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Experience and sentence processing: Statistical learning and relative clause comprehension

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Wells, J. B., Christiansen, M. H., Race, D. S., Acheson, D. J., & MacDonald, M. C. (2009). Experience and sentence processing: Statistical learning and relative clause comprehension. Cognitive Psychology, 58(2), 250-271. doi:10.1016/j.cogpsych.2008.08.002.

Many explanations of the difficulties associated with interpreting object relative clauses appeal to the demands that object relatives make on working memory. MacDonald and Christiansen [MacDonald, M. C., & Christiansen, M. H. (2002). Reassessing working memory: Comment on Just and Carpenter (1992) and Waters and Caplan (1996). Psychological Review, 109, 35-54] pointed to variations in reading experience as a source of differences, arguing that the unique word order of object relatives makes their processing more difficult and more sensitive to the effects of previous experience than the processing of subject relatives. This hypothesis was tested in a large-scale study manipulating reading experiences of adults over several weeks. The group receiving relative clause experience increased reading speeds for object relatives more than for subject relatives, whereas a control experience group did not. The reading time data were compared to performance of a computational model given different amounts of experience. The results support claims for experience-based individual differences and an important role for statistical learning in sentence comprehension processes.