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Variations in the recruitment of syntactic knowledge contribute to SES differences in syntactic development*


Average differences in children's language abilities by socioeconomic status (SES) emerge early in development and predict academic achievement. Previous research has focused on coarse-grained outcome measures such as vocabulary size, but less is known about the extent to which SES differences exist in children's strategies for comprehension and learning. We measured children's (N = 98) comprehension of passive sentences to investigate whether SES differences are more pronounced in overall knowledge of the construction or in more specific abilities to process sentences during real-time interpretation. SES differences in comprehension emerged when syntactic revision of passives was necessary, and disappeared when the need to revise was removed. Further, syntactic revision but not knowledge of the passive best explained the association between SES and a standardized measure of syntactic development. These results demonstrate that SES differences in syntactic development may result from how children recruit syntactic information within sentences.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Kathryn A. Leech, University of Maryland – Human Development and Quantitative Methodology, 3304 Benjamin Building, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland 20742, United States. e-mail:
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This work was supported by an NSF IGERT fellowship (#0801465) to KL and a UMCP ADVANCE grant to YTH and MR. We are grateful to L. Abadie, D. Bemaman, M. Kahwaty, K. Lippitt, and others in the Language and Cognition Laboratory for help with data collection and coding, and to Jeff Lidz for commenting on an earlier version of the paper.

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Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
  • EISSN: 1469-7602
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