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Cognition. 2014 Jun;131(3):373-403. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2014.01.007. Epub 2014 Mar 19.

Low working memory capacity is only spuriously related to poor reading comprehension.

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Haskins Laboratories, United States. Electronic address:
Haskins Laboratories, United States.
School of Psychology, University of Dundee, UK.


Accounts of comprehension failure, whether in the case of readers with poor skill or when syntactic complexity is high, have overwhelmingly implicated working memory capacity as the key causal factor. However, extant research suggests that this position is not well supported by evidence on the span of active memory during online sentence processing, nor is it well motivated by models that make explicit claims about the memory mechanisms that support language processing. The current study suggests that sensitivity to interference from similar items in memory may provide a better explanation of comprehension failure. Through administration of a comprehensive skill battery, we found that the previously observed association of working memory with comprehension is likely due to the collinearity of working memory with many other reading-related skills, especially IQ. In analyses which removed variance shared with IQ, we found that receptive vocabulary knowledge was the only significant predictor of comprehension performance in our task out of a battery of 24 skill measures. In addition, receptive vocabulary and non-verbal memory for serial order-but not simple verbal memory or working memory-were the only predictors of reading times in the region where interference had its primary affect. We interpret these results in light of a model that emphasizes retrieval interference and the quality of lexical representations as key determinants of successful comprehension.


Comprehension; Corsi blocks; Individual differences; Interference; Vocabulary; Working memory

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