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The comprehension of metaphor by preschool children*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 February 2009

Barbara Zurer Pearson*
University of Miami
Department of English, University of Miami, Box 248145, Coral Gables, FL 33124, USA.


Comprehension of metaphor in preschoolers was studied through an elicited repetition task. Subjects were 52 children aged 3;0 to 5;2. Repetition performance on metaphors was compared to repetitions of semantically well-formed literal sentences as well as semantically anomalous sentences, all matched for length, vocabulary and sentence structure. Accuracy on literal and metaphoric stimuli was comparable, and both were significantly better than performance on anomalous sentences. There were no effects for age or sex. It was shown that the metaphors were not semantically anomalous to the children and that they were processed on a par with literal language. The argument is advanced from a review of the literature that imitation implicates understanding of the material imitated. If metaphor is thus shown to emerge early in the child's linguistic repertory, figurative language, it may be argued, occupies a more central position in linguistic theory than it has been accorded.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1990

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This research was supported by grants from the US Department of Education National Graduate Fellows Program and from the National Council of Teachers of English. I wish to thank Kim Oller and Virginia Gathercole for their valuable suggestions and encouragement.


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