Set for Variability as a Critical Predictor of Word Reading: Potential Implications for Early Identification and Treatment of Dyslexia

Laura M. Steacy*, Ashley A. Edwards, Valeria M. Rigobon, Nuria Gutiérrez, Nancy C. Marencin, Noam Siegelman, Alexandra C. Himelhoch, Cristina Himelhoch, Jay Rueckl, Donald L. Compton

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Quasiregular orthographies such as English contain substantial ambiguities between orthography and phonology that force developing readers to acquire flexibility during decoding of unfamiliar words, a skill referred to as a “set for variability” (SfV). The ease with which a child can disambiguate the mismatch between the decoded form of a word and its actual lexical phonological form has been operationalized using the SfV mispronunciation task (e.g., the word wasp is pronounced to rhyme with clasp [i.e., /wæsp/] and the child must recognize the actual pronunciation of the word to be /wɒsp/). SfV has been shown to be a significant predictor of word reading variance. However, little is known about the relative strength of SfV as a predictor of word reading compared to other well-established predictors or the strength of this relationship in children with dyslexia. To address these questions, we administered the SfV task to a sample of grade 2–5 children (N = 489) along with other reading related measures. SfV accounted for 15% unique variance in word reading above and beyond other predictors, whereas phonological awareness (PA) accounted for only 1%. Dominance analysis indicated SfV is the most powerful predictor, demonstrating complete statistical dominance over other variables including PA. Quantile regression revealed SfV is a stronger predictor at lower levels of reading skill, indicating it may be an important predictor in students with dyslexia. Results suggest that SfV is a powerful and potentially highly sensitive predictor of early reading difficulties and, therefore, may be important for early identification and treatment of dyslexia.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)254-267
Number of pages14
JournalReading Research Quarterly
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Apr 2023

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