The role of phonology during visual word learning in adults: An integrative review

  • Gabriela MeadeEmail author
Theoretical Review


Throughout their lifetime, adults learn new words in their native lannguage, and potentially also in a second language. However, they do so with variable levels of success. In the auditory word learning literature, some of this variability has been attributed to phonological skills, including decoding and phonological short-term memory. Here I examine how the relationship between phonological skills and word learning applies to the visual modality. I define the availability of phonology in terms of (1) the extent to which it is biased by the learning environment, (2) the characteristics of the words to be learned, and (3) individual differences in phonological skills. Across these three areas of research, visual word learning improves when phonology is made more available to adult learners, suggesting that phonology can facilitate learning across modalities. However, the facilitation is largely specific to alphabetic languages, which have predictable sublexical correspondences between orthography and phonology. Therefore, I propose that phonology bootstraps visual word learning by providing a secondary code that constrains and refines developing orthographic representations.


Adult word learning Orthographic processing Phonological recoding Lexical quality 



This material was supported by National Science Foundation Grant No. BCS-1823955 and Graduate Research Fellowship No. 2016196208 and by a Women in Cognitive Science Travel Award to Initiate International Research Collaborations. I thank Phil Holcomb, Jonathan Grainger, and Mathieu Declerck for insightful discussions and debates on these topics, and the members of my dissertation committee for comments on a previous version of the review.


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© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.San Diego State UniversitySan DiegoUSA
  2. 2.University of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA

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