EFFECT OF WORD FREQUENCY, SENTENCE COMPLEXITY, AND AGING ON SENTENCE COMPREHENSION

picture of Samantha Deitering presenting his/her poster: EFFECT OF WORD FREQUENCY, SENTENCE COMPLEXITY, AND AGING ON SENTENCE COMPREHENSION

Samantha Deitering , Dr. Gayle DeDe, Jessica Knilans

EFFECT OF WORD FREQUENCY, SENTENCE COMPLEXITY, AND AGING ON SENTENCE COMPREHENSION

Background: It has been shown that word frequency and sentence complexity affect sentence comprehension, but previous studies have reported mixed results. Tily, Fedorenko and Gibson (2010) reported that word frequency and sentence structure have interactive effects on comprehension; whereas Staub (2011) showed that word frequency and sentence structure have independent effects. There are also potential affects that would come as a result of aging. It has been shown that aging affects processing time (Caplan, DeDe, Waters, Michaud & Tripodis, 2011) and older participants’ reading times are affected by word frequency (Rayner, Reichle, Stroud, Williams & Pollatsek, 2006). Studying how these variables interact is important in order to clarify the previous results and to see how the results might change as a function of age. The present study investigated the effects word frequency, sentence complexity and aging on sentence comprehension.

Methods: The experimental stimuli were varied in sentence structure and frequency of the first noun. They consisted of subject-cleft and object-cleft sentences containing either a high or low frequency noun (The newborn babies/infants that the nurse woke up/that woke up the nurse needed to be fed.) The participants read the sentence through self-paced reading and responded to a yes/no question after each sentence. Twenty students from the University of Arizona (18-30 years old) and twenty older adults from the local community (65-80 years) participated. 

Results: Young participants were faster readers than older participants. There were the expected effects of syntactic complexity, with longer reaction times at both verbs in the sentence. The effect of frequency was shown on the critical word and continued throughout the sentence. For the young participants, this effect subsided at the verbs whereas for the older participants it did not subside until the main verb. For both age groups, the frequency effect resurfaced at the end of the sentence.

Conclusion: The results of this study were more consistent with those reported by Staub (2011). Additionally, once the older participant reached the low frequency noun, they were unable to return to their original pace, showing difficulty in recovery.

Funding: NIDCD grant DC010808 and the Office of the Provost

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