Predictability effects and parafoveal processing in older readers

27 October 2021

Normative aging is accompanied by visual and cognitive changes that impact the systems that are critical for fluent reading. The patterns of eye movements during reading displayed by older adults have been characterized as demonstrating a trade-off between longer forward saccades and more word skipping versus higher rates of regressions back to previously read text. This pattern is assumed to reflect older readers’ reliance on top-down contextual information to compensate for reduced uptake of parafoveal information from yet-to-be fixated words. However, the empirical evidence for these assumptions is equivocal. This study investigated the depth of older readers’ parafoveal processing as indexed by sensitivity to the contextual plausibility of parafoveal words in both neutral and highly constraining sentence contexts. The eye movements of 65 cognitively intact older adults (61-87 years) were compared with data previously collected from young adults in two sentence reading experiments in which critical target words were replaced by valid, plausible, related, or implausible previews until the reader fixated on the target word location. Older and younger adults showed equivalent plausibility preview benefits on first-pass reading measures of both predictable and unpredictable words. However, older readers did not show the benefit of preview orthographic relatedness that was observed in young adults, and showed significantly attenuated preview validity effects. Taken together, the data suggest that older readers are specifically impaired in the integration of parafoveal and foveal information but do not show deficits in the depth of parafoveal processing. The implications for understanding the effects of aging on reading are discussed.