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J Clin Exp Neuropsychol. 2004 Apr;26(2):266-77.

The effects of literacy and education on the quantitative and qualitative aspects of semantic verbal fluency.

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Department of Clinical Neuroscience, Cognitive Neurophysiology Research Group R2-01, Karolinska Institutet, Karolinska Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden.


Semantic verbal fluency tasks are commonly used in neuropsychological assessment. Investigations of the influence of level of literacy have not yielded consistent results in the literature. This prompted us to investigate the ecological relevance of task specifics, in particular, the choice of semantic criteria used. Two groups of literate and illiterate subjects were compared on two verbal fluency tasks using different semantic criteria. The performance on a food criterion (supermarket fluency task), considered more ecologically relevant for the two literacy groups, and an animal criterion (animal fluency task) were compared. The data were analysed using both quantitative and qualitative measures. The quantitative analysis indicated that the two literacy groups performed equally well on the supermarket fluency task. In contrast, results differed significantly during the animal fluency task. The qualitative analyses indicated differences between groups related to the strategies used, especially with respect to the animal fluency task. The overall results suggest that there is not a substantial difference between literate and illiterate subjects related to the fundamental workings of semantic memory. However, there is indication that the content of semantic memory reflects differences in shared cultural background--in other words, formal education--, as indicated by the significant interaction between level of literacy and semantic criterion.

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