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How children aged 2;6 tailor verbal expressions to interlocutor informational needs*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2015

School of Psychology, University of Kent, UK
School of Psychology, University of Kent, UK
School of Psychology, University of Kent, UK
School of Psychology, University of Kent, UK
School of Psychology, University of Kent, UK
Address for correspondence: Kirsten Abbot-Smith, School of Psychology, University of Kent, Keynes College, Canterbury CT2 7NP, UK. e-mail:


Although preschoolers are pervasively underinformative in their actual usage of verbal reference, a number of studies have shown that they nonetheless demonstrate sensitivity to listener informational needs, at least when environmental cues to this are obvious. We investigated two issues. The first concerned the types of visual cues to interlocutor informational needs which children aged 2;6 can process whilst producing complex referring expressions. The second was whether performance in experimental tasks related to naturalistic conversational proficiency. We found that 2;6-year-olds used fewer complex expressions when the objects were dissimilar compared to highly similar objects, indicating that they tailor their verbal expressions to the informational needs of another person, even when the cue to the informational need is relatively opaque. We also found a correlation between conversational skills as rated by the parents and the degree to which 2;6-year-olds could learn from feedback to produce complex referring expressions.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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Many thanks to Carly Rother and Louise Schwartz for collecting the data, to the parents and children of the Kent Child Development Unit for giving up their time, and to Bernice Anum for coding reliabilities and LUI data entry. This study was funded by the School of Psychology, University of Kent, UK.



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