An experimental experiment

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).


  1. 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.
  2. Larson, Kevin. 2004. The Science of Word Recognition.
    (accessed July 26, 2008).
  3. Sampson, Geoggrey. 1985. Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction. Stanford: Stanford University Press.