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Young children’s comprehension of comparative adjectives: problems of experimental design and interpretation Barty, Naomi

Abstract

Previous investigations have shown that children between the ages of three and five years give consistently correct responses to requests for one of a pair of quantities which has more elements and incorrect responses to requests for the one containing less. On such a basis it has been hypothesized that the word more is properly understood before the word less and, at some point in the acquisition of these terms, less is understood to have the meaning of more. However, such a response bias is not demonstrable in all of the studies which have required children to deal with the terms more and less. As a consequence, the various experimental methodologies are examined for differences which may have accounted for the disparity of results, i.e., for the presence or absence of the response bias described. The present study investigates the performance of thirty children between the ages of 2; 6 and 4;6 on comparisons which involve the terms more/less and longer/shorter. Two types of comparison were made: (1) the choice of one stimulus in response to the words more and less and longer and shorter, and (2) the choice of one of the terms in the comparison of one stimulus with a given standard. Very few of the children tested demonstrated a response bias in favour of the positive terms, more and longer, and their scores on the comprehension of more and less were found to be highly dependent on the design of the task. The 'Semantic Feature Hypothesis' proposed by E. Clark (1973) suggests that the confusion of polar opposites (i.e., opposing comparative adjectives along the same dimension) is part of a more general principle of semantic development and that all children go through a stage in which the same meaning is attributed to more and less, longer and shorter. The present findings, on the other hand, reveal that almost all the children tested give either consistently correct responses to both terms or inconsistent responses, that children rarely respond consistently incorrectly to either member of the pairs, and that when they do, their performance on a production task indicates either comprehension of both words or non-comprehension of both, but does not support the suggestion that the two words are treated as synonyms. The inadequacy of the tasks used as a measure of comprehension of comparative adjectives constitutes a major difficulty for the 'Semantic Feature Hypothesis', insofar as its formulation was dependent on the assumption that the performance of children in such situations was a valid indication of their understanding of the words in question. The results of the present investigation suggest that such a claim is untenable and that careful control of experimental design is particularly important in the adequate assessment of cognitive-linguistic capabilities.

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