Strong and long: effects of word length on phonological binding in verbal short-term memory

Elizabeth Jefferies, Clive Frankish, Katie Noble

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study examined the effects of item length on the contribution of linguistic knowledge to immediate serial recall (ISR). Long words are typically recalled more poorly than short words, reflecting the greater demands that they place on phonological encoding, rehearsal, and production. However, reverse word length effectsthat is, better recall of long than short wordscan also occur in situations in which phonological maintenance is difficult, suggesting that long words derive greater support from long-term lexical knowledge. In this study, long and short words and nonwords (containing one vs. three syllables) were presented for immediate serial recall in (a) pure lists and (b) unpredictable mixed lists of words and nonwords. The mixed-list paradigm is known to disrupt the phonological stability of words, encouraging their phonemes to recombine with the elements of other list items. In this situation, standard length effects were seen for nonwords, while length effects for words were absent or reversed. A detailed error analysis revealed that long words were more robust to the mixed-list manipulation than short words: Their phonemes were less likely to be omitted and to recombine with phonemes from other list items. These findings support an interactive view of short-term memory, in which long words derive greater benefits from lexical knowledge than short wordsespecially when their phonological integrity is challenged by the inclusion of nonwords in mixed lists.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)241-260
Number of pages20
JournalThe Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2011

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