Alexander Pollatsek and Rebecca Treiman (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Reading

Alexander Pollatsek and Rebecca Treiman (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Reading (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015) 520 pp. £132.50 Hb. ISBN: 9780199324576

The aim of The Oxford Handbook of Reading, which is edited by Alexander Pollatsek and Rebecca Treiman and belongs to the larger Oxford Library of Psychology series, is to explore research into ‘how people read and how they learn to read’ (3). Beginning with an introduction comprised of essays explicating the role of writing systems, the function of the cognitive processes that underpin visual word recognition in readers, and how eyes move during reading, the handbook is divided into four general parts: ‘Word Identification, ‘Reading Sentences and Texts’, ‘Reading and Spelling Development’, and ‘Reading Instruction’. Though the range of essays collected in each part is daunting, there is enough an overlap between essays for readers to focus on parts without needing to read the whole. It should be noted, however, that even though each essay is accompanied by a succinct abstract and research keywords to help orient readers new to the field of the psychology of reading, this is not a handbook aimed at readers without some familiarity with the study of psychology and its history as a discipline.

As Pollatsek and Treiman state in their introduction to the volume, the majority of essays are ‘strongly influenced by cognitive neuroscience’, meaning that, following the ‘cognitive revolution’ in psychology of the late 1950s, research on reading is no longer interested the behavioural aspects of reading, but investigates reading as ‘the product of a series of hypothetical mental stages or boxes between the stimulus input and the response’ (5). To do so, researchers rely on brain imaging techniques, such as the fMRI, and the collection of electrophysiological data; they also build ‘lexical decision task’ programs that are designed to test how quickly a subject can identify whether a string of letters is a word or nonword (99) and construct ‘computational model[s] of eye movement control in reading’, such as the E-Z Reader, in order to ‘simulate many of the perceptual, cognitive, and motor processes that guide readers’ eye movements’ (277). This emphasis on technology is foregrounded in Pollatsek and Treiman’s brief overview of the history of reading research, which serves to remind readers more generally of the imbrication of reading and technology.

Early research in the field’s two most significant areas of research, word identification and eye movement, was undertaken in the late nineteenth century by James McKeen Cattell – an early proponent of the scientific study of psychology in the United States who, in 1886, published the article ‘The Time it Takes to See and Name Objects’ – and by the German philosopher Benno Erdmann and his American student, Raymond Dodge, who together developed a version of the tachistoscope that could measure the speeds at which individuals process words on a page (4). The techniques and methodologies pioneered in the early history of the discipline are ones that, with the help of computers, continue to be used by researchers today. Indeed, as Pollatsek and Treiman note, though his ‘finding[s] […] were obtained using archaic equipment’, the research undertaken by Edmund Burke Huey – an educational psychologist whose research instigated what is called science-based reading research – and published in the 1908 monograph The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading, has been ‘shown to be basically valid’ (4).

From the outside, the psychology of reading seems like a discipline well-suited to the panoply of interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary fields that comprise the study of literature and science. Yet, for those invested in historicist and humanist practices, the findings presented by many of the essays in the handbook may seem removed from their historical, social, and literary contexts. Claims such as that made by Brett Kessler and Treiman in their chapter ‘Writing Systems: Their Properties and Implications for Reading’, that ‘[c]onservatism in writing means that spelling has remained more consistent throughout the world than pronunciation has’ (21, italics added for emphasis), reveal a lack of familiarity with the literary, linguistic, historical, and sociological studies that have addressed the history of the standardisation of spelling in Britain before the advent of the dictionary, the production and circulation of texts before the invention of the printing press, and how the practices of reading and writing have changed over time. It is frustrating, then, to read their conclusion that their research is justified by a belief that research into ‘how people read’ and ‘how they learn to read’ should be predicated on ‘a good understanding of writing systems and how they work’ when we know that such an understanding does not take into account the practical and physical realities of this system.

For this reason, Adrian Staub’s essay, ‘Reading Sentences: Syntactic Parsing and Semantic Interpretation’, which attempts to understand better the syntactic parsing and semantic interpretation processes, offers the most interesting and relevant account of reading to those interested in the the practical and physical realities of reading (and writing). His discussion of the evidence suggesting individuals process sentences incrementally has implications for a range of disciplinary practices and theories, including close reading and spatial form. Moreover, as Staub’s essay is one of the few to explore reading as the making sense of something rather than as an abstract processing of information, he can address questions such as why (and when) individuals have difficulties reading and why some reading poses a difficulty to readers. His findings, that there is ‘no evidence that syntactic ambiguity itself is costly in terms of reading time’ (207), that syntactic difficulties pose the greater problem to the reader, and that ‘semantic issues’ and ‘memory limitations’ (207) can adversely affect reading time (and, ultimately, comprehension), reinforces what has long been taken for granted in literary studies. Yet, as Staub’s investigation of difficulty makes clear, he is more interested in its causes than its effects or its significance. This is evident when, in exploring the roles that context and anticipation play in causing difficulty, he focuses on the increase in reading time caused by a word which has ‘a poor fit in its context, either because it is inconsistent with the reader’s syntactic analysis at that point in the sentence or because it is implausible’ (212). He doesn’t suggest that any correlation exists between reading time and comprehension, but one cannot help but wonder what the effect these difficulties might have on a reader’s comprehension. From the perspective of the psychology of reading, observations such as this allow for the possibility of modelling how readers process difficulty; however, from the perspective of literary studies, such an observation is a commonplace. Attentive readers of modernist literature, for instance, already know that working through passages in which words are both unexpected and implausible can be ultimately rewarding. After all, as Gertrude Stein suggests in Tender Buttons, ‘A Carafe’ is ‘A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing’.

Nevertheless, there is much comfort to take in Staub’s conclusion that ‘we know much less about how readers put words together, in real time, than we do about how readers recognize words themselves’ (213), for to ‘put words together’, to decipher, interpret, to find meaning is precisely the motivation for much work in literary studies. And, for readers in the Humanities, and most especially for those interested in the intersection of literature and science, The Oxford Handbook of Reading reveals how much transdisciplinary work remains to be done in the field of the psychology of reading. More urgently, it demonstrates the need to resituate literature within science-based reading research through collaborative work.

Laura E Ludtke, Independent Scholar