Self-paced reading is a task where where participants read a passage word-by-word or
phrase-by-phrase, pressing a button to get the next word or phrase displayed. The time taken to press the
button gives an indication of the processing difficulty at each stage. Often, this task is used to see how
people interpret ambiguous words or sentences, and whether they show a preference for one meaning over another.
Such preferences are reflected in shorter reading times (and therefore faster button presses) for the preferred
The demonstration version of this task in the experiments section of the website includes some ambiguous sentences like the following
A James knew that kids like Hannah because she enjoys playing with other children
B James knew that kids like Hannah enjoyed playing with other children
The two sentences differ in the interpretation of the word like. In A it is a verb (we could substitute love
or hate), but in B it is a preposition (we could substitute such as). Corpus analyses of how
the word like is used have shown that it is more likely to occur as a preposition than as a verb. In our
research we have therefore predicted that the preposition interpretation in B is more likely than the verb
interpretation in A, and should be easier to process and therefore faster to read.
In the figure below, three regions of the sentences have been indicated. amb refers to the region that contains the ambiguity. In the example above this is the words like Hannah. Not surprisingly, the mean reading times (per word) are nearly identical for the two versions, since the sentences are identical up to that point. amb+1 and amb+2 refer to the following two words, which start to distinguish between the two meanings of like. The graph shows faster word reading times in these regions for the 'preferred' reading, as we predicted.
Other self-paced reading tasks are referred to in Chapters 11 and 12 of Introducing Psycholinguistics