New York:

Kathy Rastle

Kathy Rastle is Professor of Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London.  Her research is focused on reading acquisition and skilled reading, and on the relationship between these abilities and the nature of writing systems. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Memory and Language.

Keynote lecture
What makes a writing system optimal? 
Kathy Rastle
Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK


What makes a writing system optimal? Keynote lecture Kathy Rastle Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK Outline Written language is usually defined as the representation of spoken language. Yet, it differs from spoken language in a multitude of ways. There is evidence that written language consists of richer vocabulary and more complex syntax than spoken language. However, written language is also highly impoverished, lacking the powerful, disambiguating features of spoken language such as prosody and gesture. This characterisation highlights the astonishing nature of the reading skill, but also raises questions about whether and how written language is optimised to support that skill, and if so how it got that way.

It is clear that written language frequently communicates meaningful information that spoken language does not; for example, the use of spacing between words. However, we have poor understanding of the trade-offs that make a writing system more or less optimal for communicating a particular language. I consider this question in the first part of my talk, focusing on the ease with which a writing system can be learned, produced, and understood. I will describe the case of English, which is widely thought to be sub-optimal in terms of learning to read, but which contains features that support reading comprehension. I will then turn to discussing whether and how cognitive pressures may influence spelling change, again illustrating the principles described through diachronic analyses of English spelling. Finally, I link the discussion of writing systems to practice in the classroom, and specifically to the need to provide instruction for those writing systems that are not optimised for learning.

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