, Volume 11, Issue 6, pp 569-598

Common phoneme and overall similarity relations among spoken syllables: Their use by children and adults

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This paper contrasts two kinds of relations among spoken syllables. One relation is based on a single common phoneme; the second is based on overall similarity of whole syllables. On the basis of recent studies with multidimensional visual stimuli, we hypothesized that preliterate children respond primarily to overall similarity relations among syllables, whereas literate adults respond primarily to common phoneme relations. These hypotheses were tested in two experiments using spoken syllables. Experiment 1 investigated the classification of syllables by preliterate children (mean age: 4 years 4 months) and college students. Experiment 2 studied the memory confusions among syllables by children (mean age: 4 years 8 months) and college students. The results of both experiments suggest that overall similarity relations are primary for preliterate children, while common phoneme relations are primary for adults. Moreover, children's limited use of common phoneme relations is not confined to tasks that require explicit judgments about language. Implications for the learning of reading are discussed.

The work reported here formed a portion of the first author's doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Pennsylvania. It was supported by Grant MH29453 to J. Baron and a Biomedical support grant through Indiana University to R. Treiman. We thank the children and teachers of the University of Pennsylvania Children's Center for their cooperation. Jonathan Baron, David Pisoni, Francis Ganong, Lila Gleitman, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Burton Rosner, Linda Smith, and Amanda Walley gave valuable comments on earlier versions of this paper.