Definitions versus categorization: assessing the development of lexico-semantic knowledge in Williams syndrome


Address correspondence to: Dr. Harry R. M. Purser, Department of Psychology and Human Development, Institute of Education, University of London, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL, UK; e-mail:


Background: Williams syndrome (WS) is associated with relatively strong language abilities despite mild to moderate intellectual disability, particularly when language is indexed by vocabulary.

Aims: The aim of the study was twofold: (1) to investigate whether reported lexical anomalies in WS can be explained with reference to anomalous semantic development; and (2) to assess whether receptive vocabulary skills in WS, a relative strength, are underpinned by commensurate semantic knowledge.

Methods & Procedures: The development of lexical–semantic knowledge was investigated in 45 typically developing individuals (chronological age range = 5–10 years, mental age range = 5–13 years) and 15 individuals with WS (chronological age range = 12–50 years, mental age range = 4–17 years) by means of (1) a categorization task and (2) a definitions task, which was expected to make additional metacognitive demands.

Outcomes & Results: At younger ages, the performance level of typically developing individuals and individuals with WS did not differ on the definitions task. However, the WS group's ability to define words fell away from the level predicted by the typically developing group at older ages, as more sophisticated definitions were expected. The results of the categorization task indicated that individuals with WS had less lexical–semantic knowledge than expected given their level of receptive vocabulary, although from this lower level the knowledge then developed at a similar rate to that found in typical development.

Conclusions & Implications: It is concluded, first, that conventional vocabulary measures may overestimate lexical–semantic knowledge in WS; and, second, concerns about the metacognitive demands of the definitions task when used with atypical populations may be well founded.