Levels of Processing (F. Craik & R. Lockhart)


The levels of processing framework was presented by Craik & Lockhart (1972) as an alternative to theories of memory that postulated separate stages for sensory, working and long-term memory. According to the levels of processing framework, stimulus inform ation is processed at multiple levels simultaneously depending upon its characteristics. Furthermore, the "deeper" the processing, the more that will be remembered. For example, information that involves strong visual images or many associations with existing knowledge will be processed at a deeper level. Similarly, information that is being attended to receives more processing than other stimuli/events. The theory also supports the finding that we remember things that are meaningful to us becaus e this requires more processing than meaningless stimuli.

Processing of information at different levels is unconscious and automatic unless we attend to that level. For example, we are normally not aware of the sensory properties of stimuli, or what we have in working memory, unless we are asked to specifically identify such information. This suggests that the mechanism of attention is an interruption in processing rather than a cognitive process in its own right.

D'Agostino, O'Neill & Paivio (1977) discuss the relationship between the

dual coding theory

and the levels of processing framework. Other theories of memory related to levels of processing are

Rumelhart & N orman





The primary application of the levels of processing framework was to verbal learning settings (i.e., memorization of word lists); however, it has been applied to reading and language learning (e.g., Cermak & Craik, 1979).


Perfetti (in Cermak & Craik, 1979, p159-180) extends the levels of processing framework to language comprehension. He proposes seven levels: acoustic, phonology, syntactic, semantic, referential, thematic, and functional. The first levels are normally tra nsparent while the fourth level (semantic) is the conscious interpretation of the utterence or sentence. Processing of the last three levels depend upon context and will result in comprehension provided there is no ambiguity. Note that any level can be ma de conscious if a problem arises (e.g., a strong accent or poor handwriting).


1. The greater the processing of information during learning, the more it will be retained and remembered.

2. Processing will be automatic unless attention is focused on a particular level.


Cermak, L. & Craik, F. (1979). Levels of Processing in Human Memory. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Craik, F. & Lockhart, R. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.

D'Agostino, P. R., O'Neill, B. J., & Paivio, A. (1977). Memory for pictures and words as a function of level of processing: Depth or dual coding? Memory & Cognition, 5, 252-256.