Phonological Similarity Neighborhoods and Children's Short-Term Memory: Typical Development and Dyslexia

By Thomson, Jennifer M.; Richardson, Ulla et al. | Memory & Cognition, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Phonological Similarity Neighborhoods and Children's Short-Term Memory: Typical Development and Dyslexia


Thomson, Jennifer M., Richardson, Ulla, Goswami, Usha, Memory & Cognition


In this article, we explore whether structural characteristics of the phonological lexicon affect serial recall in typically developing and dyslexic children. Recent work has emphasized the importance of long-term phonological representations in supporting short-term memory performance. This occurs via redintegration (reconstruction) processes, which show significant neighborhood density effects in adults. We assessed whether serial recall in children was affected by neighborhood density in word and nonword tasks. Furthermore, we compared dyslexic children with typically developing children of the same age or reading level. Dyslexic children are held to have impaired phonological representations of lexical items. These impaired representations may impair or prevent the use of long-term phonological representations to redintegrate short-term memory traces. We report significant rime neighborhood density effects for serial recall of both words and nonwords, for both dyslexic and typically developing children.

Phonological short-term memory plays an important role in the development of the lexicon. Gathercole and colleagues have shown that individual differences in phonological short-term memory are related to vocabulary acquisition (Gathercole & Baddeley, 1989, 1990; Gathercole, Hitch, Service, & Martin, 1997; Gathercole, Willis, & Baddeley, 1991; Gathercole, Willis, Emslie, & Baddeley, 1992) and have argued that phonological shortterm memory plays a critical role in the acquisition of new words. Phonological long-term memory representations for words, in turn, play an important role in determining the capacity of phonological short-term memory. Phonological short-term memory is usually measured by performance in serial recall tasks, which is affected by stored phonological knowledge. Current models of serial recall posit a short-term phonological or articulatory loop that retains verbal information on a temporary basis (e.g., Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). Retention is thought to be enhanced by long-term word representations, which help with the redintegration, or reconstruction, of decaying traces, thus facilitating recall (Gupta & MacWhinney, 1997; Hulme, Maughan, & Brown, 1991; Hulme et al., 1997; Schweikert, 1993; Turner, Henry, Smith, & Brown, 2004). Because of redintegration processes, nonwords or unfamiliar words are significantly harder to recall than familiar lexical items (e.g., Hulme et al., 1991; Hulme et al., 1997). Similarly, high-frequency words are recalled better than low-frequency words (Roodenrys, Hulme, Lethbridge, Hinton, & Nimmo, 2002), and nonwords that are more wordlike are recalled better than nonwords that are less wordlike (Gathercole, 1995).

There is widespread agreement that phonological representations for familiar words are used to reconstruct decaying traces in temporary memory when serial recall tasks are based on words. However, there has been some debate about the role of stored lexical knowledge in the serial recall of nonwords. Gathercole and colleagues (Gathercole, Prankish, Picketing, & Peaker, 1999) reported that children recalled nonwords with high phonotactic probabilities better than nonwords with low phonotactic probabilities in a serial recall task. They argued that this was a nonlexical effect based on stored phonotactic knowledge. In their experiments, 7- to 8-year-old children's recall accuracy was greater for nonwords containing phoneme combinations that were high in frequency (i.e., nonwords with high-probability phonotactics) than for nonwords containing phoneme combinations that were low in frequency (i.e., nonwords with low-probability phonotactics). Gathercole et al. (1999) suggested that, rather than using stored lexical representations to guess at the original identity of items, as in redintegration, the children were using their knowledge of the phonotactic properties of the language to enable probability-based reconstruction of incomplete memory traces. …

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