Reading by Eye and Writing by Ear

  • Uta Frith
Part of the Nato Conference Series book series (NATOCS, volume 13)


The role of sound in reading is far from clear. Results from letter-cancellation tasks have been used as evidence for immediate translation of visible language into sound. An experiment reported here suggests that this view is not tenable and that, on the contrary, the results provide evidence for immediate lexical identification. Another experiment on reading misspelled and graphically distorted text also provides evidence against prior phonological encoding. It was more difficult to read text that preserved only the sound than text that preserved only the visual outline of the original words. This was true even for very young readers. It is likely that sound in reading plays a secondary role.

The role of sound in writing, however, appears to be primary and dominant. Most spelling errors and unintentional slips of the pen show letter patterns that sound like the target word. Some experiments are discussed that show that the same person may read “by eye” and write “by ear.” In particular there is a group of people who are good readers and poor spellers and are unable to coordinate these two strategies. Hence, it is necessary to consider language reception, as in reading, and language production, as in writing, to be two separate, specialised skills.

How closely can we equate spoken and written language? Is reading just a form of listening and writing just a form of speaking? It would be simpler to understand both language systems in terms of the same processes. Also, it seems likely that handling visible language would benefit from the well rehearsed processes that have been established previously for handling spoken language. Given this rationale, it is plausible to assume that the way we recognise written words is first to translate them into sound, then to treat the resulting sounds as if they were heard speech. However, rather than assuming that reading is parasitic on listening, it might be assumed that listening to speech and silently reading prose share the same process for understanding.


Target Word Poor Reader Good Reader Distorted Text Phonological Code 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1979

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  • Uta Frith

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