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The Rhythm for Reading blog

On the importance of prediction in language processing

24 April 2017

In the past decade, several research papers on language processing have suggested that prediction is a necessary part of language comprehension.

In previous blog posts, I’ve referred indirectly to prediction by discussing work on statistical processing in infancy (e.g. Saffran, Aslin and Newport, 1996) and anticipation in ‘disappearing games’ (Ratner and Bruner, 1977).

Perhaps we could think of prediction as an idea that unifies probability, expectancy, anticipation, background knowledge, context and insight, not only in language processes such as listening and reading, but also in other forms of cognitive behaviour ranging from everyday activities such as preparing a meal to making complex executive decisions relating to long term planning and strategy.

Thinking for a moment about prediction in terms of linguistics, the traditional view favours generative models of language processing and these experts have assigned prediction a minor role or no role at all (for example, Jackendoff, 2007). However, since Giraud and Poeppel’s paper of 2012, there has been something of a shift towards the alternative view proposed by linguists interested in functionalist models such as computational modelling.

In discussing this topic, Heuttig and Mani (2015) have proposed a third way, which is that predictive processing may give language comprehension a ‘helping hand’. In their article they discuss findings which showed that the human brain’s beta rhythm activity is associated with a feed forward processing loop (Bressler et al., 2015; Friston et al., 2015) and an increase in beta rhythm activity in the brain when sentences are (i) syntactically and, (ii) semantically correct, (compared with sentences containing syntactic or semantic violations) (Kielar et al., 2014).

It is relevant therefore to note that during the Rhythm for Reading programme, teachers have noticed that pupils are better able to predict what is coming up in their reading, making a link between predictive processing and rhythmic processing highly plausible. In future posts I will delve deeper into this interesting topic.


Bressler, S. L., & Richter, C. G. (2015). Interareal oscillatory synchronization in top-down neocortical processing. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 31C, 62–66.

Friston, K. J., Bastos, A. M., Pinotsis, D., & Litvak, V. (2015). LFP and oscillations-what do they tell us? Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 31C, 1–6.

Huettig, F. and Mani, N. (2015) Is prediction necessary to understand language? Probably not. Language, cognition and neuroscience, 31 (1) doi:10.1080/23273798.2015.1072223

Giraud, A. & Poeppel, D. (2012). Cortical oscillations and speech processing: emerging computational principles and operations. Nature Neuroscience, 15(4), 511–517.

Jackendoff, R. (2007). A parallel architecture perspective on language processing. Brain Research, 1146, 2-22.

Kielar, A., Meltzer, J., Moreno, S., Alain, C., & Bialystok, E. (2014). Oscillatory Responses to Semantic and Syntactic Violations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 1–23.

Ratner, N. and Bruner, J. (1977) Games, Social Exchange and the acquisition of language, Journal of Child Language, 5, 391-401

Saffran, J. R., Aslin, R. N., & Newport, E. L. (1996). Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants. Science, 274(5294), 1926-1928.

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