Neha Patil (Editor)

Word frequency effect

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The word frequency effect is a subject matter associated with cognitive psychology and is a psychological phenomenon where recognition times are faster for words seen more frequently than for words seen less frequently.


A word is considered to be high frequency if the word is commonly used in daily speech, such as the word "the." A word is considered to be low frequency if the word is not commonly used, such as the word "strait." Some languages such as Chinese have multiple levels of daily speech that impact frequency of words. There is frequency at the character level or at the word level.


Research on the word frequency effect dates back several years, as some of the first research on the subject was conducted as far back as the 1950s. Most researchers believe that word frequency has an automatic effect on word recognition.

The word frequency effect has since been well established by several researchers, including the following:

  • 1957- Howes
  • 1957- Rosenzweig and Postman
  • 1959- Pollack, Rubenstein, & Decker
  • 1961- Brown and Rubenstein
  • 1982- Segui, Mehler, Frauenfelder, & Morton
  • 1984- Balotha and Chumbley
  • 1999- Balota, Paul, & Spieler
  • Other researchers have demonstrated this effect beyond words, and have also shown a frequency effect with events in patients with neurological damage, meaning that high-frequency events were better preserved than low-frequency events. History of this research is less substantial, but was conducted by the following researchers:

  • 1991- Grafman, Thompson, Weingartner, Martinez, Lawlor, & Sunderland
  • 1995- Sirigu, Zalla, Pillon, Grafman, & Agid
  • Criticisms

    Daniel Voyer proposed some criticism for the word frequency effect in 2003 after experiments on laterality effects in lexical decisions. His experiments demonstrated two findings:

    (1) Word frequency effect was only significant for the left visual field presentation (2) In a case-altered condition, the word frequency effect meaningful for right visual field presentations.

    Voyer further posits that hemispheric asymmetries may play a role in the word frequency effect.

    Real World Applications

    The importance of the word-frequency effect can be observed in time-sensitive situations.


    The quick recognition of a word would potentially be important during a timed written assessment. With a strict limit on time available to complete a test, the presence of higher frequency words on the assessment would be more beneficial to the test-taker than low frequency words, as the high frequency words would be recognized faster and thus time could be utilized on other areas of the assessment.


    Quick recognition of a word could also be important when reading road signs while driving. As a vehicle moves and passed road signs on the side of the road, there is only a short amount of time available to be able to read the road signs. The presence of higher frequency words on the road sign would allow for faster recognition and processing of road sign meaning, which could be critical in such a time sensitive situation.


    Word frequency effect Wikipedia

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