Laying the Foundations: Perceptual Enhancement for Efficient Reading Instruction


Image of Helen Abadzi

Helen Abadzi

University of Texas at Arlington

In order for all children to cultivate universal, early, conceptual and procedural mastery of foundational skills (UECPMFS), all classrooms need to use pedagogical approaches that are aligned with learning goals and with children’s needs. In this blog, Helen Abadzi, who spoke at a recent RISE webinar on aligning instruction for foundational skills, and Aigly Zafeirakou share their experiences in developing one such approach for foundational literacy instruction.

In 2005, an article was published about the recognition of words and faces. Despite apparent differences, word and face recognition are quite similar. People use letters to recognise words and features to recognise faces.

The neglected role of visual perception in reading fluency

One essential quality of animal visual systems is the ability to compose larger shapes from smaller features. The process is called perceptual learning. Practice with various stimuli combines small shapes to larger or more complex shapes, so we instantly recognise scenes in our environment. Fluent readers perceive words effortlessly, the same way they perceive landscapes or faces. For clearest discrimination, the features should have a certain size and spacing among them and should also viewed in the center of vision. So readers of various writing systems read fastest when there is an optimal, “critical” size and spacing among letters. With practice our visual system gets habituated to smaller letters. But beginning readers strain to read letters that are too small or too dense, and they may give up. The road to information, critical thinking, and prosperity starts with that visual interface.

Research on perceptual learning has gone on for decades, but it is a rather obscure topic. Perceptual psychology, and the discipline called psychophysics, are rarely taught in psychology departments. Consequently, education academics know little about the qualities of the visual system. But the implications of perceptual research are significant for early-grade reading, math, and many other subjects.

The research suggests that to teach reading efficiently, students should learn letters one by one, presented in big and spaced shapes, without distracting graphics and with much practice to match letters to sounds and form more expansive visual shapes. With practice, recognition speed increases, and a brain region that recognises faces becomes activated. Then reading becomes effortless, like recognition of other shapes in our environment. Without sufficient perceptual learning we just see a sea of letters. We may not even know what language a text is written in!

The language networks receive input from the visual networks, but these must first become practiced and specialised for a script and its spelling features. Strangely, it is not necessary to understand a language in order to read it. On the other hand, instant, effortless reading is required for access to the brain networks needed to read for learning and enjoyment.

From neuroscience to practice

So how to turn the implications of this body of research into a curriculum? In 2011-13, working at the Global Partnership for Education, we tested some aspects of perceptual learning in the Gambia.

The government agreed to experiment with five local languages, that are spelled consistently, and specialists were assigned to develop textbooks under our guidance. We experimented with students reading on their own, while a teacher supervised them. To use real language soonest, we counted letter frequencies in a few pages of each language and started with the most common letters, one per day. Language specialists wrote each lesson with words and phrases containing only the letters that had been taught. Much use was made of analogies and patterns. The lessons had to have sufficient text to keep students reading for at least 40 minutes. Finding words when only a few letters are known is tricky, so we used nonsense syllables for the first 7-8 letters. To assess speed, we counted correct letters and words per minute, the basis of the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA). We called it perceptual enhancement.

Compared to the language-based method that expected students to process complex shapes, the results were quick and impressive. One supervisor of the Pulaar language (Adama Barry) understood the importance of supervised practice and insisted. The students in the classes that studied Pulaar rose to about 45 words per minute. The government subsequently adopted the textbooks and local-language program. We documented the experience in blogs that were written at the time, though there was no time to write and publish a peer-reviewed article. Due to a subsequent change in GPE strategy, follow up on the project has been limited.

Piloting with more learners and more languages

However, the experiment was repeated in other languages and writing systems. In 2014, the Earth Institute of Columbia University developed an after-hours reading program in Chichewa that was applied in the Zomba district of Malawi. The strategy was to develop an upfront supplemental reader to be taught in the first semester. Then children could go to the regular textbooks and cover them faster, completing grade one with reading automaticity. With only a budget of $3000, a textbook was written, students practiced reading, and a sample of classes were tested. Again, the fluency gains were striking.

A larger and more systematic pilot took place in the Telugu language, in the southern Indian state of Telangana. Children performed much better in this visually complex script, where extra-large letters were used. Over two years, data were collected, and the district has continued to use the textbook for first graders.

Perceptual enhancement has been applied in some World Bank programs, notably Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, and Benin in French. Recently, perceptual enhancement was piloted for Arabic by the Al Qasimi foundation of Ras al Khaimah, UAE. The Arabic textbook starts with the disconnected letters and similarly uses large and spaced fonts. Two rounds of testing showed large effect sizes compared to control groups (a policy paper is also available). One issue was how to train young students’ attention and perseverance until identification became easier. The program has attracted donor funding for replication by the Queen Rania foundation in Jordan and two other institutions are preparing adaptations and proposals.

Perceptual enhancement has also used to develop adult literacy, which is notoriously difficult to attain. Certain features of the perceptual learning system wane, leaving adults essentially dyslexic. The Canadian Women for Afghanistan program developed a very detailed set of Dari textbooks that showed much larger effects than official programs. Similarly, an adult literacy program in Nepal for old women had significant success. The Ageing Nepal program won a UNESCO International Literacy Prize in September 2020.

Perceptually enhanced learning in Côte d’Ivoire

An open textbook showing letters, phonemes, and words

Expanding perceptual enhancement to fulfill the Sustainable Development Goals

The targets for 2030 of the Sustainable Development Goals and the pandemic effects on the marginalised suggest that reading instruction using practice with perceptual enhancement would be very advantageous. Typically, textbooks have not used this research. Beginner reading books are formed to suit the perception of accomplished readers. The pages are few, they have big pictures and limited text. Thus, they lack sufficient content to bring about reading automaticity.

Unfortunately, detailed phonics, analogies, reading practice may seem too mechanistic to some educationists. Many donors emphasise creativity, critical thinking, reading joy, developing a reading culture with emphasis on early comprehension. The well-to-do may learn through parental guidance and feedback. But the poor may not have that luxury, and all they may have are the school hours. Language command certainly needs development, so that at the end of the reading path, rich semantic networks can be activated. But to teach the poor most efficiently, that is best done in a parallel period. Complex methods that focus on language and skip perceptual parameters leave lower performers in the dust.

It seems therefore that there is a “back door” to fundamental reading skills. We can develop and optimise the visual interface, without which language is inaccessible. For consistent orthographies in particular, the needed training and practice may only last 3-4 months. The process makes children “comprehension-ready.” Teacher training and instruction for perceptual learning are relatively simple. By contrast, the usual mixture of script and comprehension often takes years. It is hoped that some philosophical beliefs are overcome and that this methodology receives more attention.

RISE blog posts reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation or our funders.