In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cognitive Mechanisms for Lexical Access

  • Introduction
  • Monographs
  • Edited Collections
  • Journals
  • Spoken Word Production
  • Written Word Production

Linguistics Cognitive Mechanisms for Lexical Access
Marcus Taft
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0117


In order to communicate, human beings make use of words, which are the spoken or written labels for concepts being conveyed. In order for us to understand or generate such labels, we need to store them in our long-term lexical memory (i.e., our “mental lexicon”) in association with their corresponding meaning and retrieve them when appropriate to do so. “Lexical access” refers to this act of retrieval. In a reading situation, the orthographically presented stimulus needs to be matched with the relevant stored representation in the mental lexicon, as does the phonological form of the presented acoustic stimulus when speech is to be understood. In contrast, production of speech requires the intended meaning to provide access to the phonological form of the word that underlies the articulatory output. Similarly, spontaneously writing entails the generation of the orthographic form from the intended meaning. The term “lexical access” was originally coined in relation to visual word processing, but its use is more common nowadays in the word production literature. The word recognition literature tends to use more general terms such as “lexical processing” or “lexical retrieval” because the idea of “lexical access” implies that the word has a singly located representation in lexical memory (i.e., a “lexical entry”) that can be actively sought out. It is therefore not a theoretically neutral term, as it conflicts with most current accounts where words are recognized through a passive parallel activation procedure based on units below the word level (i.e., “sublexical” information). Because the relationship between the meaning and form of a word is largely arbitrary, spontaneous production does not involve the incremental activation of a lexical representation through sublexical features and, therefore, the idea that this representation is “accessed” is less controversial and hence more widely used. The issues that have been examined in relation to lexical access concern the retrieval process and the nature of the stored representations that allow this retrieval to take place. Most of the empirical research has been carried out by cognitive psychologists rather than linguists: for this reason, the coverage here will be more about the cognitive mechanisms involved in lexical access than the type of linguistic information accessed. In addition, the focus on the cognitive and not the neural mechanisms means that little will be said about the neurophysiological underpinnings of lexical processing. The vast majority of research into lexical access has centered on visual word recognition, partly because it is relatively easy to develop materials and measure responses, and partly because it has potential implications for reading pedagogy. Accordingly, this article will focus mainly on the domain of visual word recognition. The references that have been selected are either highly cited works or provide a representative account of a particular topic.


The rather specialized nature of the topic of lexical access can be seen by the dearth of monographs that relate directly to the topic, with no newly written texts appearing in the 21st century thus far. Aitchison’s book, originally published in 1987, has recently gone into its fourth edition (Aitchison 2012); its focus is more on the content of the mental lexicon than on how that content is accessed, and its primary focus is on spoken production and recognition. Taft 1991 looks at the mental lexicon and its access, concentrating solely on visual word recognition. It summarizes empirical data gathered prior to the 1990s and develops a model of lexical representation that is still current today. Visual word recognition in reading is also the focus of the scholarly and thorough work of Henderson 1982, which covers the state of the art till that time. Other monographs include sections on lexical access within their coverage of a broader topic. Ellis 1993 spends much time on visual word recognition and production in relation to both normal and dysfunctional reading and spelling performance. Nickels 1997 and Levelt 1989 are about speech production and include a detailed account of lexical access in relation to that domain. Within its coverage of the psychology of language in general, Harley 2008 provides a broad overview of all domains of lexical processing, as does the widely adopted textbook Carroll 2008, though less thoroughly.

  • Aitchison, J. 2012. Words in the mind: An introduction to the mental lexicon. 4th ed. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    A highly accessible book that does not presuppose a background in linguistics or psychology. The fourth edition does not differ greatly from the first, with the most notable addition being a brief section on the brain and neuroimaging.

  • Carroll, D. W. 2008. Psychology of language. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

    Relatively brief treatment of lexical representation and access, most of which has not been updated since the original edition in the 1980s.

  • Ellis, Andrew W. 1993. Reading, writing and dyslexia: A cognitive analysis. 2d ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    To help understand acquired reading and spelling disorders, a broad coverage of normal lexical processing is presented in relation to the recognition and production of print.

  • Harley, T. A. 2008. The psychology of language: From data to theory. 3d ed. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

    A scholarly textbook on language processing that incorporates sections on all aspects of lexical representation and retrieval.

  • Henderson, L. 1982. Orthography and word recognition in reading. London: Academic Press.

    An in-depth analysis of orthography and its involvement in lexical access aimed at the non-specialist and researcher alike.

  • Levelt, W. J. M. 1989. Speaking: From intention to articulation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    The most influential approach to speech production, with lexical access as a central feature.

  • Nickels, L. 1997. Spoken word production and its breakdown in aphasia. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

    Focuses on lexical access in both normal and disordered speech production.

  • Taft, Marcus. 1991. Reading and the mental lexicon. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Suitable for advanced undergraduate students as well as providing background for researchers pursuing empirical work in visual word recognition. A Japanese translation by Hirose, Kawakami, and Hatta was published in 1995 by Shinzan.

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