Word Recognition: The Dual Pathway Model

Word recognition by the dual pathway model explains how one accesses the meaning of the written word. Get to know it!
Word Recognition: The Dual Pathway Model

Last update: 22 May, 2022

In the process of teaching reading, there are several theories. The most studied is word recognition through the dual pathway model, introduced by Marshall & Newcombe in 1973. This model distinguishes two major groups of cognitive operations: Those involved in word recognition and those involved in comprehension.

We’ll focus on the process of word recognition through the dual pathway model. According to this model, there are two ways to access the lexicon: The phonological way and the lexical way. However, a deficit in either of these two pathways can lead to learning difficulties.

Word recognition: The dual pathway model

Reading a word is such an automatic operation that it seems difficult for it to involve specific operations. So, reading words such as house” or child” is very easy for us. It seems as natural as hearing or perceiving them. We read them globally and access their meaning immediately.

But, on other occasions, if we’re faced with unfamiliar, very long, or unfamiliar words, the reading process and access to meaning is more complicated, as shown by the following study published by the University of Granada. Moreover, when reading unfamiliar words, two situations can occur:

A young boy reading from a book.
  • If we come across the word nuyorc”, when we read it, we first access the sound of the word, and later, we access its meaning. We can realize that it refers to the big city, New York. Therefore, the recognition and meaning of the word involve a slower process.
  • If we come across an unknown word, for example, Ahumimeitec”. We’re able to read it, and we’ve accessed its oral form, however, we haven’t been able to access its meaning, as it’s an invented word.

These examples lead us to explain the two-way model of word recognition. Therefore, this model argues that there are two different but complementary ways to access the meaning of words: The lexical way and the phonological way.

How does the lexical pathway function in word recognition?

We’ve used the lexical pathway when reading house” and “child”. We’ve read these words globally without the need to decompose them. Moreover, we’ve accessed their meaning immediately. Therefore, through this pathway, we read known and familiar words, that is, words that already exist in our visual and mental vocabulary.

So, the lexical or direct pathway involves immediate recognition of the written word, as well as access to its meaning. However, this immediate recognition requires memorizing the letter patterns that distinguish some words from others, the result of having seen them many times.

How does the phonological pathway function in word recognition?

When reading the words nuyorc” and “Ahumimeitec”, we’ve seen that the reading process has been slower, as they’re unfamiliar words to us. So, to read them, we have used the phonological or indirect way.

To read this way, we perform an internal process. First, we divide the word into phonemes (sounds) and then we join them together to arrive at their meaning. Therefore, the phonological way consists of accessing the meaning of words by means of grapheme-phoneme conversion. That is, we transform the graphic symbols that we see into phonemes (sounds) that we know.

So, through the phonological way, we can read all kinds of words. Words we’ve never seen before, long words, and pseudowords. However, this way is slower than the lexical way, through which we read globally.

It must be taken into account that if we don’t know the rules of grapheme-phoneme conversion, we’ll tend to substitute the sound of some letters for others. For example, if we find the letter /g/ in the word generic and we don’t know the rule, we’ll pronounce it as hard /g/, just as we do with the words “get” and “give”.

A father and his toddler son reading in bed.

These two ways, phonological and lexical, must be acquired in the process of learning to read. And, moreover, we must perfectly manage them in order to become a good reader, because, when we read, both are activated at the same time; the lexical one for known words and the phonological or indirect one for unknown words. Therefore, if the child doesn’t correctly handle either of the two, they’ll have difficulties in word recognition and, consequently, in reading and comprehension.

Difficulties in word recognition

As we’ve said before, for the child to become a good reader, it’s essential that they correctly handle both ways of word recognition.

There are children who have difficulties in operating with both ways and others who only have problems with one of them. In the case of having difficulties in operating with the phonological pathway, we speak of phonological dyslexia. And, if the difficulty is in the lexical pathway, it is called surface dyslexia.

Therefore, a child with phonological dyslexia will be able to read familiar words through the lexical pathway, but will have difficulty reading long and unfamiliar words. They’ll make many errors of omission, addition, inversion, and substitution, as they have difficulties in the grapheme-phoneme conversion process.

A child with surface dyslexia will have trouble reading irregular words. As a result, they’ll read with repetitions, rectifications, and syllabication. In addition, they’ll be slower in reading. However, they won’t have difficulties in the grapheme-morpheme conversion of regular words.

The recognition of the written word through the dual pathway model: A learning progress

As we’ve seen, there are two different, although complementary, ways to access the meaning of words: The lexical and the phonological pathways. It’s important during the process of learning to read for children to acquire and master both reading pathways. This will make them competent readers.

If the child has difficulties in either of the two ways, they’ll have to be helped, otherwise, they’ll have difficulties both in reading and comprehending texts.

It might interest you...
What’s The Best Age for a Child to Start to Learn to Read?
You are Mom
Read it in You are Mom
What’s The Best Age for a Child to Start to Learn to Read?

When should your child start to learn to read? It all depends on when the child is ready and we'll look at the this topic in detail today.