Verb Variability and Overlap: Priming Effects on Children's Morphosyntactic Learning

Windi Caye Krok, Purdue University


The purpose of the current study was to examine short- and long-term input effects on grammatical morpheme learning in typically developing children who have inconsistent tense/agreement morpheme production. The study was specifically designed to examine how verb variability and verb overlap in a morphosyntactic priming task affect children’s short- and long-term learning and generalization of auxiliary is production. Forty typically developing 2-3-year-old native English-speaking children who demonstrated inconsistent auxiliary is production in baseline testing were primed with 24 present progressive auxiliary is sentences. Half of the children heard auxiliary is in conjunction with 24 unique verbs during the priming set (high variability). The other half heard auxiliary is in conjunction with only six verbs, repeated four times each (low variability). Additionally, half of the children always heard prime-target pairs with overlapping verbs (lexical boost), while the other half always heard prime-target pairs with non-overlapping verbs (no lexical boost). To assess learning and generalization of the targeted structure to untrained verbs, all children repeated the baseline probe items 5 minutes and 24 hours after the priming task. Although there were no group differences in the priming task itself, only the children in the high variability group demonstrated strong short-term priming effects compared to baseline testing. Children in the high variability group also showed increased auxiliary is production compared to baseline 5 minutes and 24 hours after the priming task, suggesting long-term learning and generalization of the primed structure. Children in the low variability group never showed significant increases in auxiliary is production and fell significantly below the high variability group in the 24-hour post-test. None of the groups generalized learning of singular auxiliary is to plural auxiliary are in post-test probes. Verb overlap did not boost priming effects during the priming task or in post-test probes. The children in this study did not benefit from a lexical boost effect. The results of this study suggest that typically developing children do indeed make use of lexical variability in their linguistic input to help them extract and generalize abstract grammatical rules. They can do this quite quickly, with relatively stable, robust learning occurring after a single optimally variable input session. With reduced variability, though, learning does not occur, even in the short-term. There is also no evidence of learning effects resulting from lexical overlap between children’s input and their targeted output. These results support theories that suggest that children extract regularities from their input to gradually construct abstract representations of grammatical structures. This research also serves as a foundation for future work examining the role input plays in the grammatical learning of children with language impairments who are in a similar, but extended period of inconsistency.




Leonard, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Language arts|Speech therapy

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