Skilled readers' sensitivity to meaningful regularities in English writing

Cognition. 2020 Feb:195:103810. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2018.09.013. Epub 2018 Dec 1.


Substantial research has been undertaken to understand the relationship between spelling and sound, but we know little about the relationship between spelling and meaning in alphabetic writing systems. We present a computational analysis of English writing in which we develop new constructs to describe this relationship. Diagnosticity captures the amount of meaningful information in a given spelling, whereas specificity estimates the degree of dispersion of this meaning across different spellings for a particular sound sequence. Using these two constructs, we demonstrate that particular suffix spellings tend to be reserved for particular meaningful functions. We then show across three paradigms (nonword classification, spelling, and eye tracking during sentence reading) that this form of regularity between spelling and meaning influences the behaviour of skilled readers, and that the degree of this behavioural sensitivity mirrors the strength of spelling-to-meaning regularities in the writing system. We close by arguing that English spelling may have become fractionated such that the high degree of spelling-sound inconsistency maximises the transmission of meaningful information.

Keywords: English; Lexical category; Meaning; Morphology; Spelling; Writing system.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Psycholinguistics*
  • Reading*
  • Writing*