Learning and retrieving holistic and componential visual-verbal associations in reading and object naming

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Understanding the neural processes that underlie learning to read can provide a scientific foundation for literacy education but studying these processes in real-world contexts remains challenging. We present behavioural data from adult participants learning to read artificial words and name artificial objects over two days. Learning profiles and generalisation confirmed that componential learning of visual-verbal associations distinguishes reading from object naming. Functional MRI data collected on the second day allowed us to identify the neural systems that support componential reading as distinct from systems supporting holistic visual-verbal associations in object naming. Results showed increased activation in posterior ventral occipitotemporal (vOT), parietal, and frontal cortices when reading an artificial orthography compared to naming artificial objects, and the reverse profile in anterior vOT regions. However, activation differences between trained and untrained words were absent, suggesting a lack of cortical representations for whole words. Despite this, hippocampal responses provided some evidence for overnight consolidation of both words and objects learned on day 1. The comparison between neural activity for artificial words and objects showed extensive overlap with systems differentially engaged for real object naming and English word/pseudoword reading in the same participants. These findings therefore provide evidence that artificial learning paradigms offer an alternative method for studying the neural systems supporting language and literacy. Implications for literacy acquisition are discussed.

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