Date of Completion


Embargo Period



James Magnuson, Eiling Yee, Rachel Theodore, Rehea Paul

Field of Study

Psychological Sciences


Master of Science

Open Access

Open Access


Spoken word recognition (SWR) is the mapping of speech sounds to words from many potential candidates in one’s lexicon. In adults, words that are phonetically similar, of high frequency, or semantically related compete for recognition. An ongoing debate in the literature is whether or not very young children encode spoken words with fine-grained temporal and phonetic detail. Specifically, whether they represent words wholistically or as smaller phonetic units similar to that of adults. The adult literature demonstrates that words that are phonetically similar at onset (cohorts) and offset (rhymes) compete for recognition. As it happens, rhymes have the potential to distinguish between developmental theories; some (wholistic-emergent) propose that children's early representations lack phonetic and temporal detail, and therefore global similarity should be the primary determinant of lexical competition, while other theories (accessibility) propose that rhyme competition should not emerge until after the onset of literacy acquisition (due either directly to phonological reorganization spurred by learning to read, or coincidental maturation). This study compared phonological competition effects of cohort and rhymes compared to unrelated words using a simplified visual world paradigm task. Typically developing preschool children (n = 23), ages 3-4, and college students (n = 22), ages 18-22, were presented with two pictures and followed a spoken instruction to click on one of them (e.g., "click on the doll"). Picture labels matched either onset (bat-bath), or offset (keys-bees), or were phonologically unrelated (bear-pants). Words were divided evenly between monosyllabic and bisyllabic words. Participants' eye movements were recorded as they followed the verbal instruction. Children were generally slower than adults at processing spoken words but showed competition patterns similar to those seen in adults. Both adults and children showed weaker rhyme effects and stronger cohort effects for monosyllabic words. These findings suggest that rhyme competition emerges during pre-reading years, and also provides new insight into on-line lexical competition in adults and children.

Major Advisor

James Magnuson