Semantic categorisation of a word supports its phonological integrity in verbal short-term memory

Nicola Savill*, Tim Metcalfe, Andrew W. Ellis, Elizabeth Jefferies

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In three immediate serial recall (ISR) experiments we tested the hypothesis that interactive processing between semantics and phonology supports phonological coherence in verbal short-term memory (STM). Participants categorised spoken words in six-item lists as they were presented, according to their semantic or phonological properties, then repeated the items in presentation order (Experiment 1). Despite matched categorisation performance between conditions, semantically-categorised words were correctly recalled more often than phonologically-categorised words. This accuracy advantage in the semantic condition was accompanied by fewer phoneme recombination errors. Comparisons with a no- categorisation ISR baseline (Experiment 2) indicated that, although categorisations were disruptive overall, recombination errors were specifically rarer following semantic cate- gorisation. Experiment 3 replicated the key findings from Experiment 1 and also revealed fewer phonologically-related errors following semantic categorisation compared to a per- ceptual categorisation of high or low pitch. Therefore, augmented activation of semantic representations stabilises the phonological traces of words within verbal short-term memory, in line with the ‘‘semantic binding” hypothesis.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)128-138
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Early online date23 Jun 2015
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2015

Bibliographical note

© 2015 Elsevier Inc. This is an author produced version of a paper published in Journal of Memory and Language. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher's self-archiving policy. Date of Acceptance: 11/06/2015.


  • Immediate serial recall
  • Language processing
  • Phoneme binding
  • Semantic
  • Verbal short-term memory

Cite this