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Review of  Methods for Assessing Children's Syntax

Reviewer: Laura Wagner
Book Title: Methods for Assessing Children's Syntax
Book Author: Helen Smith Cairns Dana I. McDaniel Cecile McKee
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 8.523

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The following review was written by Laura Wagner (
of the University of Pennsylvania.

McDaniel, Dana, Cecile McKee and Helen Smith Cairns (1996) Methods for
Assessing Children's Syntax. MIT Press: Cambridge. 390 pages, $45.00.

In principle, the study of first language acquisition is at the heart of
modern (post-Chomsky) linguistics: the poverty of the stimulus arguments
and the innateness hypothesis are central motivations for linguistic
theory. In practice, however, serious syntactic studies have by and large
ignored the child data. The last 10 years or so, however, have seen
increasing attention being paid to children's syntactic development. This
has been fueled partly by Chomsky's Principles and Parameters framework
which provided a relatively concrete way to view acquisition (i.e., as
parameter setting) and also by the advent of many on-line corpora of
children's data which have aided hypothesis formation and testing.
This book, Methods for Assessing Children's Syntax, is a collection
of essays on how to investigate children's syntactic competence. As the
editors of the book note in the preface, the book has two main aims.
First, the book serves as an introductory how-to guide to a variety of
empirical techniques for examining children's syntactic knowledge. In this
capacity, the book is a great reference for those interested in conducting
research in this area. Second, it serves as a way to evaluate the research
in this area. The results of this (or any) field require an understanding
of the methods which produce them. Linguists in general are not that
familiar with the statistical and design assumptions that underlie
experimental research; this book provides the background necessary to
evaluate some experimental methods commonly used.
Each of the 14 chapters of the book is written by a different
author(s). The chapters are organized into sections: the first 4 center on
children's production, the next 5 on children's comprehension, the next 2
on eliciting grammaticality judgments from children, and the final 3 on
general issues concerning research on children's syntactic acquisition.
There is not enough space here to go through each chapter in detail, but I
have included all the authors and topics below as part of the descriptions
of the sections.

The first section of the book addresses children's production data. The
chapters in this section cover the following topics: collecting natural
speech from children (Katherine Demuth), analyzing naturally occurring
speech (Karin Stromswald), the elicited imitation technique (Barbara Lust,
Suzanne Flynn, and Claire Foley) and the elicited production technique
(Rosalind Thornton). The highlight of this section is Stromswald's chapter
on analyzing naturally occurring speech. Corpus searches have come to form
the backbone of much acquisition of syntax research, no doubt because there
is such easy access to child speech on-line, as in the CHILDES data base.
Stromswald provides a wonderful methods section for doing such work. She
is especially good at discussing how to make inferences from the data.
Before an occurrence (or non-occurrence) of a particular form can be used
to argue for (or against) a particular linguistic account, other
possibilities, such as sampling error, pragmatic, cognitive and processing
considerations, and other consistent linguistic accounts must be ruled out;
Stromswald shows how to use appropriate comparison classes and statistical
measures to make solid argument with this kind of data.
The elicited imitation and production techniques discussed in this
section are designed to get around a problem in the naturally occurring
data: kids just don't say certain things. The purpose of these techniques
is to create a situation which makes children say the relevant forms or
syntactic constructions and then see how they perform. There appears to be
some rivalry between these two techniques (imitation vs. production) but
both seem able to provide interesting results.

The second section of the book covers children's comprehension data. The
topics in this section are: the preferential looking paradigm (Kathy
Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnik Golinkoff), the picture selection task
(LouAnn Gerken and Michele E. Shady), the act-out task (Helen Goodluck), a
questions after stories technique (Jill de Villiers and Thomas Roeper), and
the use of on-line methods (Cecile McKee). Children's production of
language often lags far behind their comprehension abilities; comprehension
tasks can often find linguistic competence with younger children than
production based studies. The picture selection task and the act-out task
are two of the most widely used experimental techniques and both receive
nice treatments here. These tasks are popular because they can be used to
test a variety of things, are cheap to administer, and seem to work well
with children. The preferential looking paradigm is quite difficult and
expensive to administer, but seems to be the best (perhaps only) option
available for testing comprehension in children younger than 2 years old.
The de Villiers and Roeper chapter covers the stories and questions
paradigm that they have been working with but this chapter is especially
interesting for the experimental design points it makes. In particular,
their discussion of how, and why, to control experimental stimuli is very
helpful. The on-line methods discussed in McKee's chapter are not widely
in use yet, but the idea of bringing in techniques from the sentence
processing subfield (e.g. cross-modal naming) is exciting and may well be
the wave of the future.

The third section of the book covers (grammaticality) judgment data. The
topics in this section are: the truth value judgment task (Peter Gordon)
and judgment elicitation (Dana McDaniel and Helen Smith Cairns). The
traditional form of data in linguistic studies is grammaticality judgments
and these two chapters address means of getting such information out of
children in more (McDaniel and Cairns) and less (Gordon) direct ways.

The final section of the book covers more general issues of acquisition of
syntax work. The topics in this section are: crosslinguistic investigation
(Celia Jakubowicz), investigation in clinical settings (Laurence
B. Leonard) and a general methods section (Jennifer Ryan Hsu and Louis
Michael Hsu). These chapters are apparently intended to discuss more
general issues that transcend the use of any particular experimental
technique. Leonard's chapter on working with clinical populations
(Specific Language Impaired (SLI) children, mostly) raises some important
considerations (e.g., what are the proper kinds of control subjects to use
with SLI children) but the remaining two chapters don't seem to know quite
what to cover. This is no great loss with respect to the general methods
section as several of the more task-specific chapters discuss general
methods quite well (cf. in particular the Stromswald and de Villiers &
Roeper chapters) but the absence of more practical advice on doing
crosslinguistic experimental research is unfortunate.

Since the chapters in the book are written by different authors, their
quality both in form and content varies considerably. The best parts are
the chapters on the individual experimental techniques. These chapters are
written by the people who have been developing these techniques over the
past years and at times they read like war stories full of hard-won truths:
for example, Goodluck's advice to use props that stand up easily in the
act-out task; Leonard's warning that in Italy, the term equivalent to SLI
is reserved for only the most severe cases; and Demuth's advice to be
flexible when recording naturally occurring speech, as "noise factors such
as ... cooking noises, loud music from next door, or ten preschoolers at a
birthday party, can obliterate the speech of the target child" (p. 11).
For people working with these techniques, these chapters provide a valuable
reference guide.
One striking fact about most of the techniques discussed in the
book is how few people use each one. Although the chapters each provide
references to work that has used the particular technique under discussion,
very few chapters include many references to work not done by one of the
chapter's authors (notable exceptions are the chapters on using naturally
occurring data, the picture selection task and the act-out task). This can
give one the feeling that the acquisition of syntax field is divided into
camps which each camp devoted to a particular paradigm. In some cases,
this seems to amount to researchers limiting themselves to the kinds of
questions and ages of children that their technique is best suited for. In
other cases, researchers try to push the boundaries of applicability for
their preferred technique.
At first, I took this to be a negative thing, indicating a
balkanization of an already small sub-field of linguistics. On further
reflection, however, I think that this is a necessary stage in the
development of the field. Moreover, this book in particular is an
important part of moving beyond this stage. The chapters in this book
represent a variety of solutions to the problem of merging experimental
techniques and linguistic theory. But these solutions are only relatively
recently arrived at (to the extent that they are not, as with the
exceptions noted above, they are more widely used already). This book
serves to bring these methods to wider attention, so that they can be
evaluated and refined on the one hand, but also so that they will be used
by more researchers. This book is an important step towards making these
individual techniques less lab-particular and part of the common currency
of research.

This review was written by Laura Wagner. She is a graduate student
at the University of Pennsylvania working on a Ph.D. in Linguistics and an
MA in Psychology. Her dissertation is on the acquisition of aspect.