Orthographic Processing in Reading Acquisition (OPeRA)

Children are able to use different units of analysis in word reading, such as single letters (“r-e-a-d-a-b-l-e”), letter combinations (“r-ea-d-a-b-le”) or syllables (“rea-da-ble”). They can also use larger units, such as entire words or morphemes. Morphemes are parts of words that have a meaning when standing alone (“readable” consists of the meanings of “read” and “able”). Theories about reading acquisition assume that children begin to make use of increasingly larger units with growing reading experience.

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The OPeRA project (Orthographic Processing in Reading Development) examines how this development from smaller to larger units proceeds. How children recognize certain words is expected to reveal the developmental changes in reading processes from grade one to four. In reading acquisition, children usually start out by sounding out words on a letter-by-letter basis. When using a letter-by-letter decoding strategy, children perform slower the longer a word is: reading “bear” is faster than reading “elephant”. With growing reading experience, children move from this serial decoding strategy to a more holistic strategy using larger units. Children that are able to use whole-word recognition can do so faster for words that occur very often in language: reading “tiger” is faster than reading “tapir”. Length and frequency effects can thus be used as markers in reading development. Also, with the development towards larger units in word recognition, violations such as letter translations (“taecher” instead of “teacher”) or segmentations at syllable or morpheme boundaries (“tea:cher” or “teach:er”) become less disruptive for children’s word reading. The units of analysis readers preferably rely on is believed to vary with reading experience, but also depending on individual skills and language-specific characteristics. However, it is unsolved at what point in reading acquisition children efficiently use different units and exactly which linguistic and cognitive skills prior to reading acquisition are helpful in this development.

In order to answer these questions optimally, the OPeRA project is laid out longitudinally. It started in October 2013 with 130 first-graders from Berlin and accompanies them until the end of grade four in spring 2017. The children individually work on specially designed word recognition and reading tasks in computer sessions every year. In these tasks, the indicators described above are applied using lexical decision tasks and the masked priming paradigm (see section methods). First preliminary analyses indicate that marker effects of the use of larger units emerge surprisingly early in development: frequency effects, as well as letter translation effects can be observed from second grade. Further, the development toward the use of larger units seems to be influenced by inter-individual differences. The results promise important new insights for developmental trajectories of the use of different reading units and can inform the improvement of reading incentive programs.


For questions or comments concerning OPeRA please contact

Jana Hasenäcker

hasenaecker [at] mpib-berlin [dot] mpg [dot] de