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Cascading activation across levels of representation in children's lexical processing*



Recent work in adult psycholinguistics has demonstrated that activation of semantic representations begins long before phonological processing is complete. This incremental propagation of information across multiple levels of analysis is a hallmark of adult language processing but how does this ability develop? In two experiments, we elicit measures of incremental activation of semantic representations during word recognition in children. Five-year-olds were instructed to select a target (logs) while their eye-movements were measured to a competitor (key) that was semantically related to an absent phonological associate (lock). We found that, like adults, children made increased looks to competitors relative to unrelated control items. However, unlike adults, children continued to look at the competitor even after the target word was uniquely identified and were more likely to incorrectly select this item. Altogether, these results suggest that early lexical processing involves cascading activation but less efficient resolution of competing entries.


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Department of Psychology, Davie Hall CB 3270, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27599, USA. Email:


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We would like to thank Jessica Hoy and Charlotte Mucchetti for their assistance in data collection and coding. We are also grateful to the children and teachers at the McGlynn Elementary School in Medford, MA for their participation in this study. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0623845.



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