An investigation of the sequence of selected syntactic structures acquired by children and their relationship to cognitive abilities

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1974

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Abstract

One of the primary aims of this study was to investigate the development of mastery by school age children of five syntactic structures identified by Chomsky as being sequentially acquired. The other major purpose was to investigate some cognitive functions which may be associated with their comprehension. Thirty children from three age ranges were randomly selected from an elementary school for the study: five-year-olds, seven-year-olds, and nine-year-olds. Each child was examined first on comprehension of the five language structures, then a few days later on the Illinois Test of Psycholinguistic Abilities. The general hypotheses of this study were twofold: hypotheses one through four predicted a relationship between adjacent language structures in a specified sequence, and hypothesis five predicted a relationship between level of mastery on the structures and scores on the subtests of the Illinois Test of Psycholinguistic Abilities. Hypothesis I predicted that children who discriminate sentences like 'The girl laughed at the big boy for chasing the horse, although the little boy would have done the same' from sentences like 'The girl laughed at the big boy for chasing the horse, and the little boy would have done the same' will also comprehend sentences like 'The little boy laughed at the girl for lying down, and the big boy would have done the same.' Hypothesis II predicted that children who discriminate sentences like 'The girl laughed at the big boy for chasing the horse, although the little boy would have done the same' from sentences like 'The girl laughed at the big boy for chasing the horse, and the little boy would have done the same' will also comprehend 'The girl asks the boy what to feed the turtle.' Hypothesis III predicted that children who comprehend sentences like 'The girl asks the boy what to feed the turtle' will also comprehend those like 'The horse promises Snoopy to run.' Hypothesis IV predicted that children who comprehend sentences like 'The horse promises Snoopy to run' will also comprehend those like 'The horse is easy to bite.' Hypothesis V predicted there would be a relationship between level of mastery on the sentences and scores on the Illinois Test of Psycholinguistic Abilities subtests. Mastery of the constructions was measured by a structured test administered in an atmosphere of play, with a stimulus sentence containing one of the structures and an ambiguous situation from which to process an interpretation. Each structure was presented in five sentences, and a score of one was assigned for each interpretation in the predicted direction. Cognitive functions were assessed by administration of the Illinois Test of Psycholinguistic Abilities. Hypothesis I was tested by Pearson product momement correlation with further analysis by Fisher's t. The second, third, and fourth hypotheses were tested by product moment correlation, with further analysis by multiple regression and Fisher's t. The fifth hypothesis was tested by product moment correlation. The relationship between 'although” and 'and' was not significant, but 'although' was more difficult than 'and.' Comprehension of 'although' was related to understanding 'ask,' and 'although' was more difficult than 'ask.' Understanding 'ask' was related to comprehension of 'promise,' but 'promise' was not easier than 'ask.' Comprehending 'promise' was related to comprehending 'easy to bite,' and 'promise' was the more difficult. The results did indicate that four of the structures represent different levels of difficulty. The findings on 'ask' may have been different from Chomsky's because of somewhat different techniques for this structure. An Age relationship to each of the structures further supported the conclusion that they are developmental. That the Auditory Memory subtest was not related to the structures may indicate that rote memory was not an important factor in their comprehension.

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