Learning new words through reading: do robust spelling–sound mappings boost learning of word forms and meanings?

Rachael C. Hulme*, Laura R. Shapiro, J. S. H. Taylor

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


High-quality lexical representations depend on robust representations of written form (orthography), spoken form (phonology) and meaning (semantics), and strong bonds between them. Quality of lexical representations may be affected by amount of print exposure and the form of individual words. Words that are harder to decode (print-to-sound) may lead to fuzzy representations of the orthographic and phonological forms, potentially creating less stable foundations for semantic knowledge. These factors are difficult to disentangle in natural language research; in this registered report, we experimentally manipulated decoding ease and exposure at the item level. Adults read paragraphs describing invented meanings of pseudowords. Pseudowords appeared two or six times in a paragraph, and had easy (e.g. bamper) or hard (e.g. uzide) to decode spelling–sound mappings. Post-tests assessed word-form knowledge, orthography–semantic mappings and semantic–phonology mappings. Results showed that greater decoding ease improved learning of word forms and consequently also impacted on word meanings. Higher exposure frequency improved learning of word forms but not meanings. Exposure frequency also modulated the effect of decoding ease on word-form learning, with a stronger effect of decoding ease for fewer exposures. Disentangling effects of decoding ease from print exposure has important implications for understanding potential barriers to vocabulary learning.
Original languageEnglish
Article number210555
Number of pages28
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number12
Early online date14 Dec 2022
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2022 The Authors. Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the CreativeCommons Attribution License https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/, which permitsunrestricted use, provided the original author and source are credited.
Funding: Dr Hulme was supported by a fellowship funded by Aston University


  • Psychology and cognitive neuroscience
  • Registered report
  • reading
  • vocabulary learning
  • decoding ease
  • orthography
  • semantics


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