Orthographic learning refers to the acquisition of knowledge about specific spelling patterns forming words and about general biases and constraints on letter sequences. It is thought to occur by strengthening simultaneously activated visual and phonological representations during reading. Here we demonstrate that a visual perceptual learning procedure that leaves no time for articulation can result in orthographic learning evidenced in improved reading and spelling performance. We employed task-irrelevant perceptual learning (TIPL), in which the stimuli to be learned are paired with an easy task target. Assorted line drawings and difficult-to-spell words were presented in red color among sequences of other black-colored words and images presented in rapid succession, constituting a fast-TIPL procedure with color detection being the explicit task. In five experiments, Greek children in Grades 4–5 showed increased recognition of words and images that had appeared in red, both during and after the training procedure, regardless of within-training testing, and also when targets appeared in blue instead of red. Significant transfer to reading and spelling emerged only after increased training intensity. In a sixth experiment, children in Grades 2–3 showed generalization to words not presented during training that carried the same derivational affixes as in the training set. We suggest that reinforcement signals related to detection of the target stimuli contribute to the strengthening of orthography-phonology connections beyond earlier levels of visually-based orthographic representation learning. These results highlight the potential of perceptual learning procedures for the reinforcement of higher-level orthographic representations.
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