The ability to learn new written words is modulated by language orthographic consistency

Chiara Valeria Marinelli*, Pierluigi Zoccolotti, Cristina Romani, Madelon Van Den Boer (Editor)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


It is well known that a difficulty in forming lexical representations is a strong predictor of reading and spelling difficulties even after controlling for the effects of other cognitive skills. Our study had two main interrelated aims. First, we wanted to examine whether the ability to learn new written words (lexical learning) varies as a function of the orthographic consistency of the language of the learner. Second, we wanted to evaluate the cognitive abilities involved in orthographic lexical learning and whether they differed as a function of language consistency.

163 Italian children and 128 English children performed a lexical learning task as well as tasks assessing several cognitive skills potentially related to the ability to establish orthographic representations.

We found that children learning an orthographic inconsistent orthography (English) were better able to learn novel written words presented in association with pictures than children learning a consistent orthography (Italian). This was true for both younger and older primary school children and also when children were matched for school grade. Lexical learning may be better in English children because the many irregularities of this language promote storing in memory whole-word representations and processing larger orthographic units. In Italian, instead, reading can be accomplished successfully on the basis of grapheme-phoneme conversion rules and on processing smaller orthographic units. This interpretation was supported by the pattern of cognitive skills associated with lexical learning skills in the two languages. Variations in lexical learning were explained by spatial visual memory and phonological awareness tasks in both languages, but phonological STM explained further variance in Italian, while a task tapping visuo-attentional capacity explained further variance in English.

Learning a language with inconsistent orthography is associated with better lexical learning skills in children at different stages of primary school; the pattern of cognitive skills associated with lexical learning skills is also partially modulated by orthographic consistency.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0228129
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 13 Feb 2020

Bibliographical note

© 2020 Marinelli et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


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