A time to rhyme: children process words by sound, adults process by meaning

Plebius Press/October 26, 2004

In the past, the study of how humans create false memories has yielded a great deal of information about cognitive processes. Now a team of researchers focusing on the different ways children and adults create false memories may have uncovered a more fundamental relationship between age and linguistic development.

The study found evidence of an age-related, developmental shift in language, suggesting that younger children process words primarily on the basis of phonology, or sound, while older children and adults process words primarily on the basis of semantics, or meaning. The findings are presented in the article "False Memories in Children: Evidence for a Shift from Phonological to Semantic Associations," by Steve Dewhurst and Claire Robinson of Lancaster University, United Kingdom. The article will be published in the November issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.

In previous research, scientists demonstrated that false memories can be triggered by words that are substantively related. For example, participants hear lists of semantically-related words, such as "bed," "dream," "snore," and "pillow." When they are asked to recall the list, participants tend to falsely recall semantically-related but non-presented words like "sleep," often with the same confidence as the words that were actually presented.

To test whether children would make similiar memory errors based on sound rather than semantics, the researchers used a version of this earlier experiment. They developed a list of words in which each word had at least one possible rhyme, then presented the list to children aged five, eight, or 11, who were asked to recall the words after hearing them. The results suggested a developmental correlation between age and language processes: The 11-year-olds performed in the same way as adults and falsely recalled words that were semantically related to the lists; the 8-year-olds were equally likely to falsely recall rhymes and semantic associates; and the 5-year-olds falsely recalled words that rhymed with those presented in the lists.

For more information, contact Dewhurst at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or for a complete copy of the article, visit the APS Media Center at www.psychologicalscience.org/media/.

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