Lexical and Non-Lexical Reading


Lexical and Non-Lexical Reading: Let's explore a topic that will enhance our understanding of how students become successful readers - the Dual-Route theory of reading. Whether you're a seasoned educator or new to teaching, grasping this concept can impact your teaching and help students with literacy difficulties achieve reading fluency.

Lexical and Non-Lexical Reading - What is the Dual-Route Theory of Reading?

At its core, the Dual-Route theory posits that there are two distinct cognitive pathways through which readers process written words. These pathways are called the lexical route and the non-lexical route.

These routes are pivotal in enabling educators to understand how successful reading develops and why some students experience difficulties learning to read.

 The Lexical Route versus the Non-Lexical Route

The lexical route is where skilled readers automatically recognize words by sight. This relies on a reader's memory of previously learnt words and familiarity with those words.

The lexical route becomes a rapid automatic delivery system for words once a proficient reader has learnt those particular words. For instance, think on how quickly and effortlessly you as expert readers read words such as the or one or yacht. Each word has irregular spellings but is instantly recognisable to expert readers due to the lexical route.

On the other hand, the non-lexical route is used primarily for unfamiliar words or words that are not immediately recognizable. This route requires efficient and competent decoding skills which is reliant on phonemic awareness and orthographic knowledge and is critical when students are confronted with either unfamiliar or complex words.

Lexical and Non-Lexical Reading -Why is the Distinction Important?

An understanding of the dual-routes enables educators to shape teaching methods according to student needs and can provide extra clarity on why some students struggle with reading.

Enhancing our young readers non-lexical route early in their academic journey, through the early teaching of alphabetic code knowledge, is critically important.

Building a bank of familiar words through structured literacy practice is important because early mastery of the alphabetic codes creates a large store of readily accessible words for our young readers.. This reduces cognitive load and promotes fluent and automatic reading.

This automaticity is a primary feature of the lexical route. Systematically building a foundation of known words, a lexicon or mental library of words, is what every teacher must strive for in early years literacy teaching.

The outcomes for students who don't achieve mastery in alphabetic codes early leads to impoverished lexicons which can only result in years of struggle in reading accuracy, reading fluency and reading comprehension..

Unfortunately, this has been the reality for many children and families due to teaching practices centred on the discredited 3 cueing strategies approach to literacy teaching.


Lexical and Non-Lexical Reading - Assessment and Review

Conducting informal assessments weekly to review your students' reading skills is an important check on which of the dual routes need attention.

If a student has alphabetic code knowledge weaknesses or is not fluent with age appropriate text could be a sure sign that a student's non-lexical route may need work. An absence of automaticity in word knowledge and reading fluency is generally a clear sign that the lexical route is not well formed as yet. 

An analysis of a student's writing and spelling skills can also provide fresh insights into a student's lexical difficulties. This may include checking for spelling errors, and syntactical and grammar errors. Is the student making errors with alphabetic code knowledge or do they struggle with simple morphemes when writing unfamiliar words?

A quick daily review at the start of a lesson that goes over words previously learnt can give you insight into your students' lexical strengths and weaknesses.

Lexical and Non-Lexical Reading - Reading Interventions

The adoption of teaching methods such as synthetic phonics knowledge combined with the explicit teaching of reading fluency can quickly and efficiently strengthen the non-lexical route which leads to a more readily accessible and streamlined lexical route..

Educators that understand and apply the Dual-Route theory of reading help in shaping their classroom practice which leads to better student outcomes..

Acknowledging the practical importance of this theory fosters a more inclusive classroom environment. It equips teachers with the knowledge to support students with dyslexia and oral language difficulties and to understand that their students' reading challenges may result from issues in having weak lexical and non-lexical pathways.

Reflect on your learning communities current reading programs. Are they designed to effectively teach both the lexical and non-lexical routes? Are there opportunities to incorporate activities that strengthen the lexical route while systematically developing students' decoding skills along the non-lexical route?


Lexical and Non-Lexical Reading - Summary

Make the Dual-Route theory of reading a foundation of your teaching strategy. The clarity the Dual-Route theory offers, in providing a unique insight into the mechanics of how we read, is invaluable. It not only improves our understanding of why many children struggle with reading but also how we should best teach reading. 

We can all agree that the ultimate goal of education is to not just impart knowledge but to inspire our students and transform and elevate our students' academic experience, making them more proficient and confident readers and learners.

A deep understanding of the Dual-Route theory of reading and knowledge on how to utilize its insights, provides a key to unlock student potential and guide opportunities of academic and personal success for all students.

Uploaded 05/2024


Coltheart, Max (2005). Margaret J Snowling; Charles Hulme (eds.) Word recognition processes in reading. Modeling reading: the dual-route approach Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub. pp. 6–23.