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Abstract

While behavioral and educational data characterize a fourth grade shift in reading development, neuroscience evidence is relatively lacking. We used the N400 component of the event-related potential waveform to investigate the development of single word processing across the upper elementary years, in comparison to adult readers. We presented third graders, fourth graders, fifth graders, and college students with a well-controlled list of real words, pseudowords, letter strings, false font strings, and animal name targets. Words and pseudowords elicited similar N400s across groups. False font strings elicited N400s similar to words and letter strings in the three groups of children, but not in college students. The pattern of findings suggests relatively adult-like semantic and phonological processing by third grade, but a long developmental time course, beyond fifth grade, for orthographic processing in this context. Thus, the amplitude of the N400 elicited by various word-like stimuli does not reflect some sort of shift or discontinuity in word processing around the fourth grade. However, the results do suggest different developmental time courses for the processes that contribute to automatic single word reading and the integrative N400.