The Contribution of Working Memory and Word Recognition to Second Language Reading Across Different Proficiency Levels: An Eye-Movement Study

Document Type : Original Article


1 Department of English Language and Literature, Faculty of Foreign Languages, University of Isfahan, Esfahan, Iran

2 Department of English Language and Literature, Faculty of Foreign Languages, University of Isfahan, Isfahan, Iran

3 English Department, Faculty of Foreign Languages, University of Isfahan


This study examined the role of working memory (WM) and word recognition in L2 reading across different proficiency levels. 120 Iranian EFL learners were placed in three proficiency groups based on their IELTS scores. The battery of tests used in this study included a reading span task to measure WM, an eye movement word vs. non-word task to measure word recognition ability, an L1-recall task, and a multiple-choice reading test to measure reading comprehension. Correlations were carried out to examine the connections between WM, word recognition skills, and L2 reading performance. Regression analyses were also conducted to test whether WM and word recognition can predict reading performance at different levels of proficiency. The results showed that there were significant correlations between WM and L2 reading in the beginner group and between WM and word recognition speed in the beginner and intermediate groups. Regression analyses indicated that WM is a strong and direct predictor of reading performance at a beginner level of proficiency and a predictor of how fast less proficient readers recognize words in context. Highlighting the important role of WM in the word recognition ability of less proficient L2 readers, this study also showed that second language reading is not related to the accuracy or speed of word recognition across proficiency levels.


Abu‐Rabia, S. (1995). Learning to read in Arabic: Reading, syntactic, orthographic, and working memory skills in normally achieving and poor Arabic readers. Reading Psychology: An International Quarterly, 16(4), 351-394.
Adams, M. J. (2004). Modeling the connections between word recognition and reading. In R. B. Ruddell & N. J. Unrau (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (5th ed., pp. 1219–1243). International Reading Association.
Adlof, S. M., Catts, H. W., & Little, T. (2006). Should the simple view of reading include a fluency component? Reading and Writing, 19(9), 933–958.
Ahmadian, M. J. (2020). Explicit and implicit instruction of refusal strategies: Does working memory capacity play a role? Language Teaching Research24(2), 163-188.
Alderson, J. C. (2000). Assessing reading. Cambridge University Press.
Anderson, N. J. (2013). Active skills for reading 3. Boston: Cengage Learning.
Anderson, N. (2008). Active skills for reading: Books 1-4. Boston: Heinle.
Alptekin, C., & Erçetin, G. (2009). Assessing the relationship of working memory to L2 reading: Does the nature of comprehension process and reading span task make a difference?  System37(4), 627-639.
Alptekin, C., & Erçetin, G. (2010). The role of L1 and L2 working memory in literal and inferential comprehension in L2 reading. Journal of Research in Reading33(2), 206-219.
Alptekin, C., & Erçetin, G. (2011). Effects of working memory capacity and content familiarity on literal and inferential comprehension in L2 reading. TESOL Quarterly45(2), 235-266.
Arrington, C. N., Kulesz, P. A., Francis, D. J., Fletcher, J. M., & Barnes, M. A. (2014). The contribution of attentional control and working memory to reading comprehension and decoding. Scientific Studies of Reading18(5), 325-346.
Baddeley, A. (2019). The episodic buffer. Working memories Postmen, Divers and the cognitive revolution (50-60). Routledge.
Baddeley, A. (2010). Working memory. Current Biology20(4), R136-R140.
Borella, E., & De Ribaupierre, A. (2014). The role of working memory, inhibition, and processing speed in text comprehension in children. Learning and Individual Differences, 34, 86-92.
Boston, M. F., Hale, J., Kliegl, R., Patil, U., & Vasishth, S. (2008). Parsing costs as predictors of reading difficulty: An evaluation using the Potsdam Sentence Corpus. Journal of Eye Movement Research2(1).
Brown, J. I., Fishco, V. V., & Hanna, G. S. (1993). Nelson-Denny reading test: Technical report, forms G & H. Riverside Publishing Company.
Breznitz, Z. (2006). Fluency in reading: Synchronization of processes. Routledge.
Breznitz, Z., & Share, D. L. (1992). Effects of accelerated reading rate on memory for text. Journal of Educational Psychology84(2), 193.
Cadime, I., Rodrigues, B., Santos, S., Viana, F. L., Chaves-Sousa, S., do Céu Cosme, M., & Ribeiro, I. (2017). The role of word recognition, oral reading fluency and listening comprehension in the simple view of reading: a study in an intermediate depth orthography. Reading and Writing30, 591-611.
Carpenter, P. A., & Just, M. A. (1989). The role of working memory in language comprehension. In D. Klahr & K. Kotovsky (Eds.), Complex information processing: The impact of Herbert A. Simon (pp. 31-68). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Carr, T. H., & Levy, B. A. E. (1990). Reading and its development: Component skills approaches. Academic Press.
Chang, X., Wang, P., Cai, M. M., & Wang, M. (2019). The predictive power of working memory on Chinese middle school students’ English reading comprehension. Reading & Writing Quarterly35(5), 458-472.
Chun, D. M., & Payne, J. S. (2004). What makes students click: Working memory and look-up behavior. System32(4), 481-503.
Conway, A. R., Kane, M. J., Bunting, M. F., Hambrick, D. Z., Wilhelm, O., & Engle, R. W. (2005). Working memory span tasks: A methodological review and user’s guide. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review12, 769-786.
Cutting, L. E., & Scarborough, H. S. (2006). Prediction of reading comprehension: Relative contributions of word recognition, language proficiency, and other cognitive skills can depend on how comprehension is measured. Scientific Studies of Reading10(3), 277-299.
Daneman, M., & Carpenter, P. A. (1980). Individual differences in working memory and reading. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior19(4), 450-466.
Demir, B., & Ercetin, G. (2020). Exploring the role of proficiency as a mediator of the relationship between working memory and text comprehension in the L2. Turkish Online Journal of English Language Teaching, 5(3), 156–178.
Dirix, N., Brysbaert, M., & Duyck, W. (2019). How well do word recognition measures correlate? Effects of language context and repeated presentations. Behavior Research Methods51, 2800-2816.
Duyck, W., Desmet, T., Verbeke, L., & Brysbaert, M. (2004). WordGen: A tool for word selection and non-word generation in Dutch, German, English, and French. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments & Computers, 36(3), 488–499.
El-Mir, M. (2017). The effect of working memory capacity on word recognition speed in Arabic second-grade readers. Arab Journal of Psychology3(1), 149-160.
Georgiou, G. K., & Das, J. P. (2016). What component of executive functions contributes to normal and impaired reading comprehension in young adults?  Research in Developmental Disabilities49, 118-128.
Goldenberg, C. (2020). Reading wars, reading science, and English learners. Reading Research Quarterly55, S131-S144.
Goff, D. A., Pratt, C., & Ong, B. (2005). The relations between children’s reading comprehension, working memory, language skills, and components of reading decoding in a normal sample. Reading and Writing18, 583-616.
Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education7(1), 6-10.
Grabe, W. (2009). Reading in a second language: Moving from theory to practice. Cambridge University Press.
Grabe, W. & Stoller, F. L. (2002). Teaching and Researching Reading. Longman.
Habók, A., & Magyar, A. (2019). The effects of EFL reading comprehension and certain learning-related factors on EFL learners’ reading strategy use. Cogent Education6(1), 1616522.
Huang, L., Ouyang, J., & Jiang, J. (2022). The relationship of word processing with L2 reading comprehension and working memory: Insights from eye-tracking. Learning and Individual Differences95, 102143.
Harrington, M., & Sawyer, M. (1992). L2 working memory capacity and L2 reading skill. Studies in Second Language Acquisition14(1), 25-38.
Hoover, W. A., & Tunmer, W. E. (2022). The primacy of science in communicating advances in the science of reading. Reading Research Quarterly57(2), 399-408.
Hopewell, S. (2011). Leveraging bilingualism to accelerate English reading comprehension. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism14(5), 603-620.
Joh, J., & Plakans, L. (2017). Working memory in L2 reading comprehension: The influence of prior knowledge. System70, 107-120.
Johnson, R. E. (1970). Recall of prose as a function of the structural importance of the linguistic units. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior9(1), 12-20.
Jung, J. (2018). Effects of task complexity and working memory capacity on L2 reading comprehension. System74, 21-37.
Kail, R., & Hall, L. K. (2001). Distinguishing short-term memory from working memory. Memory & Cognition29(1), 1-9.
Khazaie, S., Torabi, R., & Saghaee, A. (2020). Exploring the viability of augmented reality-based cognitive therapy of low working memory in English for medical purposes comprehension and performance. In the International Conference on Computer Games.
Koda, K. (2005). Insights into second language reading: A cross-linguistic approach. Cambridge University Press.
Leather, C. V., & Henry, L. A. (1994). Working memory span and phonological awareness tasks as predictors of early reading ability. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology58(1), 88-111.
Lesser, M. J. (2007). Learner‐based factors in L2 reading comprehension and processing grammatical form: Topic familiarity and working memory. Language Learning57(2), 229-270.
Nobre, A. D. P., & Salles, J. F. D. (2016). Lexical-semantic processing and reading: Relations between semantic priming, visual word recognition and reading comprehension. Educational Psychology36(4), 753-770.
Ouellette, G., & Beers, A. (2010). A not-so-simple view of reading: How oral vocabulary and visual-word recognition complicate the story. Reading and writing23, 189-208.
Perfetti, C. A. (1988). Verbal efficiency in reading ability. In M. Dannamen, G. E. Mackinnon & T. G. Waller (Eds.), Reading research: Advances in theory and practice Vol. 6 (pp. 109–143). Academic Press.
Perfetti, C. A., & Hart, L. (2002). The lexical quality hypothesis. Precursors of Functional Literacy11, 67-86.
Rapp, D. N., van den Broek, P., McMaster, K. L., Kendeou, P., & Espin, C. A. (2007). Higher order comprehension processes in struggling readers: A perspective for research and intervention. Scientific Studies of Reading, 11, 289–312.
Rayner, K., & Reichle, E. D. (2010). Models of the reading process. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science1(6), 787-799.
Shimono, T. R. (2019). The effects of repeated oral reading and timed reading on l2 oral reading fluency. The Reading Matrix: An International Online Journal19(1).
Shohamy, E. (1984). Does the testing method make a difference? The case of reading comprehension. Language Testing1(2), 147-170.
Smith Gabig, C. (2010). Phonological awareness and word recognition in reading by children with autism. Communication Disorders Quarterly31(2), 67-85.
So, D., & Siegel, L. S. (1997). Learning to read Chinese: Semantic, syntactic, phonological, and working memory skills in normally achieving and poor Chinese readers. Reading and Writing9, 1-21.
Spencer, M., Richmond, M. C., & Cutting, L. E. (2020). Considering the role of executive function in reading comprehension: A structural equation modeling approach. Scientific Studies of Reading24(3), 179-199.
Swanson, H. L. (2003). Age-related differences in learning disabled and skilled readers’ working memory. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology85(1), 1-31.
Stanovich, K. E. (1980). Toward an interactive-compensa­tory model of individual differences in the develop­ment of reading fluency. Reading Research Quarterly, 16, 32-71.
Swanson, H. L., & Ashbaker, M. H. (2000). Working memory, short-term memory, speech rate, word recognition and reading comprehension in learning disabled readers: Does the executive system have a role? Intelligence, 28(1), 1-30.
Walczyk, J. J. (1995). Testing a compensatory-encoding model. Reading Research Quarterly 30, 396-408.
Walczyk, J. J. (2000). The interplay between automatic and control processes in reading. Reading Research Quarterly35(4), 554-566.
Walczyk, J. J., Marsiglia, C. S., Bryan, K. S., & Naquin, P. J. (2001). Overcoming inefficient reading skills. Journal of Educational Psychology93(4), 750.
Zinar, S. (2000). The relative contributions of word identification skill and comprehension-monitoring behavior to reading comprehension ability. Contemporary Educational Psychology25(4), 363-377.