Effects of Age, Speed of Processing, and Working Memory on Comprehension of Sentences With Relative Clauses

David Caplan, Gayle DeDe, Gloria Waters, Jennifer Michaud, Yorghos Tripodis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

102 Scopus citations


Two hundred participants, 50 in each of four age ranges (19-29, 30-49, 50-69, 70-90) were tested for working memory, speed of processing, and the processing of sentences with relative clauses. In Experiment 1, participants read four sentence types (cleft subject, cleft object, subject-subject, subject-object) in a word-by-word, non-cumulative, self-paced reading task and made speeded plausibility judgments about them. In Experiment 2, participants read two types of sentences, one of which contained a doubly center embedded relative clause. Older participants' comprehension was less accurate and there was age-related slowing of online processing times in all but the simplest sentences, which increased in syntactically complex sentences in Experiment 1. This pattern suggests an age-related decrease in the efficiency of parsing and interpretation. Slower speed of processing and lower working memory were associated with longer online processing times only in Experiment 2, suggesting that task-related operations are related to general speed of processing and working memory. Lower working memory was not associated with longer reading times in more complex sentences, consistent with the view that general working memory is not critically involved in online syntactic processing. Longer online processing at the most demanding point in the most demanding sentence was associated with better comprehension, indicating that it reflects effective processing under some certain circumstances. However, the poorer comprehension performance of older individuals indicates that their slower online processing reflects inefficient processing even at these points.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)439-450
Number of pages12
JournalPsychology and aging
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2011


  • Aging
  • Speed of processing
  • Syntactic comprehension
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Aging
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology


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