The influence of age, schooling, literacy, and socioeconomic status on serial-order memory

Abstract

We aimed at investigating whether formal schooling and literacy favor progress in verbal serial-order short-term memory (STM). In Experiment 1, we presented children varying on age, school level, and socioeconomic background with a serial-order reconstruction task and observed differences related to both age and school level. Two subsequent experiments aimed at separating schooling- and literacy-related effects from age-related ones. In Experiment 2 we compared, on the one hand, performance of children of similar age but different school levels and, on the other hand, performance of children of same school level but different ages. We observed a schooling effect but no age effect on serial-order reconstruction: the youngest first-graders outperformed age-matched kindergartners but performed similarly as older first-graders of the same literacy level. Furthermore, children’s literacy abilities were strongly correlated to their serial-order reconstruction performance, even after controlling for the effects of non-verbal reasoning and vocabulary. In Experiment 3 we examined low socio-economic background adults presenting varying (correlated) levels of schooling and literacy: some had attended school in childhood for only a few years and were either illiterate or very poor readers, whereas others had attended school for at least 12 years. In addition to serial-order memory, item STM was assessed by a delayed single nonword repetition task. The groups differed on both STM tasks, which both correlated with their literacy abilities. Thus, literacy and schooling do not impact only order memory, but more generally verbal STM. Moreover, comparison between the adults’ and children’s data strongly suggests that it is schooling and/or literacy rather than age per se that matters for serial-order memory.

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Fig. 1
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Notes

  1. 1.

    As many parents filled the questionnaire in an incomplete way, these data were estimated on 93 families (42 from SES+, 51 from SES– schools).

  2. 2.

    In August 2019, the MW was R$ 998, which was equivalent to ≈ 247 US$ (≈ 222 €).

  3. 3.

    For all analyses, except for partial correlations we used the nonparametric Kendall rank correlation coefficient τ rather than the Pearson correlation coefficient r when the measure did not correspond to a ratio scale or when variances were unequal.

  4. 4.

    Many parents filled the questionnaire in an incomplete way, which explains the missing data.

  5. 5.

    Except for analyses of variance (ANOVAs) including several variables, for all group comparisons we used nonparametric tests when the measure did not correspond to a ratio scale (in which case we used the Mann–Whitney test) or when the two samples had significantly unequal variances and/or very unequal sample sizes (in which case we used the Welch test).

  6. 6.

    As recently discussed by Castles et al. (2018, p. 5), “over many years, the pendulum has swung between arguments favoring a phonics approach, in which the sounds that letters make are taught explicitly (e.g., Chall 1967; Flesch 1955), and a whole-language approach, which emphasizes the child’s discovery of meaning through experiences in a literacy-rich environment (e.g., Goodman 1967; Smith 1971)”. Although teaching phonics is crucial because it allows beginning readers to translate the spellings of most words they encounter into sound, and hence to become rapidly autonomous readers (e.g., National Reading Panel 2000), most alphabetic codes present at least some degree of spelling-to-sound irregularity. Hence teachers often choose to teach “sight words” along with phonics, i.e., to teach the pronunciations of a small number of words directly, particularly those frequently found in texts.

  7. 7.

    At the time we planned the research, the Brazilian version of the test was not available (de Araújo Vilhena et al. 2016).

  8. 8.

    The school year in Brazil starts in March.

  9. 9.

    Similar results were found with the Welch test when only school grade was taken into account.

  10. 10.

    This is equivalent to calculate the total number correct divided by 4 (as there were four sequence per length) plus 1 (as lists started with length 2).

  11. 11.

    Pre-primary education is very popular but not compulsory in Belgium, with more than 95% of children under the age of six attending it (Eurydice 2011). Children may enter pre-primary education at the age of two-and-a-half at the earliest and leave it in June of the year in which they reach the age of six.

  12. 12.

    This test was chosen because of the relatively small sample size of the +schooled participants (N = 25), in which there was a deviation from normality according to the Shapiro–Wilk test, p < .05.

  13. 13.

    Computed on phoneme deletion and phoneme sensitivity.

  14. 14.

    Computed on word and pseudoword reading, word and pseudoword fluency, and reading comprehension.

  15. 15.

    In the comparison with kindergartners and Grade 1 children, the average literacy score did not include the reading scores, as the reading tests were only presented to a minority of these children (see Table 1).

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Acknowledgements

R. Kolinsky is Research Director of the Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique–FNRS (FRS–FNRS), Belgium. At the time of data collection, C. Demoulin was Research Fellow of the FRS–FNRS. The research was supported by FAPERGS (PqG – 2368-2551/14-6) and CNPq (PQ 304883/2015-8) Grants coordinated by R. Gabriel, and preparation of the paper was also supported by a Concerted Research Action grant of the Belgian French community attributed to R. Kolinsky (The Socio-Cognitive Impact of Literacy). We warmly thank all participants and institutions that accepted to participate to this research.

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Kolinsky, R., Gabriel, R., Demoulin, C. et al. The influence of age, schooling, literacy, and socioeconomic status on serial-order memory. J Cult Cogn Sci 4, 343–365 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41809-020-00056-3

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Keywords

  • Short-term memory
  • Verbal memory
  • Serial-order memory
  • Item memory
  • Schooling and literacy effects
  • School cut-off method