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Multiletter Word Units in Visual Recognition: Direct Activation by Supraletter Visual Features

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Multiletter priming effects have been interpreted as evidence for the representation of separable multiletter units in the visual word recognition system (Whiteley & Walker, 1994). The reported experiments examine whether the activation of such units is pre- or post-lexical. Experiments 2 and 3 employed priming in an alphabetic decision task in which subjects made a discrimination response to test stimuli which could be classed as either targets or foils. Targets were single letters, or consonant bigrams, present or absent in an immediately preceding word, or (Experiment 3 and 4) they were whole words semantically associated or not to a preceding word. Foils were single non-alphanumeric characters, a character plus a letter, or a word with one letter replaced by a character. Experiment 1 was a preliminary to determine the parameters of a sequential presentation manipulation. Experiment 2 compared conditions of simultaneous and sequential presentation where letters of prime words were presented together, or one at a time in rapid succession. With simultaneous presentation, responses to bigram targets were facilitated when these appeared in the prime word, while responses to individual constituent letters of those bigrams were not facilitated. Additionally, responses to primed bigram targets were faster than responses to primed single letter targets. The sequential presentation of prime words resulted in a qualitative change in the response pattern indicative of the disruption of multiletter unit activation. That change was replicated in Experiment 3 where semantic priming confirmed that the prime words were being processed to a level of meaning. The observations challenge a post-lexical account of the multiletter priming effects. Finally, Experiment 4 addressed the question of whether bigram priming reflects the intentional use of prime information to predict following targets. Strategic interpretations are undermined and it is argued that multiletter units are activated automatically as part of normal visual word recognition.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 1997-03-01

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