(Writing Systems: An introduction to their linguistic analysis, Florian Coulmas)
'When he was reading, his eye glided over the page, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest. (Augustine)
'Writing requires deliberate analytic action on the part of the child. In speaking, he is hardly conscious of the sound he produces and quite unconscious of the mental operation he performs. In writing, he must take cognizance of the sound structure of each word, dissect it, and reproduce it in alphabetic symbols, which he must have studied and memorized before.' (Lev S. Vygotsky)
(...) the introduction to writing implies a cognitive reorientation and restructuring of symbolic behaviour. Names of objects are conceptually dissociated from their denotata, as signs of physical objects are reinterpreted as signs of linguistic objects, names. In a second step, signs of names are recognized as potentially meaningless signs of bits of sounds, which are then broken down into smaller components.
The bulk of all reading research is concerned with writing systems that make use of the alphabetic notation. (...) It should be kept in mind, however, that this focus on the alphabet has implications for the questions that are asked, how they are pursued, and eventually for theory formation.
(...) linguists and philologists have described and classified writing systems variously as logographic, ideographic, morphosyllabographic, syllabic, phonemic and so on. These classifications are one thing; but how writing systems work in terms of actual perception, processing and production is another. Psycholinguistic research into reading can shed new light on classifications derived from structural descriptions, and lead to a reassessment of how meaningful they are.
In antiquity, texts were commonly redacted in 'scriptura continua', without word
boundaries (Saenger 1991). (...) words, unlike speech sounds, are meaningful, and this is what reading is all about. We read not to intone, but to understand.
The minimal coding unit of alphabetic writing systems is smaller than the word, but modern alphabetic texts consists of words divided by spaces, reflecting the intuitive insight that word separation facilitates reading. The reader's general task is to 'search out the sense' that is linguistically encoded.' (...) Letters are recognized more quickly and more accurately when presented within words (e.g. input) than in isolation or within pseudowords (e.g. inpat). This finding leads to the concept of a lexicon or mental dictionary against which the visual input is matched. In fluent reading, a visual input is linked to a lexical entry that contains morphological and semantic information such as the part of speech of the word and its meaning.
Stroop (1935) discovered that naming the colour of the ink in which a word is written is delayed when that word is the name of a different colour. Stroop, J. Ridley. 1935. Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology 18, 643-62.
The conflicting views about the role of phonological recording in fluent reading are mirrored in a long-standing controversy that pervades reading teaching methods. On one hand, the phonics and decoding method views reading as a process that converts written forms of language to speech forms and then to meaning. A teaching method, consequently, should emphasize phonological knowledge. As one leading proponent of the phonic/decoding approach puts it, 'phonological skills are not merely concomitants or by-products of reading ability; they are true antecedents that may account for up to 60 per cent of the variance in children's reading ability' (Mann 1991: 130). On the other hand, the whole-word method sees reading as a form of communication that consists of the reception of information through the written form, the recovery of meaning being the essential purpose. 'Since it is the case that learning to recognize whole words is necessary to be a fluent reader, therefore, the learning of whole words right from the start may be easier and more effective' (Steinberg, Nagata and Aline 2001:97).
(...) Phonics and decoding advocates do recognize that learning sight words may be functional in reading acquisition, and, by the same token, whole-word advocates do not deny that the teaching of sound values of letters can serve a useful purpose in reading instructions. Fluent readers rely on different strategies for word recognition: matching sight words with templates stored in memory; predicting words from context; applying grapheme-phoneme correspondences to reconstruct phonological words; guessing unknown words by analogy to others already known. Moreover, from research that focussed on the reading of longer words it follows that lexical access is not a process involving only letters and words. Subword units, especially morphemes, and also functional (Taft 1987).
It seems that so far reading research has produced more questions than answers. This impression is partially correct, and there are two main reasons for it. One is that the full complexity of what happens between the stimulus of a piece of text hitting the retina and its meaning being interpreted in the brain is only gradually becoming apparent. The other has to do with the enormous difficulties of devising experiments from which conclusions can be drawn about this process. For on conclusions we have to rely, because direct observations is impossible.
Cognitive consequences of writing
Vygotsky was one of the first psychologists to take an active interest in the cognitive consequences of writing. Working in the 1930s, he was intrigued by the question of how awareness of the properties of speech is affected by writing. In the meantime, numerous studies ranging from the flow of ideas and the level of discourse planning (Chafe 1987) to that of speech-sound segmentation abilities (Morais 1987) have lent support to the notion that people's knowledge about language and their actual language use are influenced by literacy.