Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Syllable Onsets Are Perceptual Reading Units

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Syllable Onsets Are Perceptual Reading Units

Article excerpt

Syllable onsets are defined as the initial consonant or consonant cluster in a syllable (e.g., BR in BREAD). In the present study, using a letter detection paradigm and French words, we tested whether syllable onsets are processed as units by the reading system. In Experiment 1, we replicated Gross, Treiman, and Inman's (2000) result of observing no difference between the detection latencies of letters embedded in a multi-letter syllable onset (e.g., c in ECLATER) relative to a single-letter syllable onset (e.g., C in ECARTER). In Experiment 2, participants took longer to detect the target letter when it was in the second position of a multi-letter onset (e.g., L in TABLIER) than when it was a single-letter onset (e.g., L in ECOLIER). In Experiment 3, this position effect was replicated for graphemes. In Experiment 4, we tested and ruled out an alternative explanation of the unitization effect, in terms of lateral masking. These results indicate that syllable onsets are processed as perceptual units by the reading system and that the unitization effect is position dependent.

A central question in the domain of reading research is to understand how we retrieve phonology from print. How do we know that BREAD is pronounced /bred/? To account for this print-to-sound computation, some have suggested that, during reading acquisition, readers develop internal representations of letter clusters that mirror units of oral language (see, e.g., Healy, 1994; Laberge & Samuels, 1974;Norris, 1994; Treiman, 1994). For example, readers learn that EA can be processed as a unit because it corresponds to the phoneme /ε/ in words like BREAD. Once this unit has been stored in memory, readers can access it directly and retrieve its associated phoneme(s). The development of these phonographic units is thus considered the basis of the print-to-sound computation that allows readers to pronounce any sequence of letters.

Several studies have tested whether particular types of letter clusters could be considered reading units. One unit that has received a lot of attention is the grapheme (Harm & Seidenberg, 2001; Joubert & Lecours, 2000; Lange, 2002; Peereman, Brand, & Rey, 2006; Pring, 1981; Rasile & Coltheart, 1998; Rey, Jacobs, Schmidt- Weigand, & Ziegler, 1998; Rey & Schiller, 2005; Rey, Ziegler, & Jacobs, 2000; Royer, Spinelli, & Ferrand, 2005). Graphemes are the written representation of phonemes. For example, the word BREAD is composed of four graphemes, B-R-EA-D, that correspond to the four phonemes /b-r-ε-d/. In order to test whether graphemes are processed as reading units, Rey et al. (2000) used a letter detection paradigm in which a letter was presented followed by a word and participants had to respond rapidly about whether the letter was present in the word or not. They observed that participants were slower at detecting a letter embedded in a multi-letter grapheme (e.g., searching for A in the multi-letter grapheme EA, as in BEACH) than they were at detecting one in a single-letter grapheme (i.e., A in PLACE). This result suggests that multi-letter graphemes are represented and processed as visual units by the reading system. Participants took longer to detect a letter in a multi-letter grapheme because they had to pay attention at the letter level and inhibit the activation of the larger grapheme unit. This additional detection time has been interpreted as an index of unitization.

Syllable onsets are the initial consonant or consonant cluster in a syllable (e.g., BR in BREAD). Syllable codas are the final consonant or consonant cluster in a syllable (e.g., D in BREAD). Finally, syllable nuclei are defined as the vowel nucleus in a syllable (e.g., EA in BREAD). Using a letter detection experimental paradigm similar to Rey et al.'s (2000), Gross, Treiman, and Inman (2000) investigated whether subsyllabic units such as the onset, coda, and nucleus can also be considered reading units. …

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