Spelling ability selectively predicts the magnitude of disruption in unspaced text reading

14 February 2019

We examined the effect of individual differences in written language proficiency on unspaced text reading in a large sample of skilled adult readers who were assessed on reading comprehension and spelling ability. Participants’ eye movements were recorded as they read sentences containing a low or high frequency target word, presented with standard interword spacing, or in one of three unsegmented text conditions that either preserved or eliminated word boundary information. The average data replicated previous studies: unspaced text reading was associated with increased fixation durations, a higher number of fixations, more regressions, reduced saccade length, and an inflation of the word frequency effect. The individual differences results provided insight into the mechanisms contributing to these effects. Higher reading ability was associated with greater overall reading speed and fluency in all conditions. In contrast, spelling ability selectively modulated the effect of interword spacing with poorer spelling ability predicting greater difficulty across the majority of sentence- and word-level measures. These results suggest that high quality lexical representations allowed better spellers to extract lexical units from unfamiliar text forms, inoculating them against the disruptive effects of being deprived of spacing information.