2 Seconds

5 minute read

The difference in knowing and not knowing

Don’t read the below word. I mean look at it, but don’t read it. Don’t think about what it means, don’t try to think of it’s definition. Just look at it as some ink on a page. Maybe it’s artwork.


Oh no! You read it didn’t you. You probably read it before you even got to the break in the page. It’s an appropriate word to pick for this challenge, because the truly amazing thing is that you read and processed that word in less than 100 milliseconds. Less than 1/10 of a second!

Yes. 100 milliseconds to understand a written word is pretty awesome. But it’s also super important. Your brain can only hold new information in its working memory (aka short term memory) for up to two seconds. That’s quite the time-window…no pressure, brain!

What does this mean for you the reader? Firstly, if you come across an unfamiliar word you’re not going to be able to identify it in 100 milliseconds, or probably even two seconds.

[Luckily you have some help from the surrounding context, but that’s a topic for another day. ]

If you get tripped up on a word and the context is of no help (think second language learners), then after two seconds the word floats out of your memory and you have to revert your attention back to it. This is why reading in a foreign language is so slow and painful.

When a reader slowly analyzes a word into component sounds and blends them, a great deal of capacity is consumed, with relatively little left over for comprehension of the word, let alone understanding the overall meaning of the sentence containing the word and the paragraph containing the sentence. In contrast, automatic word recognition (i.e. recognizing a word as a sight word) consumes very little capacity and thus frees short-term capacity for the task of comprehending the word and integrating the meaning of the word with the overall meaning of the sentence, paragraph, and text.

- p. 68

The worst part is, comprehending a word (or in fancy scientific language: lexical access/lexical processing) is only a “low level” working memory process. Lexical access, combined with syntactic parsing and semantic proposition formation make up the three low level processes. These processes can best be thought of as similar to the fuel and engine of a car. Without them, the rest of the car is not much use.

The rest of the car, the really awesome parts like turbo, air conditioning, and leather seats, are equivalent to our working memory’s “high level” processes. These four processes are listed below:

• Text model of comprehension • Situation model of reader interpretation • Background knowledge use and inferencing • Executive control processes

These are the processes that let you understand what this one word means in the context of its sentence, paragraph, and entire document. It ties in whatever background information you already know, and lets you build off of that. Basically it’s your critical thinking.

Why have you never had to worry about analyzing the way you read? Because fluent first language readers can recognize 98-100% of the words they encounter. Fluent readers not only can recognize a word in under 1/10 of a second, but they don’t even realize they do it and it can’t be stopped.

That’s a powerful advantage for fluent readers. But what about second language learners? For them, reading is not such a piece of cake. Depending on their vocabulary base, they may need to frequently stop reading to look up words, causing them to stop their high level processing and making reading incredibly inefficient.

Are you a second language learner? Then you’re probably wondering how you can combat this. How can you get on something of a more level playing field with those fluent readers? Below I have listed a few activities you can practice.

Flashcards have a terrible reputation(McCullough, 1955)But it’s undeserved. … Flashcards can foster automaticity by helping children read words accurately and quickly. Critics argue that flashcards only teach children to ‘bark’ at print and do not contribute to the bottom line of reading, which is comprehension. But recent research suggests the opposite, that teaching children to read words faster can improve reading comprehension dramatically.

- p. 37

  1. Word and Phrase Recognition Exercises: • Think flashcards and exercises where you try to pick out the correctly spelled/written word from a cluster of similar, but incorrectly written words

  2. Timed Semantic Connection Exercises: • Exercises that make you examine the relationship between words like flower & rose, or collocations like basket & ball or read & book

  3. Lexical Access Fluency Exercises: • Make a list of words on the left side of the paper and a list of definitions on the right side. Match each word to the definition.

If you’re beginning learning a foreign language, it may be better to simply focus on broadening your vocabulary. Some suggestions are below:

  1. Use a systematic procedure to select words to study. Example: You are reading an article and you want to pick some words to study from it. Each word can be sorted in two ways: • Helpful to understand the article or not • Helpful outside of the article being read or not You should focus on words to which you answer yes to both questions first, then depending on your personal goals decide which of the two requirements is more important and focus on words that only fit that requirement as well.

  2. Concept-of-Definition Map. Pick a word, and map out answers to the four questions below: • What is it? • Examples? • Non-examples? • What is it like? These maps will help you to store the word in your memory.

  3. Try to place yourself in a vocabulary rich environment. Some good ideas I’ve heard include putting sticky notes on all appliances in your house and labeling them in your foreign language. Hang out with friends who speak your foreign language. Watch foreign television shows, listen to foreign music, read a foreign newspaper. Or best yet, travel to the foreign country!

All research for this piece was drawn from Teaching and Researching Reading by William Grabe and Fredricka L. Stoller. If you’re interested in learning more about how your brain works while reading I recommend you check out their work.

Follow me on Twitter: @c_h_wood


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