LINGUIST List 12.1300

Fri May 11 2001

Review: Children's Lg: Narrative & Discourse

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  1. Jo Tyler, Review: Nelson et al. Children's Language Vol. 10

Message 1: Review: Nelson et al. Children's Language Vol. 10

Date: Fri, 11 May 2001 07:22:01 -0400
From: Jo Tyler <>
Subject: Review: Nelson et al. Children's Language Vol. 10

Nelson, Keith E., Ayhan Aksu-Koc, and Carolyn E.
Johnson, ed. (2001) Children's Language:
Developing Narrative and Discourse Competence,
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Jo Tyler, Center for Graduate and Professional
Studies, Mary Washington College

Developing Narrative and Discourse Competence is
the tenth volume in the Children's Language
series begun in 1978. It contains seven of the
276 papers presented at the 7th International
Congress of the International Association for the
Study of Child Language in Istanbul, Turkey in
1996. Five of the papers focus on narrative, two
focus on conversational discourse, and one cuts
across both domains. Thematically the
discussions center primarily on issues of
linguistic and cognitive development, with some
attention to development of literacy and social
skills as well. The studies also deal with a
wide variety of languages and cultures:
Australian, Canadian and American English,
Israeli Hebrew, European Portuguese, Parisian and
Canadian French, and Japanese.

In this review I will summarize and then give a
brief evaluative comment on each article
separately, and I will conclude with a summary
evaluation of the book as a whole.

The Introduction, penned by the editors, presents detailed
synopses of each article, highlighting the key
contributions of each and summarizing the
similarities and differences between them.

The synopses provide a thorough preview of the
book's contents, but they are presented in a
different order than the chapter numbers.
Chapters 1, 2, 4 and 7 are previewed together in
a section about form, function and cognitive
development. A second section of the
Introduction, on social, emotional and cognitive
processes, previews Chapters 3, 6 and 5, in that

Chapter 1, Setting the Narrative Scene: How
Children Begin to Tell a Story, by Ruth A.
Berman, presents results of research on the
development of scene-setting in children's
narratives. The data are stories told by pre-
school and school-aged children as well as
adults. Among the key findings are (1) that
linguistic elements of scene-setting become more
varied with age and (2) that personal experience
stories show more progressive development in
length and variety of scene-setting elements than
do picture book elicitations.

The study presented in this chapter is part of an
extended research program undertaken by Berman
and others on narrative development in both
Hebrew and English speakers. At times the
distinction between the current research and
earlier studies was unclear, and the data from
Hebrew and English speakers was not always
presented separately. However, a detailed and
insightful section of the article discusses the
tense-aspect system of Hebrew and how it is
deployed in narrative scene-setting, concluding
that it is not until adulthood that it is used
appropriately for backgrounding and transitioning
from orientation to action.

Chapter 2, Representation of Movement in European
Portuguese: A Study of Children's Narratives, by
Hanna Jakubowicz Batoreo and Isabel Hub Faria,
examines the developmental use of different
linguistic cues to situate participants in
narrative. The study compares the use of morpho-
lexical elements and syntactic ordering devices
by Portuguese-speaking children and adults. The
results show that although the morphosyntactic
and lexical tools of the language are acquired by
about age 5, it is not until age 10 that they
begin to be used consistently and appropriately
for framing and anchoring participants in
narrative discourse. A further finding is that
syntactic cues such as highly marked presentative
or existential sentence structures become
functional later than morpho-lexical cues.

This highly readable and well-organized chapter
not only presents a succinct summary of the study
in question, but also provides a valuable
theoretical overview. Of particular interest is
the typological comparison of European Portuguese
with other Romance languages including Brazilian
Portuguese. One complaint, however, is that line
graphs were used to display data from different
age groups that would have been more
appropriately and accurately displayed in bar
graphs or numerical tables.

Chapter 3, Why Young American English-Speaking
Children Confuse Anger and Sadness: A Study of
Grammar in Practice, by Michael Bamberg, examines
the syntactic structures and pragmatic goals in
children's accounts of anger and sadness. For
children of all ages, accounts of anger involve
the prototypical SVO structure with an agentive
'other' as subject, and with the primary goal of
assigning blame and a secondary goal of eliciting
empathy. Accounts of saddness by older children,
on the other hand, involved either 'I' or 'other'
as a nonagentive subject, with the sole motive of
eliciting empathy. For younger children,
however, accounts of sadness, tended to follow
the prototypical SVO structure associated with
anger accounts. Bamberg attributes this
"confusion" of the younger children not only to
lack of facility with the nonprototypical
nonagentive sentence structure, but more
importantly to an inability to differentiate
between the pragmatic goals of assigning blame
and eliciting empathy.

This engrosing article supplements the report of
research with a concise discussion of theoretical
views on the relationship between language,
thought and emotion. Bamberg further situates
his research findings within this theoretical
backdrop through a summary discussion of the
interaction between self-and-other as the subject
of talk and the speaker-and-audience as the
pragmatic framework of talk. Without straying
into pop psychology, Bamberg offers an original
approach to psycholinguistic research that should
contribute greatly to the field.

Chapter 4, A Crosscultural Investigation of
Australian and Israeli Parents' Narrative
Interactions with Their Children, by Gillian
Wigglesworth and Anat Stavans, is a quantative
analysis of the contributions middle-class
children and parents make to the story-telling
task. The data were obtained from recordings of
parents telling a story from a picture book to
children at ages 3, 5 and 7 in both language
groups. The findings indicated that in the
Australian dyads parents were more focused on the
story with 5 year olds and had more
conversational interaction with children at ages
3 and 7. In the Israeli dyads, however, the
proportion of story focus to conversational
interaction remained relatively stable across age
groups, at about the same level as with the
Australian 5 year olds.

Given these findings, the authors speculate that
the increased focus on the story with Australian
5 year olds is due to parents' concern to prepare
or model narrative experiences similar to those
in the school setting, suggesting that for
Israeli parents this concern begins before the
onset of schooling and continues afterwards. The
impact of schooling on both parents and children
in terms of narrative skill development is
clearly an area for empirical study rather than

Chapter 5, The Acquisition of Polite Language by
Japanese Children, by Keiko Nakamura, makes a
useful contribution to the literature on this
topic. Nakamura's data was elicited from one- to
five-year-old children primarily in role playing
activities. In contrast to earlier researchers
who concluded from spontaneous utterance data
that Japanese children have not productively
acquired different politeness forms until
reaching school age, Nakamura hypothesized that
preschool children would demonstrate appropriate
use of politeness forms in role playing
activities. This article gives ample evidence in
support of the hypothesis. Children from the age
of one year use greetings and polite expressions
appropriately. By age 3 children are using
addressee honorifics appropriately. Numerous
examples are also given of context-appropriate
use of honorific-respectful language and humble
language. The errors children made in these last
two categories involved morphological redundancy
and overextension to an inappropriate referent.
Nakamura draws the logical conclusion that
although acquisition of forms and sensitivity to
the appropriate context for use is acquired
early, they are not found in children's
spontaneous utterances since children are rarely
in natural situations that require their use
until reaching school age.

This article points out the importance of
elicitation tasks in determining stages of
acquisition. One weakness, however, is that none
of the data in Nakamura's study is quantified
here. All of the findings are stated as
generalities and tendencies supported only by a
few data examples given for each category. There
is no systematic analysis of development across
age groups, even though data was collected from
subjects over the span of one to three years.

Chapter 6, Interactional Processes in the Origins
of the Explaining Capacity, by Edy Veneziano,
presents the results of a longitudinal study of
two mother-child dyads focusing on the use of
explanations to justify one's demands,
assertions, etc. when opposed by the other. In
these French-speaking dyads, both the mother's
and the child's explanations were analyzed. The
children were under two years of age at the
beginning of the study which spanned 12 months.
The results indicate that children progress
through three stages in giving explanations: from
very sporadic protests in the earliest stage to
more frequent use of refusals and denials in the
third stage, about 6 months later. On the other
hand, from the earliest stage children readily
gave in and modified their behavior in response
to their mothers' explanations, indicating as
Veneziano states that they learned "to be
convinced before they learned to convince others"
(p. 136). The study also revealed that children
in the later stages become gradually less likely
to give in after their mothers' explanations,
suggesting that as children become more adept at
providing their own explanations, they also
become less responsive to others' explanations.

This lucid and engaging article contributes a
great deal to the understanding of children's
pragmatic development. Although only 2 pairs of
subjects were studied, a total of 591 episodes
were statistically analyzed. The data reporting
is meticulous, and the discussion of implications
is well informed by cognitive and psychological
development theory. One hopes that this research
program will be expanded to test the validity of
the findings presented here.

Chapter 7, Children's Attributions of Pragmatic
Intentions and Early Literacy, by Kenneth Reeder,
examines the hypothesis that children with better
skills in attributing pragmatic intent to
speakers have better skills in narrative and
explanatory writing tasks. Children in two age
groups (mean ages 7 and 8, respectively) were
measured and grouped according to low or high
levels of attribution skill, and the writing
samples were evaluated for overall rhetorical
quality, quantity, and structural complexity. In
general, there was a greater difference between
the writing abilities of older and younger
children who had high attribution levels than
between those who had lower attribution levels.
The author concludes that there is a "reliable
contribution of skill in the attribution of
intentional states in others to specific aspects
of writing development" (p. 156).

However, the fact that a correlation exists does
not support a claim of causation or even a
"contribution" of one variable to another. It is
just as likely that the development of writing
skill contributes to level of pragmatic
attribution. In fact, one of the major flaws of
this article is the lack of any rationale for why
children's skill in attributing intentions to
speakers should correlate with, let alone
contribute to, their writing ability.
Furthermore, the method of measuring the
children's level of attribution skill is based
heavily on the length and structural complexity
of the child's utterances, so what was really
demonstrated in this study is the not surprising
correlation between children's spoken language
skills and their writing ability.

Overall Evaluation.

One of the most intriguing contributions of this
collection is the material on how different
elicitation tasks affect the outcome of the
research. This point is particularly emphasized
in Chapters 1, 3, 5, and 7, where findings
importantly elaborate or even contradict those of
earlier studies conducted with different
elicitation tasks.

Another recurrent issue emphasized in these
articles is the effect of schooling and literacy
on children's narrative and pragmatic
development. This issue arises in the concluding
discussions in Chapters 1, 4, 5, and 7, but in
none of these articles do the authors present
empirical evidence for their conclusions about
the impact of schooling on the developmental
processes investigated.

The articles in this book are all highly
accessible and informative. It should be of
interest not only to those studying the
development of discourse skills, but also to
discourse analysts in general. Several of the
articles stand as excellent models of research
reporting in these fields, which makes them
especially appropriate for supplemental readings
in post-introductory linguistics courses.

Jo Tyler holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from the
University of Florida and is Assistant Professor
and coordinator of the graduate TESL Program at
Mary Washington College.
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