Investigating relative clauses in children with specific language impairment

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Frizelle, Pauline
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University College Cork
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Background: It is well documented that children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) experience significant grammatical deficits. While much of the focus in the past has been on their morphosyntactic difficulties, less is known about their acquisition of complex syntactic structures such as relative clauses. The role of memory in language performance has also become increasingly prominent in the literature. Aims: This study aims to investigate the control of an important complex syntactic structure, the relative clause, by school age children with SLI in Ireland, using a newly devised sentence recall task. It also aims to explore the role of verbal and short-termworking memory in the performance of children with SLI on the sentence recall task, using a standardized battery of tests based on Baddeley’s model of working memory. Methods and Procedures: Thirty two children with SLI, thirty two age matched typically developing children (AM-TD) between the ages of 6 and 7,11 years and twenty younger typically developing (YTD) children between 4,7 and 5 years, completed the task. The sentence recall (SR) task included 52 complex sentences and 17 fillers. It included relative clauses that are used in natural discourse and that reflect a developmental hierarchy. The relative clauses were also controlled for length and varied in syntactic complexity, representing the full range of syntactic roles. There were seven different relative clause types attached to either the predicate nominal of a copular clause (Pn), or to the direct object of a transitive clause (Do). Responses were recorded, transcribed and entered into a database for analysis. TheWorkingMemory Test Battery for children (WMTB-C—Pickering & Gathercole, 2001) was administered in order to explore the role of short-term memory and working memory on the children’s performance on the SR task. Outcomes and Results: The children with SLI showed significantly greater difficulty than the AM-TD group and the YTD group. With the exception of the genitive subject clauses, the children with SLI scored significantly higher on all sentences containing a Pn main clause than those containing a transitive main clause. Analysis of error types revealed the frequent production of a different type of relative clause than that presented in the task—with a strong word order preference in the NVN direction indicated for the children with SLI. The SR performance for the children with SLI was most highly correlated with expressive language skills and digit recall. Conclusions and Implications: Children with SLI have significantly greater difficulty with relative clauses than YTD children who are on average two years younger—relative clauses are a delay within a delay. Unlike the YTD children they show a tendency to simplify relative clauses in the noun verb noun (NVN) direction. They show a developmental hierarchy in their production of relative clause constructions and are highly influenced by the frequency distribution of the relative clauses in the ambient language.
Specific language impairment , Children
Frizelle, P. 2011. Investigating relative clauses in children with specific language impairment. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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