Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Scrambled letters and reading disability, not to mention emergent memes and urban myths

This is fascinating on several levels. Today a colleague sent me the 'scrambled letter' email that's been bouncing around the net for a few years. His version looked like this:
I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg.

The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsatltteer be in the rghit pclae.

The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?;
Most people can read the text easily if they scan or defocus a bit, but it would be very difficult for a non-fluent reader to decipher the strings using a phonics approach. Thinking this over, I thought of a person I know who reads at the 2nd grade level (mostly) but seems to derive significant, measurable, meaning from 4th grade texts that he cannot read aloud. I wondered about a connection, so I googled on 'Cambridge scrambled words' and discovered a neat story of layers.
Matt Davis on the Cambridge scrambled letter meme

... Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe...

...This text circulated on the internet in September 2003. I first became aware of it when a journalist contacted a my colleague Sian Miller on 16th September, trying to track down the original source. It's been passed on many times, and in the way of most internet memes has mutated along the way. It struck me as interesting - especially when I received a version that mentioned Cambridge University! I work at Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, in Cambridge, UK, a Medical Research Council unit that includes a large group investigating how the brain processes language. If there's a new piece of research on reading that's been conducted in Cambridge, I thought I should have heard of it before...

I've written this page, to try to explain the science behind this meme. There are elements of truth in this, but also some things which scientists studying the psychology of language (psycholinguists) know to be incorrect. I'm going to break down the meme, one line at a time to illustrate these points, pointing out what I think is the relevant research on the role of letter order on reading. Again, this is only my view of the current state of reading research, as it relates to this meme. If you think I've missed something important, let me know...

Ironically the rest of the page, which Matt has added too in a haphazard fashion, is quite hard to follow. The paragraphs, essentially, are scrambled. (Cambridge is also mis-spelled in the URL, but that's obviously an example of dry English wit). Matt collects examples in languages with varied linguistic structures, demonstrates that not all scrambles are equallyl readable, references software for generating readable "scrambles", but then discovers the truth buried in the myth ...
... [later] I've found a ... page that tracked down the original demonstration of the effect of letter randomisation to Graham Rawlinson. Graham wrote a letter to New Scientist in 1999 (in response to a paper by Saberi & Perrot (Nature, 1999) on the effect of reversing short chunks of speech). You can read the letter here, or in a link to New Scientist, here. In it Graham says:

"This reminds me of my PhD at Nottingham University (1976), which showed that randomising letters in the middle of words had little or no effect on the ability of skilled readers to understand the text. Indeed one rapid reader noticed only four or five errors in an A4 page of muddled text."

It's possible that with the publicity offered by the internet, that Dr. Rawlinson's research might be more widely read in future. For those wanting to cite this in their own research the full reference is:

Rawlinson, G. E. (1976) The significance of letter position in word recognition. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Psychology Department, University of Nottingham, Nottingham UK. (summary here)
So Dr. Rawlinson's unpublished 1976 thesis (31 years ago) has come to worldwide attention as the result of a propagating urban myth that's not a myth, and this story is best illustrated by a chaotic and scrambled web page that further extends the original work across multiple languages and references newer software for generating readable scrambles.

Now that's a strange loop, and quite post-millennial. The world-mind evidently decided that this research should not be ignored indefinitely. I look forward to Dr. Rawlinson's future television career ...

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