Developmental Science

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Volume 6 Issue 5 (November 2003), Pages 449-603

Testing the abstractness of children's linguistic representations: lexical and structural priming of syntactic constructions in young children (pages 557-567)


The current studies used a priming methodology to assess the abstractness of children's early syntactic constructions. In the main study, 3‐, 4‐ and 6‐year‐old children were asked to describe a prime picture by repeating either an active or a passive sentence, and then they were left to their own devices to describe a target picture. For half the children at each age, the prime sentences they repeated had high lexical overlap with the sentence they were likely to produce for the target, whereas for the other half there was very low lexical overlap between prime and target. The main result was that 6‐year‐old children showed both lexical and structural priming for both the active transitive and passive constructions, whereas 3‐ and 4‐year‐old children showed lexical priming only. This pattern of results would seem to indicate that 6‐year‐old children have relatively abstract representations of these constructions, whereas 3‐ and 4‐year‐old children have as an integral part of their representations certain specific lexical items, especially pronouns and some grammatical morphemes. In a second study it was found that children did not need to repeat the prime out loud in order to be primed – suggesting that the priming effect observed concerns not just peripheral production mechanisms but underlying linguistic representations common to comprehension and production. These results support the view that young children develop abstract linguistic representations gradually during the preschool years.

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