Can chunk size differences explain developmental changes in lexical learning?

Eleonore H M Smalle, Louisa Bogaerts, Morgane Simonis, Wouter Duyck, Michael P A Page, Martin G. Edwards, Arnaud Szmalec

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18 Citations (Scopus)
55 Downloads (Pure)


In three experiments, we investigated Hebb repetition learning (HRL) differences between children and adults, as a function of the type of item (lexical vs. sub-lexical) and the level of item-overlap between sequences. In a first experiment, it was shown that when non-repeating and repeating (Hebb) sequences of words were all permutations of the same words, HRL was slower than when the sequences shared no words. This item-overlap effect was observed in both children and adults. In a second experiment, we used syllable sequences and we observed reduced HRL due to item-overlap only in children. The findings are explained within a chunking account of the HRL effect on the basis of which we hypothesize that children, compared with adults, chunk syllable sequences in smaller units. By hypothesis, small chunks are more prone to interference from anagram representations included in the filler sequences, potentially explaining the item-overlap effect in children. This hypothesis was tested in a third experiment with adults where we experimentally manipulated the chunk size by embedding pauses in the syllable sequences. Interestingly, we showed that imposing a small chunk size caused adults to show the same behavioral effects as those observed in children. Departing from the analogy between verbal HRL and lexical development, the results are discussed in light of the less-is-more hypothesis of age-related differences in language acquisition.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1925
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberJAN
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jan 2016


  • Chunking
  • Hebb repetition learning
  • Language acquisition
  • Lexical development
  • Working memory


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