During reading acquisition, word recognition is assumed to undergo a developmental shift from slow serial/sublexical processing of letter strings to fast parallel processing of whole word forms. This shift has been proposed to be detected by examining the size of the relationship between serial- and discrete-trial versions of word reading and rapid naming tasks. Specifically, a strong association between serial naming of symbols and single word reading suggests that words are processed serially, whereas a strong association between discrete naming of symbols and single word reading suggests that words are processed in parallel as wholes. In this study, 429 Grade 1, 3, and 5 English-speaking Canadian children were tested on serial and discrete digit naming and word reading. Across grades, single word reading was more strongly associated with discrete naming than with serial naming of digits, indicating that short high-frequency words are processed as whole units early in the development of reading ability in English. In contrast, serial naming was not a unique predictor of single word reading across grades, suggesting that within-word sequential processing was not required for the successful recognition for this set of words. Factor mixture analysis revealed that our participants could be clustered into two classes, namely beginning and more advanced readers. Serial naming uniquely predicted single word reading only among the first class of readers, indicating that novice readers rely on a serial strategy to decode words. Yet, a considerable proportion of Grade 1 students were assigned to the second class, evidently being able to process short high-frequency words as unitized symbols. We consider these findings together with those from previous studies to challenge the hypothesis of a binary distinction between serial/sublexical and parallel/lexical processing in word reading. We argue instead that sequential processing in word reading operates on a continuum, depending on the level of reading proficiency, the degree of orthographic transparency, and word-specific characteristics.
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