Lexical Ambiguity Resolution in Children: Frequency and Context Effects

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Communication Disorders

First Advisor

Larry Small


The processes by which spoken language is comprehended are extremely complex, and the development of these processes is not fully understood. The comprehension of language is a difficult process that involves decoding the incoming signal, accessing stored semantic information in the mental lexicon (i.e., lexical access), and integrating that information into the overall context of the sentence, paragraph, or conversation. Several cues may be used to access semantic information in the mental lexicon, including sentential context and frequency information. Use of these cues can provide evidence for either an interactive or modular process of lexical access. Based on research with homophones, it appears that adults are able to use sentential context, in an interactive fashion, to aid in lexical access. Preschool children, however, are unable to use context in this way. It is unclear as to when children begin to use contextual cues in an interactive manner to facilitate lexical access. The purpose of this research was to investigate sixth-grade children’s use of context and frequency cues to resolve lexical ambiguities encountered in spoken language. Seventy-five sixth grade children participated in a lexical ambiguity resolution task in order to determine whether frequency information or sentential context aided in lexical access. The participants heard a sentence (spoken by a man) that ended in a homophone. The context of this sentence was biased toward the subordinate sense of the homophone. Immediately following the sentence, participants heard a word (spoken by a female). The participants were instructed to repeat the word spoken by the female as quickly as possible. The time to repeat this word was recorded. Participants were faster to repeat words related to the subordinate sense of a homophone than they were to repeat unrelated words. However, for the dominant sense of a homophone, no significant difference in naming times were found compared to unrelated words. The results indicated that the sixth grade children were using sentential context, not frequency information, to aid in lexical access. The results support an interactive, rather than modular, model of lexical access, such as the context sensitive model of lexical ambiguity resolution.