar neurons, but this was not the case, ‘hair’ and ‘hare’ looked just as different as ‘hair’ and ‘soup’. This suggests that all we use is the visual information of a word and not the sounds,” said Glezer.

That’s not to say students shouldn’t learn phonics—Glezer explains that independent readers need to sound out a word the first few times before it is added to the visual dictionary.

The finding could help people with reading disorders, she said. “For example, if people with dyslexia have a problem forming this visual dictionary, it may be that there could be ways of helping train children with dyslexia to form a more finely tuned visual dictionary.”

Seems to me there could be implications for how we teach all new readers—and perhaps students learning foreign languages as well.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.