Blindness And Semantic Vs Phonemic Fluency

A study was conducted by Wakefield, Homewook, and Taylor to investigate whether or not children who are blind show specific advantages on word-fluency tasks. Specifically, the study compared performance in both semantic and phonemic word-fluency tasks.

The Tasks

Children (a group of blind children and a group of sighted children) were given both semantic fluency tasks and phonemic fluency tasks. For the semantic fluency tasks, children were asked to recite, in a 60-second period, "all the things you might find around the house" and "all the things you might find in the supermarket." The phonemic fluency tasks were to list words "that start with the sound /s/" and then /p/.

The Results

While there was no statistical difference between the two groups of children on the semantic fluency tasks, the children who were blind scored significantly higher on the phonemic fluency tasks.

Why did this happen?

The authors suggest two reasons why the children who were blind outperformed the sighted children on the phonemic fluency tasks:

1. The sighted children may have used a visualization strategy to complete the semantic task (they visualized their homes and listed all of the things they saw). This strategy, however, could not be transferred to the phonemic task, in which only non-visual imagery could be used. The children who are blind, however, necessarily could only rely on non-visual imagery in both tasks. Therefore, it may be the case that the sighted children had less non-visual imagery to draw on because of their predominant reliance on visual imagery.

2. "The children who were blind made more switches than did the sighted children in the phonemic task." Because children who are blind have been found to process auditory language faster than sighted individuals (Roder et al, 2000), it may be the case that the children who were blind had an enhanced ability to switch to new clusters of words. This would explain the advantage in phonemic fluency rather than semantic fluency (in which fewer cluster switches are required).

What does this mean?

The data reported in this study suggest that the development of phonemic and semantic fluency may require significantly different skills and strategies. Therefore, as teachers of students who may have communication disorders rooted in one or the other of these areas, we can distinguish between the types of thought processes we help our students go through.


Roder, B., Rosler, F., & Neville, H. J. (2000). Event-related potentials during
auditory language processing in congenitally blind people. Neuropsychologia, 38, 1482-1502.

Wakefield, Claire, Homewood, Judi, & Taylor, Alan (2006). Early Blindness May Be Associated with Changes in Performance on Verbal Fluency Tasks. Journal of Visual Impairments and Blindness, 100.

This page was created by Jimmy Sarakatsannis.