This paper has just come out in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
The research was led by Rebecca Norman, a PhD student in the lab who is co-supervised by Jo Taylor and Jenni Rodd.
From mid-childhood onwards, most new words are learned through reading. The precise meaning of many words depends upon the linguistic context in which they are encountered, which readers use to infer the appropriate interpretation. However, it is unclear what features of these linguistic contexts best support learning of new word meanings. We investigated whether learning words in contextually diverse sentences benefits word form and meaning learning in adults (n = 239). Participants learned meanings for 8 pseudowords through reading 10 sentences about each. Four pseudowords were learned in a diverse condition (10 sentences on different topics) and four were learned in a non-diverse condition (10 sentences on the same topic). An old-new decision post-test indicated that diversity did not influence word form learning. In a second post-test, participants chose which trained pseudoword completed a sentence from either an unfamiliar, untrained context, or a familiar, trained context. For familiar contexts, accuracy was higher for pseudowords learned in the non-diverse condition, but for unfamiliar contexts, accuracy was higher for pseudowords learned in the diverse condition. These results suggest that diverse contexts may promote development of flexible, decontextualised meaning representations that are easier to generalise to new contexts. Conversely, non-diverse contexts may favour extraction of context-bound representations that are more easily used in the same context.