Do current connectionist learning models account for reading development in different languages?

Florian Hutzler, Johannes C. Ziegler, Conrad Perry, Heinz Wimmer, Marco Zorzi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Learning to read a relatively irregular orthography, such as English, is harder and takes longer than learning to read a relatively regular orthography, such as German. At the end of grade 1, the difference in reading performance on a simple set of words and nonwords is quite dramatic. Whereas children using regular orthographies are already close to ceiling, English children read only about 40% of the words and nonwords correctly. It takes almost 4 years for English children to come close to the reading level of their German peers. In the present study, we investigated to what extent recent connectionist learning models are capable of simulating this cross-language learning rate effect as measured by nonword decoding accuracy. We implemented German and English versions of two major connectionist reading models, Plaut et al.'s (Plaut, D. C., McClelland, J. L., Seidenberg, M. S., & Patterson, K. (1996). Understanding normal and impaired word reading: computational principles in quasi-regular domains. Psychological Review, 103, 56-115) parallel distributed model and Zorzi et al.'s (Zorzi, M., Houghton, G., & Butterworth, B. (1998a). Two routes or one in reading aloud? A connectionist dual-process model. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 24, 1131-1161); two-layer associative network. While both models predicted an overall advantage for the more regular orthography (i.e. German over English), they failed to predict that the difference between children learning to read regular versus irregular orthographies is larger earlier on. Further investigations showed that the two-layer network could be brought to simulate the cross-language learning rate effect when cross-language differences in teaching methods (phonics versus whole-word approach) were taken into account. The present work thus shows that in order to adequately capture the pattern of reading acquisition displayed by children, current connectionist models must not only be sensitive to the statistical structure of spelling-to-sound relations but also to the way reading is taught in different countries.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)273-296
Number of pages24
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2004


  • Connectionist modeling
  • Cross-language learning
  • Phonics versus whole-word teaching
  • Reading acquisition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language


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