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Factors Affecting Lexical Access Time Essay

Words are known as the building blocks of language, as they help us to understand both written and spoken language. Word recognition and lexical access are known to be bottom up processes, meaning that we can identify what something is by learning its parameters and building our ideas upwards. Lexical accessing is the act of accessing our mental lexicon and obtaining all information about a word, such as its meaning, sound and appearance (Harley, 2010). Lexical processing consists of 3 main components, identifying, naming, and understanding. Identifying a word consists of simply deciding if the letter string is or is not a word. Understanding a word is the ability to access a words meaning. Naming a word consists of accessing the sound of a word (Harley, 2010).

Psycholinguists are very interested in investigating word processing, thus the lexical decision task was introduced. This task consists of timing how long a participant takes to identify whether a word is familiar or not when they are presented with a string of letters that may be a real word, an impossible non-words or a possible. Whereas real words are words of English that follow phonotactic constraints and have meaning, possible non-words obey phonotactic constraints but lack meaning, and impossible non-words violate phonotactic constraints and lack meaning.

During this lexical decision process, many factors will affect how long the participant will take to identify if the letter string is a word or not. To name a few, the frequency effect states that the more common or frequently used a word is, the easier it is to recognize as a word (Harley, 2010). Age of acquisition, is an effect that states that the earlier in life that a word is acquired, that the word will be easily recognized (Harley, 2010). Lastly, word concreteness and imagery has an affect as abstract words evoke less imagery than concrete words, in turn, high imagery words have better memory recall (Howell, 2010).


In the present experiment, the experimenter is simultaneously the participant. The participant was provided with two set lists of letter strings. Each list of letter strings consisted of 20 letter strings that were either words, non-words or arbitrary strings of letters, in which the participant was instructed to complete a lexical decision task based on these letter strings. First, the participant was instructed to read the first list of letter strings, and say aloud to themselves “yes” if they decided the letter string was a word, and “no” if they decided the letter string was not a word. The participant was instructed to time and record how long it took for them to complete the list. The first list of letter strings is the following: tlat, revery, voitle, chard, wefe, cratily, decoy, zner, raflot, oriole, voluble, boovle, mrock, awry, signet, trave, crock, cryptic, ewe, himpola. Next, the participant was instructed to perform the same task using the second set list of letter strings, also timing and recording how long it took to complete this list. The second list of words is the following: mulvow, clock, bank, tuglety, gare, relief, ruftily, history, pindle, develop, norve, busy, effort, garvola, match, sard, pleasant, coin, maisle.


The participant completed the lexical decision task of list 1 in 28.3 seconds and completed list 2 in 23.7 seconds. The following table shows the decisions made by the participant for each word. List 1| List 2|

tlat: norevery: novoitle: nochard: yeswefe: nocratily: nodecoy: yes| zner: noraflot: nooriole: yes voluble: yesboovle: nomrock: noawry: yes| signet: notrave: nocrock: no cryptic: yesewe: nohimpola: no| mulvow: noclock: yesbank: yestuglety: nogare: norelief: yesruftily: no| history: nopindle: nodevelop: yes gardot: nonorve: nobusy: yes effort: yes| garvola: nomatch: yessard: nopleasant: yescoin: yesmaisle: no|


In evaluating the results of this experiment, many factors come into action that effect the participant’s lexical access. Firstly, it is key to note the differences between the two set lists of letter strings. List 1 consists of both words, possible non-words and impossible non-words, while list 2 only consists of words and possible non-words. Due to the fact that impossible non-words are easily recognizable as a string of letters that is not in the English language, list 1 automatically decreases its total decision time, as both “tlat” and “mrock” both violate phonotactic constraints of the English language. This is because it was noted that impossible non-words are rejected more quickly than possible non-words (Howell, 2012). Aside from these two impossible non-words, one can see both set lists of words contain all possible words of English, which then causes the participant to go beyond the identifying stage in lexical processing and advance to the next stage, understanding.

In the understanding stage, the words meaning is attempted to be accessed to aid in determining whether the string of letters is or is not a word. The frequency effect comes into play in this stage, as frequent words have a much shorter reaction time in the lexical decision task because they are familiar. Therefore, words such as “decoy” and “cryptic” in list 1 and “clock”, “bank”, “relief”, “history”, “develop”, “effort”, “match”, “pleasant” and “coin” in list 2, which are frequent to the participant, are quickly decided as words. Due to the frequency effect ultimately because of the familiarity of the words, the meaning of these words does not need to be accessed. This is because high frequency words are accessed faster than low frequency words (Forster & Chambers, 1973). However, when possible non-words are at hand, the understanding stage is entered, to aid in this decision. When the participant does not immediately access a meaning for the letter string, the word deems to be given the status of “no”.

Consequently, this causes a longer reaction time in determining whether a possible non-word is or is not a word. As one can see list 1 has many more possible words than list 2, which ultimately causes list 1 to take longer to complete in the decision task. The factor of age of acquisition is also seen as an effect in this experiment as when dealing with the real words, those that were acquired at a younger age such as “clock”, “coin”, and “bank” were also identified quicker than other real words such as “relief”, “pleasant” and “develop”. Along with this point, the separation between the words acquired at a younger age and those acquired later, is that the words acquired at a younger age are concrete words rather than the other words being abstract words. This is because abstract words evoke less imagery than concrete words do, and high imagery words actually have better memory recall, thus affecting the speed of lexical access (Howell, 2012).


In addressing the differences of performance between the two lists of word strings, it is clear that the participant took longer to decide if a possible word was a word or not due to the fact that it was necessary to advance to the next stage of lexical processing, understanding, to search their mental lexicon for a meaning. Highly frequent words as well as low frequent were easily recognized, as a meaning was instantly accessed, causing the participant to remain in the identification stage. While impossible words were also equally recognized and dismissed due to their obvious violation of the phonotactic constraints of English. After evaluating these factors that specifically affect the lexical access time, one can clearly see why the first word list would take the participant longer to complete due to it having more possible words than real words or impossible words.

Forster, K. & Chambers, S. (1973). Lexical access and naming time. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour 12, 627-635 Harley, T.A. (2010). Talking the talk: Language, psychology, and science. Hove, England: Psychology Press. Howell, J. (oral communication, Lecture 5: Meaning. October 16th , 2012).

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