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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00642

Adolescents' Developing Sensitivity to Orthographic and Semantic Cues during Visual Search for Words

 Nicolas Vibert1, 2, 3*, Jason L. Braasch4,  Daniel Darles1, 2, 3, Anna Potocki1, 2, 3, Christine Ros1, 2, 3, Nematollah Jaafari2, 5, 6, 7 and  Jean-François Rouet1, 2, 3
  • 1Centre de Recherches sur la Cognition et l'Apprentissage, UMR 7295, Poitiers, France, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), France
  • 2Université de Poitiers, Poitiers, France, University of Poitiers, France
  • 3Université de Tours, France
  • 4Department of Psychology, University of Memphis, United States
  • 5INSERM CIC1402 CIC Poitiers, France
  • 6INSERM UMR1084 Laboratoire de Neurosciences Expérimentales et Cliniques, France
  • 7Centre Hospitalier Henri Laborit, France

Two eye-tracking experiments were conducted to assess the influence of words either looking like the target word (orthographic distractors) or semantically related to the target word (semantic distractors) on visual search for words within lists by adolescents of 11, 13 and 15 years of age. In Experiment 1 (literal search task), participants saw the target word before the search (e.g., “raven”), whereas in Experiment 2 (categorical task) the target word was only defined by its semantic category (e.g. “bird”). In both experiments, participants’ search times decreased from fifth to ninth grade, both because older adolescents gazed less often at non-target words during the search and because they could reject non-target words more quickly once they were fixated. Progress in visual search efficiency was associated with a large increase in word identification skills, which were a strong determinant of average gaze durations and search times for the categorical task, but much less for the literal task. In the literal task, the presence of orthographic or semantic distractors in the list increased search times for all age groups. In the categorical task, the impact of semantic distractor words was stronger than in the literal task because participants needed to gaze at the semantic distractors longer than at the other words before rejecting them. Altogether, the data support the assumption that the progressive automation of word decoding up until the age of 12 and the better quality of older adolescents’ lexical representations facilitate a flexible use of both the perceptual and semantic features of words for top-down guidance within the displays. In particular, older adolescents were better prepared to aim at or reject words without gazing at them directly. Finally, the overall similar progression of the maturation of single word visual search processes and that of more real-life information search within complex verbal documents suggests that the young adolescents’ difficulties in searching the Web effectively could be due to their insufficiently developed lexical representations and word decoding abilities.

Keywords: visual search, Word search, reading proficiency, Lexical quality, adolescents, Children, eyetracking, development

Received: 01 Sep 2018; Accepted: 07 Mar 2019.

Edited by:

Anna V. Fisher, Carnegie Mellon University, United States

Reviewed by:

Jessica L. Montag, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States
Iris C. Mulders, Utrecht University, Netherlands  

Copyright: © 2019 Vibert, Braasch, Darles, Potocki, Ros, Jaafari and Rouet. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Nicolas Vibert, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Centre de Recherches sur la Cognition et l'Apprentissage, UMR 7295, Poitiers, France, Paris, 75794, Île-de-France, France,