With eye tracking tools, new insights into reading processes have been discovered that affect the way we should present written information.

Psychologists have now moved from a ‘word shape’ model of word recognition to a ‘letter recognition’ model.

Here is a quick overview of some of the relevant models and their findings.

Neural network model

When a child is learning to read, the neural network recognises that letters and sounds exist but initially has no knowledge about the relationship between letters and pronunciations. The network goes through a training phase where it learns the correct pronunciations for different words.


For over 100 years, it’s been known that, when we read, our eyes don’t move smoothly across the page. Rather, we jump from word to word, fixating on each one for roughly 200-250ms.

Movements between words are called saccades and usually take 20-35ms. Most saccades are forward movements from 7 to 9 letters, but 10-15% of all saccades are regressive or backwards movements.


(This study was done using American English readers. While the average saccade length and fixation times may vary, the cognitive processes for reading are similar across all languages.)

Word shape model

The word shape model was first proposed by James Cattell (1886) and replicated by Reicher (1969).

Word shape

  • Catell presented letter and word stimuli to subjects for 5-10ms, and found they were more accurate at recognising the words than the letters.
  • Reicher found that subjects were more accurate at recognising D when it was in the context of WORD than in ORWD.
  • Glushko (1979) found that words with a consistent spelling to sound such as minttint, and hint are recognised faster than words that are inconsistent such as pint.
  • Haber & Schindler (1981) and Monk & Hulme (1983) found that misspellings consistent with word shape were twice as likely to be missed as misspellings inconsistent with word shape.

Upper v lower case

We read lowercase text faster than we read UPPERCASE TEXT. Woodworth (1938) was the first to report this in his book Experimental Psychology. The finding was confirmed by Smith (1969) and Fisher (1975). In each study, participants were found to read lowercase text 5-10% faster.

Text written in AlTeRnAtInG cAsE is read more slowly than either text in lowercase or uppercase. Smith (1969), Pollatsek, Well, & Schindler (1975), and Meyer & Gutschera (1975).

Kolers & Perkins (1975) argue that this is a practice effect. Most readers spend the bulk of their time reading lowercase text and are therefore more proficient at it. When readers are forced to read large quantities of uppercase text, their reading speed will eventually increase to the rate of lowercase text. With practice, you can even increase your speed at reading mirror-writing.

Parallel letter recognition model

McClelland & Johnson (1977) demonstrated that the reason for the word superiority effect wasn’t the recognition of word shapes, but rather the existence of regular letter combinations.

Most psychologists currently accept this as the most accurate. It says that the letters within a word are recognised simultaneously, and the letter information is used to recognise the words.

Parallel letters

  • You see the word ‘WORK’
  • You detect the features including horizontal lines, diagonal lines and curves
  • You recognise all the letters simultaneously
  • The letters in each position are matched to words in your memory bank that have the same letter in the same position. The word with the best match (all four letters in the correct places) is ‘WORK’

Moving Window Study

Eye movement studies indicate there are three zones of visual identification and that readers collect information from all three zones during the span of a fixation. Closest to the fixation point is where word recognition takes place.

McConkie & Rayner (1975) examined how many letters around the fixation point are needed to provide a normal reading experience and found our perceptual span is roughly 15 letters.

Remember, the average saccade length is 7-9 letters, or roughly half our perceptual span.

Boundary Study

Rayner (1975) demonstrated that it is not visual information about either word shape or even letter shape that is being retained from saccade to saccade, but rather abstracted information about which letters are coming up next.

Letters can be more accurately recognised in the context of a word than they can in isolation.

The eye movement literature demonstrates that we are using letter information to recognise words, as we are better able to read when more letters are available to us. We combine abstracted letter information across saccades to help facilitate word recognition, so it is letter information that we are gathering in the periphery. And finally we are using word space information to program the location of our next saccade.


Word shape is no longer a viable model of word recognition. The bulk of scientific evidence says we recognise a word’s component letters, then use that visual information to recognise the word. In addition to perceptual information, we also use contextual information to help recognise words during ordinary reading.

What this means to you

When picking which font to use for your carefully crafted text, don’t let typographers try to convince you that it must make a good ‘word outline’ (aka Bouma shape).The latest research shows that we don’t read that way at all.

Source: Edited from this document published in 2018 by Kevin Larson, a psychologist who has been working for Microsoft since 1996. In 2000, he completed his PhD in cognitive psychology from the University of Texas at Austin where he studied word recognition and reading acquisition. He joined the ClearType team in 2002 to help get a better scientific understanding of the benefits of ClearType and other reading technologies with the goal of achieving a great on-screen reading experience.

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