LINGUIST List 32.1472

Tue Apr 27 2021

Review: Neurolinguistics; Psycholinguistics; Writing Systems: Verhoeven, Perfetti (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 30-Sep-2020
From: Pamela Villar González <>
Subject: Learning to Read across Languages and Writing Systems
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Date: 30-Sep-2020
From: Pamela Villar González <>
Subject: Learning to Read across Languages and Writing Systems
E-mail this message to a friend

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Book announced at

EDITOR: Ludo Verhoeven
EDITOR: Charles Perfetti
TITLE: Learning to Read across Languages and Writing Systems
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Pamela Villar González


The book under review edited by Ludo Verhoeven and Charles Perfetti presents a comprehensible study of how to learn to read in seventeen different languages from four different families of languages. Each chapter presents a language and its main features regarding the structure of the language and the writing system and how it is learned.

The text starts with a List of Figures, a List of Tables, a List of Contributors, and a Classification of Written Languages. This classification in four families of written languages structure the content of the book, separating the addressed Written Languages in Asian Syllabic and Morphosyllabic Languages, West Semitic Abjad Languages, Indo-European Alphabetic Languages, and Non-Indo-European Alphabetic Languages. According to the authors, the seventeen chosen languages represent “the world different major writing systems” and allow to give information about the process of learning to read alphabetic, syllabic, or logographic writing.

After the aforementioned sections appears an introduction by the editors which provides a theoretical background about the learning process, among other key concepts that will appear in the book, detailed for every one of the seventeen languages that are studied in the text.

The languages are ordered by families: family of Asian Syllabic and Morphosylabic languages (4 languages): Chinese (by Xi Chen and Adrian Pasquarella), Japanese (by Keiko Koda), Korean (by Min Wang, Jeung-Ryeul Cho, and Chuchu Li) and South Asian alphasyllabaries (by Sonali Nag); in the family of West Semitic Abjad Languages (2 languages): Arabic (by Elinor Saiegh-Haddad), and Hebrew (by David L. Share); Family of Indo-European Alphabetic Languages (9 languages): Greek (by Athanassios Protopapas), Italian (by Cristina Burani, Anna M. Thornton, and Pierluigi Zoccolotti), French (by S. Hélène Deacon, Alain Desrochers, and Kyle Levesque), Spanish (by Sylvia Defior and Francisca Serrano), German (by Karin Landerl), Dutch (by Ludo Verhoeven), English (by Charles Perfetti and Lindsay Harris), Czech and Slovak (by Markéta Caravolas), and Russian (by Natalia Rkhilin, Sergey A. Kornilov, and Elena L. Grigorenko); family of Non-Indo-European Alphabetic Languages (2 languages): Finnish (by Mikko Aro), and Turkish (by Aydin Yücesan Durgunoglu).

The structure of every chapter devoted to the different languages is the same with slight differences depending on the structure of the language; for example, in Chinese there is no section of inflectional morphology and word formation process but there is a section of noun and verb formation.

At the beginning of every chapter, we have an Introduction section with the subsections of Orthography, Synchronic and Diachronic characterization, and Literacy and Schooling. In this section, we have information regarding the language itself, varieties (with information about dialects, diglossia), general information from a historical and sociological point of view such as the number of speakers of the language and legislation and institutions regulating the “use of the language”. Furthermore, in this section is presented a brief explanation about how children learn to write the language: where (kindergarten, primary school) and when (in which grade at which age), the approach to the process of learning, and in some cases examples of the different assignments and typical homework. To sum up, this section provides general information about the language and the approach used to teach it.

The next section is dedicated to the description of the language and its written forms. With a subsection about linguistic systems, including epigraphs about Phonology and Morphology, another subsection about Script and punctuation, and a final Conclusion. In this section it is presented how speech is encoded into print, the inventory of sounds (how and where are they produced), letters, and/or symbols. Different data about inflections, distribution of sounds, and word formation among others are displayed here. In a nutshell, this section presents the information about the language from a formal theoretical perspective, going into linguistic details and not intended for a “broad audience”.

The next Section is Acquisition of Reading and Spelling and includes the subsections of Becoming Linguistically Aware, Development of Word Identification, Reading Comprehension, and a Conclusion section. Inside these sections there are many subsections; inside Becoming Linguistically Aware we find two fixed subsections, Phonological Development and Phonological Awareness. And in several languages, we find a subsection on Developing of Orthographic processing skills. In the next subsection, the one about Developing Word Identification we find Word Decoding Development, Word Spelling Development, and Reading and Spelling difficulties. In the next subsection about Reading Comprehension, depending on the language we can have some extra parts (Predictors of Reading Comprehension and Word-Level Effects in Comprehending Texts). In short, this section based on the theoretical content from the previous sections presents a piece of more detailed information about linguistic characteristics of the language (phonetics and phonology, morphology, syntax, and pragmatics) but always focused on the process of acquisition of writing and reading the language.

The next section is Discussion, with subsections about Challenges in learning and Implications for Instruction. Succinctly, this section puts together the main challenges that children learning to write the language will face and what those challenges imply for the process of instruction. This is a core section for the understanding of the process of learning to read and how to address the complications of the specific learning process of the target language. This section is short and clear, easily understandable for non-experts in the linguistics audience.

Every chapter finishes with a Final Conclusion section that works as a brief summary, an optional section of Acknowledgements, and a wide list of references.

After all the information presented about every language and its writing system, there is a section that serves as a summary by the editors, it is entitled Epilogue: Universals and Particulars in Learning to Read across Seventeen Orthographies. The different subsections are: Writing Systems and Languages, Reading development across Languages and Orthographies, with the subsections of Universals in Reading, Operating principles in Learning to Read (with many different subparts ), Educational Implications (with the subsections of Stimulations Linguistic Awareness, Instructing Word Identification, and Fostering Reading Comprehension). This chapter ends with a Final Conclusion section and references. In this section, as announced on the back cover of the book, there is compiled information needed to extract universal trends of the seventeen languages, their writing, the process of learning to read, and the challenges that this process present.

The last section before the Index is an Appendix. This is a chart with a summary of the main information regarding every language. Every row contains one of the seventeen languages presented in the book with the name written in English and in the language itself (for example Spanish, español). The table has five columns, the first one with the name of the language, the second with Phonology and morphology, the third one with Writing system and orthography, the fourth one with Predictors of learning to read, and the last one with Reading development. This table is presented in landscape page orientation and takes thirteen pages.


The book under review edited by Ludo Verhoeven and Charles Perfetti presents a comprehensible study of how to learn to read in seventeen different languages from four different families of languages.

The book is well organized helping to digest all the content presented and making it easy to find the required information. Apart from all the detailed information that forms the core of the book, several conclusion sections allow recapitulating the information given. Moreover, the abundant lists of references at the end of every chapter make it uncomplicated to expand the information about a concrete section, language, and/or writing system.

The different sections inside the chapters devoted to each language help not just in the better understanding of the subject but in the straightforward comparison among languages and even families of languages.

The seventeen chosen languages give a good overview of the process of reading; however, I hope that this publication is part of a project on the process and the following languages will be added in future editions. From my standpoint, once that so many “major languages” have been analysed, it would be very fruitful to study other minority languages. On the other hand, it would be appealing to compare in more detail how the reading process varies across countries.

To sum up in my opinion this book provides invaluable and concise information about the process of reading across different languages. Due to the rich reference list, it is a great option for scholars and due to the clarity of the information presented it will be a help for students in every stage of formation, from undergraduate programs to Ph.D. students. Besides, some sections are completely accessible for a broad audience with non-academic purposes. The subsection about “Literacy and Schooling” gives very valuable information about the different teaching approaches in different countries giving information not just about the process itself, but about the culture and education system.

The process of reading and for extension, this book should be in-depth study by linguists, primary teachers, language teachers, psychologists, speech therapists, and even parents. I will strongly recommend this book to every single person that deals with children or adults learning how to read and improve the reading skills, not just in their mother tongues but also in L2.


Pamela Villar González is a fellow researcher and Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Warsaw, she has a B.A. in English Studies from the University of Oviedo (Spain) and a M. Sc. in Cognitive Science from the Ruhr University Bochum (Germany). Her previous works are in diverse fields like neuroscience (memory, study of biomarkers in healthy aging and dementia, sleep) and psycholinguistics (brain lateralization of language, whistled languages). Apart from research, she has taught Spanish language (Ruhr Universität Bochum, and University of Duisburg-Essen (Germany) and trained medical students (Ruhr Universität Bochum). Her research interests include as well language pathologies, speech science, bilingualism, communication, literature, culture, machine learning, in vivo-imaging methods and science communication.

Page Updated: 27-Apr-2021

Page Updated: 27-Apr-2021