Progress in Understanding Reading: Scientific Foundations and New Frontiers

Reviewed by Gay Ivey, James Madison University

K. E.Stanovich. New York: Guilford Press, 2000,
ISBN: 1572305657, 536 pp.
Reviewed by
Gay Ivey
James Madison University

Keith Stanovich has studied the causes and implications of individual differences in reading since the 1970’s. This volume, a retrospective summary of his work, includes some of his most influential papers from the past 25 years, along with introductory chapters that include his own up-to-date perspectives on what these papers accomplished. Graduate students and researchers new to the field of literacy research will find this volume to be both a history lesson and a framework from which to think about current political issues in reading research and reading education. What might draw in both novice and seasoned researchers are the stories behind the studies: collaborations with like-minded colleagues, hypotheses that did not pan out, and reconsiderations of earlier beliefs.

Part I includes three papers dealing with the role of context in reading, with a special focus on an early study with Richard West (West & Stanovich, 1978), who would become Stanovich’s longtime colleague. What might surprise many readers is that their initial interest in context effects was inspired by Frank Smith’s Understanding Reading (1971), a text that would serve as a foundation for the whole language movement. With, at that time, many unanswered questions about how cognitive psychology might help researchers understand the reading process, Stanovich and West were drawn to Smith’s top-down model of word recognition, and in particular, to the theory that skilled readers are more reliant on contextual information than on graphic information. In the introduction to this section, Stanovich reflects on how their study yielded findings quite to the contrary, and how research leads to new theories and new questions:

To our surprise, all of our research results pointed in the opposite direction: it was the poorer readers, not the more skilled readers, who were more reliant on context to facilitate word recognition…The history of our work in this area is thus deeply ironic. We did start out with a theoretical bias, one consistent with a top-down view. But in real science one is eventually influenced by the evidence, regardless of one’s initial bias, and the consistency of our findings led us away from the top-down view (p. 6).

Related, readers of this volume will also find in this section the origins of the interactive-compensatory model of the reading process. Novices to reading research and practice who hold an either/or philosophy when it comes to top-down versus bottom-up models of reading will be interested to read Stanovich’s theory that not only is reading an interactive process (e.g., Rumelhart, 1977), using both lower level and higher level sources of knowledge, but also that readers may use one source of knowledge (e.g., background knowledge) to compensate for deficits in another source of knowledge (e.g., decoding) as they encounter unfamiliar text.

Part II is devoted to work on phonological sensitivity (terminology Stanovich prefers to phonological awareness), with a special nod to another longtime collaborator, Anne Cunningham. Early literacy researchers and ambitious teachers involved in the development and implementation of phonemic knowledge tests now widely administered in some states can gain a better historical understanding of the origins of such assessments and their implications by reading this section, particularly one study on the comparability of ten different phonological awareness tasks (Stanovich, Cunningham, & Cramer, 1984). The other two papers in this section both deal with the phonological-core variance-difference model and the role of IQ in explaining phonological differences, but with somewhat contradictory conclusions. Novice researchers can gain critical insight from Stanovich’s discussion on lessons learned from misinterpreting and reconsidering research findings.

The phenomenon known as Matthew effects, perhaps Stanovich’s most widely recognized theory is the sole focus of Part III. In a nutshell, Matthew effects suggest that students with more reading skill and knowledge experience a “bootstrapping of further vocabulary, knowledge, and cognitive structures” (p. 151), creating even bigger gaps between the haves and have-nots of reading, along with a poor-get-poorer syndrome. While considered a classic, the Matthew effects paper (Stanovich, 1986) warrants a fresh look today given the “No child left behind” political movement. Had this retrospective volume been published today rather than just two years ago, Stanovich might have focused more on policy-related implications of this seminal paper, particularly in response to the report of the National Reading Panel (The National Reading Panel, 2000).

Part IV summarizes Stanovich’s work in the area of word recognition. In the introductory chapter in this section, Stanovich states emphatically his case for the importance of studying word recognition, which is interesting at the moment considering the current national agenda on defining and studying reading comprehension (e.g., Snow, 2002). However, Stanovich argues here “because word recognition skill will be a by-product of any successful approach to developing reading ability—whether or not the approach specifically targets word recognition—lack of skill at recognizing words is always a reasonable predictor of difficulties in developing reading comprehension ability” (p. 208).

In Part V Stanovich explains how investigations subsequent to the Matthew effects paper, a conceptual piece, were intended to substantiate some of the theories it offered. While novice reading researchers might be familiar with the Matthew effects paper, they might not have followed up by reading these empirical studies that linked orthographic processing variance to individual differences in print exposure. They will also find in this section that the Title Recognition Test, now frequently used in studies on volume of reading, was borne out of these studies.

In the final two sections, Stanovich explains how his career took a somewhat political turn. While in the preceding sections of the book we get a good sense of Stanovich’s passion for the research he has accomplished, we finally get his perspective on the implications of his work on children. In Part VI he describes the papers that reflect his concerns with using IQ as a determinant of reading disability. While his theoretical position—that research indicates no differences in reading skills between IQ/achievement discrepant readers and nondiscrepant readers—is clear in these sections, he offers an equally salient argument here about the social ramifications of differentiating between children labeled as reading disabled and children considered garden-variety struggling readers.

While the density of most of this book is a reminder to teacher educators about the importance of translating research for both new and experienced teachers, the article in Part VII titled “Romance and Reality” (Stanovich, 1993/1994) which originally appeared in The Reading Teacher, is a refreshingly manageable chapter for practitioners that includes the highlights of Stanovich’s research.

Progress in Understanding Reading will likely become a staple in the collections of those interested in the psychological aspects of reading, regardless of their political persuasions when it comes to reading research and practice. This volume marks an important era in the history of research on literacy acquisition.


National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Rumelhart, D. E. (1971). Toward an interactive model of reading. In S. Dornic (Ed.), Attention and Performance, Vol. 6, (pp. 573-603). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Smith, F. (1971). Understanding reading. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Snow, C. (2002). Reading for understanding: Toward an R & D program in reading comprehension. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.

Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-407.

Stanovich, K. E. (1993/1994). Romance and reality. The Reading Teacher, 47, 280-291.

Stanovich, K. E., Cunningham, A. E., & Cramer, B. (1984). Assessing phonological awareness in kindergarten children: Issues of task comparability. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 38, 175-190.

West, R. F., & Stanovich, K. E. (1978). Automatic contextual facilitation in readers of three ages. Child Development, 49, 717-727.