Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-xfwgj Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-18T00:48:32.888Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

The emergence of pragmatic comprehension: a study of children's understanding of sentence-structure cues to given/new information*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 September 2008

Rhea Paul
Yale University


Third- and fifth-grade children, who had passed pretests of comprehension for words and sentence types used in the experiment, were tested on their ability to assign given/new roles in active, passive and cleft sentences controlled for stress. The experimental task involved a best-fit judgement that required the child to decide which one of two context sentences was the first part of a story continued by the target sentence. There was a significant difference in response to passive and cleft sentences, as opposed to actives. Despite a strong statistical tendency to perform correctly on passives and clefts, there were a substantial number of subjects who performed near chance in all sentence conditions. Five individual patterns of response to the task are identified. Strategies used by subjects in responding to the task, and the implications of the results for functionalist theories of language acquisition are discussed.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1985

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Baldie, B. (1976). The acquisition of the passive voice. JChLang 3. 331–48.Google Scholar
Bates, E. (1974). The acquisition of pragmatic competence. JChLang 1. 277–81.Google Scholar
Bates, E. & MacWhinney, B. (1979). A functionalist approach to the acquisition of grammar. In Ochs, E. & Schieffelin, B. (eds), Developmental pragmatics. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
Bever, T. (1970). The cognitive basis for linguistic structure. In Hayes, J. (ed.), Cognition and the development of language. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
Bock, K. (1977). The effect of pragmatic presupposition on syntactic structure in question answering. JVLVB 16. 723–34.Google Scholar
Bridges, A. (1980). SVO comprehension strategies revisited: the evidence of individual patterns of response. JChLang 7. 89104.Google Scholar
Carpenter, P. & Just, M. (1977). Integrative processes in comprehension. In LaBerge, D. & Samuels, S. (eds), Perception and comprehension. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
Chafe, W. (1972). Discourse structure and human knowledge. In Carroll, J. & Freedle, R. (eds), Language comprehension and the acquisition of knowledge. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
Chapman, R. (1978). Comprehension strategies in children. In Kavanagh, J. & Strange, W. (eds), Language and speech in the laboratory, school and clinic. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T.Google Scholar
Chapman, R. & Miller, J. (1975). Word order in early two and three word utterances: does production precede comprehension? JSHR 18. 355–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chomsky, C. (1972). Stages in language development and reading exposure. HarvEducRev 42. 133.Google Scholar
Curtiss, S. (1981). Dissociations between language and cognition: cases and implications. JAutDevelDis 11. 1530.Google ScholarPubMed
de Villiers, J. (1981). Later language development. Paper presented at the Brown University Language Awareness Conference,Providence, R.I.Google Scholar
de Villiers, J. & de Villiers, P. (1973). Development of the use of word order incomprehension. JPsycholingRes 2. 331–41.Google Scholar
de Villiers, J. (1974). Competence and performance in child language: are children competent to judge? JChLang 1. 1122.Google Scholar
de Villiers, P. (1974). Imagery and theme in recall of connected discourse. JExpPsychol 130. 263–8.Google Scholar
Firbas, J. (1966). On defining the theme in functional sentence analysis. In Vachek, J. (ed.), Traveaux linguistiques de Prague. Prague: Academia.Google Scholar
Greenfield, P. (1978). Informativeness, presupposition, and semantic choice in single-word utterances. In Waterson, N. & Snow, C. (eds), The development of communication. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
Halliday, M. (1967). Notes on transitivity and theme in English. Part 2. JL 3. 177274.Google Scholar
Hayes, W. (1973). Statistics for the social sciences. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston.Google Scholar
Hornby, P. (1971). Surface structure and the topic–comment distinction: a developmental study. ChDev 42. 1975–88.Google Scholar
Hornby, P. (1973). Intonation and syntactic structure in the development of presupposition. Paper presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Philadelphia.Google Scholar
Hornby, P. (1974). Surface structure and presupposition. JVLVB 13. 538–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hornby, P. & Hass, W. (1970). Use of contrastive stress by pre-school children. JSHR 13. 395–9.Google Scholar
Hupet, M. & LeBouedec, B. (1975). Definiteness and voice in the interpretation of active and passive sentences. QJExpPsychol 27. 323–30.Google Scholar
Klenbort, I. & Anisfeld, M. (1974). Markedness and perspective in the interpretation of active and passive voice. QJPsychol 26. 189–95.Google Scholar
Lempert, H. & Kinsbourne, M. (1978). Children's comprehension of word order: a developmental investigation. ChDev 49. 1235–8.Google Scholar
Loban, W. (1963). The language of elementary school children. Research Report No. 1. Champaign, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English.Google Scholar
MacWhinney, B. (1977). Starting points. Lg 53. 152–68.Google Scholar
MacWhinney, B. & Bates, E. (1978). Sentential devices for conveying givenness and newness: a cross-cultural developmental study. JVLVB 17. 539–58.Google Scholar
MacWhinney, B. & Price, D. (1980). The development of the comprehension to topiccomment marking. In Ingram, D., Peng, F. & Dale, P. (eds), Proceedings of the first international congress for the study of child language. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America.Google Scholar
Maratsos, M. (1974). Children who get worse at understanding the passive: a replication of Bever. JPsycholingRes 3. 6574.Google Scholar
Mathesius, V. (1975). A functional analysis of present day English on a general linguistic basis. Paris.Google Scholar
Most, R. & Saltz, E. (1979). Information structure in sentences: New Information. L & S 22. 8995.Google Scholar
Scheffé, H. (1953). A method for judging all contrasts in the analysis of variance. Biometrika 40. 87104.Google Scholar
Strickland, R. (1962). Language of elementary school children: its relationship to the quality of reading of selected materials. Bulletin of the School of Education (Indiana University) 38. 4.Google Scholar
Strohner, H. & Nelson, K. (1974). The young child's development of sentence comprehension: influence on event probability, nonverbal context and syntactic form. ChDev 45. 567–76.Google Scholar
Tager-Flusberg, H. (1981). On the nature of linguistic functioning in early infantile autism. JAutDevelDis 11. 4556.Google Scholar
Tannenbaum, P. & Williams, F. (1968). Generation of active and passive sentences as a function of subject or object focus. JVLVB 7. 246–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Warner, W., Meeker, M. & Eells, K. (1968). Social class in America. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
Weiman, L. (1976). Stress patterns in early child language. JChLang 3. 283–6.Google Scholar
Wepman, J. & Hass, W. (1969). A spoken word count (children ages 5, 6 and 7). Chicago: Language Research Associates.Google Scholar
Yekovich, F., Walker, C. & Blackman, H. (1979). The role of pre-supposed and focal information in integrating sentences. JfVLVB 18. 535–48.Google Scholar