Does morphological structure modulate access to embedded word meaning in child readers?


Memory & Cognition


March, 2021


Jana Hasenäcker, Olga Solaja and Davide Crepaldi

Beginning readers have been shown to be sensitive to the meaning of embedded neighbors (e.g., CROW in CROWN). Moreover, developing readers are sensitive to the morphological structure of words (TEACH-ER). However, the interaction between orthographic and morphological processes in meaning activation during reading is not well established. What determines semantic access to orthographically embedded words? What is the role of suffixes in this process? And how does this change throughout development? To address these questions, we asked 80 Italian elementary school children (third, fourth, and fifth grade) to make category decisions on words (e.g., is CARROT a type of food?). Critically, some target words for no-answers (e.g., is CORNER a type of food?) contained category-congruent embedded stems (i.e., CORN). To gauge the role of morphology in this process, half of the embedded stems were accompanied by a pseudosuffix (CORN-ER) and half by a non-morphological ending (PEA-CE). Results revealed that words were harder to reject as members of a category when the embedded stem was category-congruent. This effect held both with and without a pseudosuffix, but was larger for pseudosuffixed words in the error rates. These results suggest that orthographic stems are activated and activation is fed forward to the semantic level regardless of morphological structure, followed by a decision-making process that might strategically use suffix-like endings.

For a similar experiment with adults, check out here.

The article is available online here or as a PDF here The raw data and the analysis code are here.