Word learning in the context of semantic prior knowledge: evidence of interference from feature-based neighbours in children and adults

Emma James*, M. Gareth Gaskell, Gráinne Murphy, Josie Tulip, Lisa M. Henderson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The presence of phonological neighbours facilitates word-form learning, suggesting that prior phonological knowledge supports vocabulary acquisition. We tested whether prior semantic knowledge similarly benefits word learning by teaching 7-to-10-year-old children (Experiment 1) and adults (Experiment 2) pseudowords assigned to novel concepts with low or high semantic neighbourhood density according to feature norms. Form recall, definition recall, and semantic categorisation tasks were administered immediately after training, the next day, and one week later. Across sessions, pseudowords assigned to low-density (versus high-density) semantic neighbourhood concepts elicited better word-form recall (for adults) and better meaning recall (for children). Exploratory cross-experiment analyses demonstrated that the neighbourhood influence was most robust for recalling meanings. Children showed greater gains in form recall than adults across the week, regardless of links to semantic knowledge. While the results suggest that close semantic neighbours interfere with word learning, we consider alternative semantic dimensions that may be beneficial.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)157-174
Number of pages18
JournalLanguage, Cognition and Neuroscience
Issue number2
Early online date2 Nov 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
E.J was supported by an Economic and Social Research Council 1 + 3 studentship in conducting this study. The research was additionally supported ESRC grant ES/N009924/1 awarded to L.M.H. and M.G.G. An earlier version of this manuscript was published in the first author's PhD thesis, and we would like to thank Professor Dorothy Bishop for suggesting further exploratory analyses.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • consolidation
  • development
  • prior knowledge
  • semantic neighbourhood density
  • Vocabulary
  • word learning

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