The case for the visual span as a sensory bottleneck in reading

Gordon E. Legge, Sing Hang Cheung, Deyue Yu, Susana T.L. Chung, Hye Won Lee, Daniel P. Owens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

129 Scopus citations


The visual span for reading is the number of letters, arranged horizontally as in text, that can be recognized reliably without moving the eyes. The visual-span hypothesis states that the size of the visual span is an important factor that limits reading speed. From this hypothesis, we predict that changes in reading speed as a function of character size or contrast are determined by corresponding changes in the size of the visual span. We tested this prediction in two experiments in which we measured the size of the visual span and reading speed on groups of five subjects as a function of either character size or character contrast. We used a "trigram method" for characterizing the visual span as a profile of letter-recognition accuracy as a function of distance left and right of the midline (G. E. Legge, J. S. Mansfield, & S. T. L. Chung, 2001). The area under this profile was taken as an operational measure of the size of the visual span. Reading speed was measured with the Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) method. We found that the size of the visual span and reading speed showed the same qualitative dependence on character size and contrast, reached maximum values at the same critical points, and exhibited high correlations at the level of individual subjects. Additional analysis of data from four studies provides evidence for an invariant relationship between the size of the visual span and RSVP reading speed; an increase in the visual span by one letter is associated with a 39% increase in reading speed. Our results confirm the visual-span hypothesis and provide a theoretical framework for understanding the impact of stimulus attributes, such as contrast and character size, on reading speed. Evidence for the visual span as a determinant of reading speed implies the existence of a bottom-up, sensory limitation on reading, distinct from attentional, motor, or linguistic influences.

Original languageEnglish
Article number9
JournalJournal of Vision
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2007


  • Character size
  • Contrast
  • Low vision
  • Reading
  • Reading speed
  • Vision
  • Visual span


Dive into the research topics of 'The case for the visual span as a sensory bottleneck in reading'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this