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Visual Perception: Its Role in the Act of Reading

Reading must be regarded as an act of communication. There is a communicator (the author of the book that the reader is reading), there is a message (transferred to the reader via symbols on paper), and there is a recipient of the message (the reader). Visual perception plays a major role in the reception of the message.

The reading act is a unitary occurrence, meaning that the actions taking place while one is reading occur simultaneously. However, for the purpose of this discussion, these actions will be divided into steps, and a schematic diagram representing these steps of the reading act is shown below. Visual perception plays a major role in the reception of the message.

This article focuses on the role of visual perception in the reception of the written message. Click here to read an article that explains the role of concentration in the reception of the message.

Act of Reading: Visual Perception

When a reader concentrates on a written message, the next step is that the message must be perceived. In other words, perception must take place.

Before one can learn anything, one has to become aware of it through one of the senses. Usually one has to hear or see it. Subsequently one has to interpret whatever one has seen or heard. In essence then, perception means interpretation. Of course, lack of experience may cause a person to misinterpret what he has seen or heard. In other words, perception represents our apprehension of a present situation in terms of our past experiences, or, as stated so succinctly by the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): "We see things not as they are but as we are."

The following situation will illustrate how perception correlates with previous experience:

Suppose a person parks his car and walks away from it while continuing to look back at it. As he goes further and further away from his car, it will appear to him as if his car is gradually getting smaller and smaller. In such a situation none of us, however, would gasp in horror and cry out, "My car is shrinking!" Although the sensory perception is that the car is shrinking rapidly, we do not interpret that the car is changing size. Through past experiences we have learned that objects do not grow or shrink as we walk toward or away from them. You have learned that their actual size remains constant, despite the illusion. Even when one is five blocks away from one's car and it seems no larger than one's fingernail, one would interpret it as that it is still one's car and that it hasn't actually changed size. This learned perception is known as size constancy.

Pygmies, however, who live deep in the rain forests of tropical Africa, are not often exposed to wide vistas and distant horizons, and therefore do not have sufficient opportunities to learn size constancy. One Pygmy, removed from his usual environment, was convinced he was seeing a swarm of insects when he was actually looking at a herd of buffalo at a great distance. When driven toward the animals he was frightened to see the insects "grow" into buffalo and was sure that some form of witchcraft had been at work.

A person needs to interpret sensory phenomena, and this can only be done on the basis of past experience of the same, similar or related phenomena. Perceptual ability, therefore, heavily depends upon the amount of perceptual practice and experience that the subject has already enjoyed. This implies that perception is a skill that can be improved tremendously through judicious practice and experience.

A further important point about perception is that the stratified nature of learning also applies here. Perception in itself consists of a large number of subskills that can all be automated. First, there are various ways of perceptualizing, namely visual, auditory and haptic. The latter includes touch perception and kinesthetic perception. Because we read with our eyes, visual perception plays the most important role in the reading act, and will therefore be discussed at some length.

When a person is reading, visual discrimination must take place. All printed letters are set against a certain background. The most important difference between the letters and the background is that they differ in color. Obviously, the first discrimination will therefore be in terms of color. The second discrimination is in terms of foreground-background. The particular letter, or word, or sentence, that the reader is focused on is elevated to the level of foreground, whereas everything else within the field of vision of the reader (the rest of the page and the book, the desk on which the book is resting, the section of the floor and/or wall that is visible, etc.) is relegated to the background. Our Latin alphabet consists of twenty-six letters, each with its corresponding capital letter with a difference in size and sometimes in shape compared to the lower case counterpart. The letters all differ in form or shape and must be discriminated accordingly. Capital letters, being used at the start of a sentence, sometimes look exactly the same as their lower case counterparts, and must therefore be discriminated mainly with regard to size. The letters in dyslexia and DYSLEXIA may all differ in terms of form and size, but must nevertheless be interpreted as constituting the same word. One also does not only read letters, but thoughts, all compiled from a conglomeration of words. A word is made up of a number of letters arranged in a particular sequence. The reader must therefore be able to discriminate the letters in terms of their positions. If a sketch or picture is included in the text, there must be discrimination of dimensionality as well.

One of the most obvious and one of the most common telltale signs of dyslexia is reversals. People with this kind of problem often confuse letters like b and d, either when reading or when writing, or they sometimes read (or write) words like no for on, or pot for top. One invariably also finds that these people find it difficult to distinguish between left and right, or that they find it difficult to cross the middle line. These difficulties are not signs of minimal neurological damage, as is often asserted, but simply signs that not enough had been done to teach these people to distinguish between left and right, or to cross the middle line.

The human body consists of two halves, a left side and a right side. The human brain also has two halves, which are connected by the corpus callosum. Mindful of the wise words of Immanuel Kant that man does not see things as they are but as he is, it is inevitable that a person will interpret everything in terms of his own sidedness. A child or adult, who has not learned to interpret correctly in terms of his sidedness yet, who has not learned to distinguish properly between left and right, will inevitably experience problems when he finds himself in a situation where he is expected to interpret sidedness. (See the Act of Reading diagram above sidedness is a "position in space" interpretation.) One such a situation, where sidedness plays a particularly important role, is when a person is expected to distinguish between a b and a d. It is clear that the only difference between the two letters is the position of the straight line it is either left or right.

It is important to note that people who are confused about left and right cannot use mnemonics or memory aids while reading, as is often advised by experts. Susan Hampshire, for example, advises that children should remember that "left" is the side on which they wear their watch. Girls, she says, sometimes enjoy having their right hand marked with a pretty ribbon. Serfontein advises that one should put nail polish on the little finger of the student's left hand in order to teach him that reading and writing start on the left-hand side of the paper. These tricks never work to improve reading ability. This is just like going to China with a Chinese dictionary and then hoping to be able to speak Chinese. One has to learn to speak Chinese. In the same way one has to learn to interpret sidedness. As all the other skills foundational to reading, the ability to distinguish between left and right must be drummed in so securely that the person can apply it during reading without having to think of it at all.

After having discriminated every letter in terms of color, foreground and background, form, size and position, letters must be combined into words. The reader must thus be able to perceive individual parts as a whole. In other words, he must be able to synthesize.

Although the ability to analyze, i.e. to perceive the whole in its individual parts, does play a role in reading, this ability is of the utmost importance in spelling. To be a good speller, one must be able to analyze.

The above events sound very complex, and indeed must be recognized as being just that. In reality they take place all the time at lightning speed while a person is reading, but a good reader is unaware of these events because they have been automated. It can be compared to driving a car. Try to remember your first driving lesson. How hard you had to concentrate on what to do when to prevent the car from wrapping itself around the nearest tree! Now, after many years of experience and of doing it over and over, your driving has become an automatism and you need not even think while you drive. In fact, your mind is probably on something else most of the time, like talking to the other people in the car, or listening to the radio, or looking at the beautiful scenery outside.

Speaking is another example of the importance of drilling some activities to such an extent that they become automatic. Any person, who speaks a language that he knows well, does not concentrate on vocabulary, or on sentence structure, or on grammar. His mind is focused on what he wants to say.

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