The effects of phonological recoding on taiwanese students’ reading processes: Evidence from eye tracking experiments

Ying Hua Guan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Phonological recoding is a psychological process in which readers convert printed words into sounds (i.e., phonological codes) during silent reading. The role of phonological recoding in reading has long been debated in the field of psycholinguistics. Most relevant studies have mainly focused on examining the role of phonological recoding in word recognition. Three major theoretical approaches have been proposed for lexical access. First, the phonological mediation model assumes that the meaning of a word is accessed through its phonology; that is, the sequence of the word recognition process is orthography phonology semantics. Phonological recoding of a word occurs prior to the access of its meaning (Lukatela & Turvey, 1994; Rayner, Pollatsek, & Binder, 1998; Van Orden, Johnston, & Hale, 1988). Second, the direct access route model assumes that the meaning of a word can be directly accessed through the transition from orthography to semantics without the mediation of phonology (M. Coltheart & Coltheart, 1997; Taft & Van Graan, 1998). The model, however, does not deny the possibility of phonological activation. Rather, it assumes that phonological recoding occurs concurrently to or later than the access of the word’s meaning. Third, the dual route model suggests that two parallel running routes can achieve lexical access: one is the phonologically mediated route, and the other is the direct access route (M. Coltheart, 2000). The route that achieves lexical access depends on the route that runs the fastest (Barron, 1986; Paap, Noel, & Johansen, 1992). McCusker, Hillinger, and Bias (1981) indicated that the difficulty of material, subjects’ reading fluency, the frequency of occurrence of items, and task demands can determine the use of phonological recoding. Chinese is a logographic language and is also regarded as a phonologically opaque one. Nevertheless, studies investigating the time course of phonological activation in Chinese word recognition have yielded inconsistent results. Although some evidence has suggested that phonology can be activated very early in the word recognition process when Chinese readers read Chinese words or sentences (Guo, Peng, & Liu, 2005; Tan, Hoosain, & Peng, 1995; Zhang & Perfetti, 1993), it remains controversial whether phonological recoding plays a crucial role in word recognition and text comprehension. Few studies have measured Chinese subjects’ reading comprehension under the condition of articulatory suppression, which has been proven to interfere with phonological recoding (Lu & Zhang, 2007; Ding & Wang, 2006). However, the results of such studies have been inconsistent, and whether phonological recoding is important for Chinese text comprehension remains unclear. This study conducted two eye-tracking experiments by using the same experimental paradigm implemented by Guan (2015, 2020) to investigate whether adult Chinese readers need to rely on phonological recoding to understand short expository texts and also whether readers without the background knowledge relevant to domain-specific texts must rely more on phonological recoding to comprehend them. In Experiment 1, 30 university students in Taipei were recruited whose mother tongue was Mandarin Chinese. They were asked to read 20 short expository texts (each one was 350 characters in length) under five different reading conditions: articulatory suppression, reading aloud, concurrent reading and listening to an irrelevant text (IRS), reading while listening to the same text (RWL), and silent reading. The topics of the texts included, for example, “advice for new graduates when entering workforce,” “the impact of 3C products on human cognition,” “water pollution,” “the color of eggs,” “the crisis of water resources,” “the function of sun light,” “the philosopher and the frog,” “Mr. thought,” “experiment with monkeys,” “the stereotypes of teachers in Taiwan,” and “the influences of watching TV on small children.” Subjects’ reading time and comprehension score for each text as well as their eye movements were recorded, which were then analyzed by several linear or generalized linear mixed models to find the best fitting model for each dependent variable. The results revealed that articulatory suppression significantly impaired reading comprehension and caused a larger regression ratio in text reading as well as a higher rereading rate on target words, whereas the effects of the other reading conditions on comprehension did not differ from each other. These results suggest that phonological recoding is essential for Chinese expository text comprehension and word recognition. Reading aloud, compared with silent reading, significantly increased the overall reading time, mean fixation duration, and number of fixations in a text but substantially reduced the mean saccade length and regression ratio. In word-level processing, reading aloud led to a much longer first fixation duration, gaze duration, rereading time, and total reading time on target words selected in the texts. Through word-by-word reading, reading aloud seemed to facilitate integrated sentence meaning, but it failed to significantly enhance overall reading comprehension. Moreover, RWL caused higher rereading rates on target words than did silent reading, and it did not improve reading comprehension. In line with results found under the reading aloud condition, the null effects of reading aloud and RWL on reading comprehension could indicate that both reading conditions make the covert phonological recoding during silent reading overt and therefore imposed similar effects on reading comprehension to those exerted by the phonological recoding in silent reading. Experiment 2 was conducted to further examine whether subjects’ background knowledge regarding the text content would moderate their reliance on phonological recoding in understanding domain-specific texts, such that subjects without much background knowledge would rely more on phonological recoding in the processing of unfamiliar terms and text content. To this end, 15 excerpts from journal articles in Scientific American were used as experimental materials. The topics of these texts were all about physics, such as the Higgs boson, quantum computing, loop quantum gravity, antimatter, charge-coupled devices, and 3He superfluid. The same experimental paradigm as in Experiment 1 was used in Experiment 2, and a different sample of 30 university students in Taipei were recruited as participants. Half majored in humanities and social sciences and had no background knowledge in physics. The other half of the students majored in natural sciences, such as physics, atmospheric physics, and materials science; therefore, they had background knowledge in physics. Participants were asked to read the texts and answer four comprehension questions after reading each text. The results revealed that only background knowledge had a significant effect on reading comprehension, whereas reading conditions and their interaction with background knowledge did not exhibit any significant effects. Participants with relevant background knowledge performed significantly better than did their counterparts. However, background knowledge did not moderate participants’ dependency on phonological recoding in reading comprehension. It seems that phonological recoding did not play a crucial role in understanding short domain-specific texts. Analysis of participants’ eye movements indicated that reading aloud could slow their reading speed and reduce their regression ratio, but it did not enhance reading comprehension. RWL increased the rereading rate on target words in short expository texts, and it increased reading time and the mean fixation duration in domain specific texts. IRS did not affect comprehension performance; it only increased the rereading rate on domain-specific target words and prolonged the first fixation duration for participants without relevant background knowledge. In sum, the results of this study suggest that phonological recoding provides critical support for Chinese adult readers to comprehend short expository texts, but it only plays a minor role in understanding domain-specific texts. When participants read domain-specific texts, it was their background knowledge that dominated their reading comprehension performance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)459-488
Number of pages30
JournalBulletin of Educational Psychology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Chinese reading
  • Eye-movement experiments
  • Phonological recoding

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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