Young children's developing sensitivity to discourse continuity as a cue to reference

Abstract

Children can learn new words in pedagogical contexts, but they may also infer reference using a variety of other information sources. Here we investigate children’s sensitivity to the place- ment of novel labels within discourse structure as a possible mechanism for word learning. In Experiment 1, children ages 2–6 years participated in word learning trials featuring two novel items and one novel label. In critical trials, the labels were embedded between two sentences about the same item, whereas in a control condition, the label was introduced after two sentences about the item. Children of all ages were more likely to attribute the label to the toy whose descriptions brack- eted the embedded label, and response strength increased with age. Children across all ages responded at chance in the control condition. In Experiment 2, adults showed the same patterns of responses as children in both critical and control conditions. Together, these results suggest that discourse continuity is a reliable cue to reference for both children and adults.


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