After reading about a phenomenon in a book, which I found particularly interesting, I decided to do a small experiment to verify it. The methodology I employ is to make use of a flash game to perform a simple psychological test. Before I proceed to explain on the phenomenon, you may want to first try the flash game below (don’t peek at the text below before you take the test).
If you have finished the test, you should see two columns on the results page. So did you get more correct on the left column or the right column?
Now, note that the words on the left column all have 2 or more letters having ascenders (the part that rises above the main body of a letter, e.g. <b, d, f>) or descenders (the part below the main body, e.g. <j, p, y>), while those on the right do not have any (e.g. <a, s, m>). Quoting Sampson (1985):
One of the most important elements making for visual distinctiveness in Roman script is the presence of ‘ascenders’… and ‘descenders’…, which stand out from the body of a word and make for greater recognizability. This is why highway authorities who produce road-signs that have to be read at speed have abandoned upper-case lettering, normal in Britain until the 1960s, which lacks ascenders and descenders. Dina Feitelson (1967) points out that British experts on the teaching of reading have urged that words lacking ascenders and descenders, usch as <run, now cream>, should be avoided in the initial stages because of their non-distinctive outlines.
If this is true, then presumably you should find it easier to recognize the words on the left column, as they are more distinctive.
Nevertheless, I have to confess that after a few trials, the results did not prove to be as significant as I had hoped. Admittedly, this experiment is a very crude one, and there are a lot of factors affecting the result which I did not take into account. In any case, it is only meant to be a small hands-on attempt to test a curious theory, and is therefore by no means conclusive. Remarkably, there are psychologists who do not agree with the word shape model (Larson 2004).
- Feitelson, Dina. 1967. “The relationship between systems of writing and the teaching of reading”, in Marion D. Jenkinson (ed.), Reading Instruction. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.
- Larson, Kevin. 2004. The Science of Word Recognition. http://www.microsoft.com/typography/ctfonts/WordRecognition.aspx
(accessed July 26, 2008).
- Sampson, Geoggrey. 1985. Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Cool post! I tried the experiment and got 4/5 for both lists. No clue what that means. Which book are you reading?
Presumably if you have the same score for both that means the ascenders and descenders have no effect in helping you recognize words. But, well, to be frank I’m now in the opinion that my little experiment simply doesn’t work. There are several problems in it. First there is recency effect (which I did try to minimize by asking you to wait for a while after the presentation of all the words.) Then from my anecdotal observation, we only focus on the first few letters when we look at the words, a result probably caused by the fact that the words are too long, thus the word shapes become less distinctive. In fact I have no idea about the experimental setup in the relevant research. From what I read from Reference 2, it seems that it would be better to present items seperately. And in a related test they presented each stimulus for as brief as 5-10ms while I presented it for 100ms. A very brief presentation is necessary because it ensures that the subject cannot have enough time to analyze the letters individually and focus on the outlines of the words instead. Finally the sample is too small in any case.
But anyway, it’s just what first came to mind when I read about the phenomenon, not too bad as some fun.
The book I’m reading is “Writing Systems – A linguistic introduction,” the one listed under References above.
I got 5/5 on the left and 2/5 on the right… I guess I helped prove this theory =]
I got the same as Ayana ( 5 and 2 ). We tend to fall into groups with so many cognitive skills that I would guess that we do with this one too. I’m dyslexic and I find ascenders, descenders and other visual landmarks help me greatly when it comes to understanding things quickly. This is not just with the written word but also with symbols too.
I imagine a great many non-dyslexics would find similar results to me whilst maybe an equal number may find the opposite to be true.
Oh, it’s getting more interesting now. I thought the experiment didn’t really work because my sister and I tried and we both got more or less the same score for both sides. Maybe it does work statistically after all, if we can somehow accumulate the test results we may in fact see a trend.
I got 5/5 for both… Must be a crazy genius. 🙂