Preservation of Memory-Based Automaticity in Reading for Older Adults

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Abstract

Concerning age-related effects on cognitive skill acquisition, the modal finding is that older adults do not benefit from practice to the same extent as younger adults in tasks that afford a shift from slower algorithmic processing to faster memory-based processing. In contrast, Rawson and Touron (2009) demonstrated a relatively rapid shift to memory-based processing in the context of a reading task. The current research extended beyond this initial study to provide more definitive evidence for relative preservation of memory-based automaticity in reading tasks for older adults. Younger and older adults read short stories containing unfamiliar noun phrases (e.g., skunk mud) followed by disambiguating information indicating the combination’s meaning (either the normatively dominant meaning or an alternative subordinate meaning). Stories were repeated across practice blocks, and then the noun phrases were presented in novel sentence frames in a transfer task. Both age groups shifted from computation to retrieval after relatively few practice trials (as evidenced by convergence of reading times for dominant and subordinate items). Most important, both age groups showed strong evidence for memory-based processing of the noun phrases in the transfer task. In contrast, older adults showed minimal shifting to retrieval in an alphabet arithmetic task, indicating that the preservation of memory-based automaticity in reading was task-specific. Discussion focuses on important implications for theories of memory-based automaticity in general and for specific theoretical accounts of age effects on memory-based automaticity, as well as fruitful directions for future research.

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