Individual differences in semantic short-term memory capacity and reading comprehension

Henk J. Haarmann, Eddy J. Davelaar, Marius Usher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We report three correlation studies, which investigate the hypothesis that individual differences in the capacity of a semantic short-term memory (STM) component in working memory (WM) predict performance on complex language tasks. To measure the capacity of semantic STM, we devised a storage-only measure, the conceptual span, which makes use of a category-cued recall procedure. In the first two studies, where the conceptual span was administered with randomized words (not blocked by categories), we found that conceptual span predicted single-sentence and text comprehension, semantic anomaly detection and verbal problem solving, explaining unique variance beyond non-word and word span. In some cases, the conceptual span explained unique variance beyond the reading span. Conceptual span correlated better with verbal problem solving than reading span, suggesting that a storage-only measure can outperform a storage-plus-processing measure. In Study 3, the conceptual span was administered with semantically clustered lists. The clustered span correlated with the comprehension measures as well as the non-clustered span, indicating that the critical process is memory maintenance and not semantic clustering. Moreover, we found an interaction between subjects' performance on the conceptual span and the effect of the distance between critical words in anomaly detection, supporting the proposal that semantic STM maintains unintegrated word meanings.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)320-345
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Conceptual span
  • Individual differences
  • Reading comprehension
  • Reading span
  • Short term memory
  • Working memory


Dive into the research topics of 'Individual differences in semantic short-term memory capacity and reading comprehension'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this