In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Visual Word Recognition

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Volumes
  • Monographs and Textbooks
  • Computational Models of Word Recognition and Reading Aloud
  • Models of Task Performance
  • Megastudies
  • Databases
  • Individual Differences
  • Neuropsychology of Word Recognition
  • Neuroscience of Word Recognition
  • Methods

Linguistics Visual Word Recognition
Melvin J. Yap
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0245


Words are the building blocks of language, and visual word recognition is a crucial prerequisite for skilled reading. Before we can pronounce a word or understand what it means, we have to first recognize it (i.e., the visually presented word makes contact with its underlying mental representation). Although several tasks have been developed to tap word recognition performance, researchers have primarily relied on lexical decision (classifying letter strings as words or nonwords), speeded pronunciation (reading a word or nonword aloud), and semantic classification (e.g., classifying a word as animate or inanimate). Despite the apparent ease of visual word recognition, the processes that support the mapping of spelling-to-sound and spelling-to-meaning are far from perfectly understood and remain the object of active investigations. Beyond shedding light on reading, literacy, and language development, the visual word recognition literature has helped inform our understanding of other cognitive domains (e.g., pattern recognition, attention, memory), while propelling advances in computational modeling and cognitive neuroscience. Because words can be coded and analyzed at multiple levels (e.g., orthography, phonology, semantics), much of empirical research has explored the functional relationships between orthographic, phonological, and semantic variables and word recognition performance across lexical processing tasks. In addition to studying the recognition of isolated words, there is a rich literature examining how different prime contexts influence the processing of subsequently presented words. Such primes can be orthographically, phonologically, semantically, or morphologically related to targets and are either visible or masked (i.e., presented so briefly that conscious perception is minimized). Turning to methodology, although the classical factorial design continues to dominate word recognition research, an increasing amount of work has been leveraging on the megastudy approach, whereby researchers examine word recognition performance for large sets of words, which are defined by the language rather than by the experimenter. Collectively, the basic findings from the isolated and primed visual word recognition performance have been used to develop and constrain increasingly powerful computational models of word recognition and task performance. Moving forward, the visual word recognition literature is likely to be increasingly characterized by studies that rely on powerful analytical tools (e.g., linear mixed effects analyses, analysis of response time distributions) and which give more consideration to the role of individual differences. Finally, in light of space constraints, this article focuses on references that deal with how visually presented English words are recognized. There is an important and growing literature that explores the lexical processing of other alphabetic (e.g., Spanish, French, German) and nonalphabetic (e.g., Chinese, Korean) languages and the interplay between languages in the multilingual lexicon.

General Overviews

This is probably the best starting point for researchers who would like a quick introduction to this topic. There are a number of excellent review chapters that provide accessible (albeit necessarily selective) introductions to visual word recognition. These reviews vary in length and detail, and their foci also depend on the theoretical interests of their authors. Balota, et al. 2006 is by far the longest review chapter in this section, providing a detailed exposition of the full range of processes underlying visual word recognition, from early feature processing to meaning-level influences. Cortese and Balota 2012, Lupker 2005, Rastle 2007, and Yap and Balota 2015 are other chapters that serve similar functions insofar that they give readers broad overviews of the visual word recognition literature, but each has slightly different emphases and provides snapshots of the field at distinct points in time. Lupker 2005, for example, focuses on interactive processing between different layers, while Rastle 2007 considers the architecture and processing dynamics of word recognition systems.

  • Balota, D.A, M. J. Yap, and M. J Cortese. 2006. Visual word recognition: The journey from features to meaning (A travel update). In Handbook of psycholinguistics. 2d ed. Edited by M. J. Traxler and M. A. Gernsbacher, 285–375. Amsterdam: Academic Press.

    A wide-ranging and detailed review that makes a strong case for the centrality of word recognition research. It documents the major empirical and theoretical developments in visual word recognition research, and discusses some of the controversies in the field (e.g., the debate between connectionist and dual-route models).

  • Cortese, M. J., and D. A. Balota. 2012. Visual word recognition in skilled adult readers. In The Cambridge handbook of psycholinguistics. Edited by M. J. Spivey, K. McRae, and M. F. Joanisse, 159–185. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An accessible review that describes the key findings, tools, and methods in visual word recognition research. Recent empirical controversies (e.g., is there evidence that phonology influences orthography, or is this a one-way street?) and key methodological advances are also discussed.

  • Lupker, S. J. 2005. Visual word recognition: Theories and findings. In The science of reading: A handbook. Edited by M. J. Snowling and C. Hulme, 39–60. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    This review starts by acknowledging that the topic of visual word recognition “may have the largest literature in Cognitive Psychology.” It helps to situate the voluminous word recognition literature within its historical context, and evaluates benchmark findings against the context of extant models. There is also valuable discussion of the nature of interactivity between the different layers (orthographic, phonological, semantic) within the word recognition system.

  • Rastle, K. 2007. Visual word recognition. In The Oxford handbook of psycholinguistics. Edited by M. G. Gaskell, 71–87. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This chapter focuses on important theoretical and empirical issues in visual word recognition and describes the architecture and processing dynamics of the word recognition and reading system. There is also extended discussion of the pathways that support the computation of phonology and semantics from orthography.

  • Yap, M. J., and D. A. Balota. 2015. Visual word recognition. In Oxford Handbook of Reading. Edited by A. Pollatsek and R. Treiman, 26–43. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This chapter describes the major findings and models in word recognition and underscores the importance of considering the interplay between task-general and task-specific processing in word recognition. There is also brief discussion of newer methodological approaches (e.g., megastudies, analysis of response time distributions) that complement more traditional methods of inquiry.

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