AuthorZimmer, Elly Jane
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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AbstractThis dissertation probes children's metalinguistic awareness of syntactic ambiguity (as in the sentence The man is poking the monkey with a banana, where the PP with a banana can be understood in two ways, associated with either the monkey or the poking). Several studies suggest that children do not spontaneously detect syntactic ambiguity until the second grade (e.g., Wankoff, 1983; Cairns et al., 2004). However, syntactic ambiguity detection contributes to reading comprehension skills in second and third graders (e.g., Cairns et al., 2004; Yuill, 2009). This research suggests the hypothesis that syntactic ambiguity awareness should contribute to reading development. Specifically, the theoretical model known as the Simple View of Reading posits that the main components of reading are decoding and linguistic comprehension. Syntactic ambiguity detection could contribute to linguistic comprehension because it helps a listener to overcome comprehension difficulties caused by misinterpreting an ambiguous sentence. Thus, it is important to better understand the early development of syntactic ambiguity awareness. If its connection to reading begins younger than second grade, it might be incorporated into early reading curricula and intervention strategies, which are more effective when applied earlier. This dissertation includes three manuscripts that are or will be submitted for publication. The first manuscript reports on a study that laid the foundation for the following two by testing whether 3- to 5-year-olds access both interpretations of a syntactic ambiguity using a truth value judgment task. The results showed that children do entertain both interpretations, indicating that comprehension should not be an impediment to syntactic ambiguity detection. This study is currently in revisions at First Language (Zimmer, 2016a). The second manuscript reports on a study that tested whether 4- to 7-year-olds can detect ambiguous sentences using a task that differs from those used in previous studies. My study used a picture selection task that tested for conscious awareness by having children teach a puppet why multiple pictures could match one sentence. I developed a scoring system for children's explanations that allowed for more gradient measures of early ambiguity awareness than previous research. The results showed that a small proportion of 4- to 7-year-olds are aware of syntactic ambiguity, and many others are beginning to show indications of such awareness (e.g., they select both pictures but their explanations are not yet adult-like). This manuscript is submitted to The Journal of Psycholinguistic Research (Zimmer, 2016b).The third manuscript reports on a study that tested whether 6- to 7-year-olds can learn syntactic ambiguity detection and whether the learning correlates with improvement at reading readiness measures. Participants were divided into two groups: an ambiguity group that did four weeks of games to teach syntactic ambiguity detection, and a control group that did four weeks of math games. I found that children in the ambiguity group improved more at ambiguity detection and at reading readiness tests than those in the control group. This showed that syntactic ambiguity detection is a learnable skill for children as young as 6 and suggests that its connection to reading is in place that young as well. Thus, this skill could be a valuable addition to early reading curricula and intervention strategies. This manuscript will be submitted to Applied Psycholinguistics (Zimmer, 2016c).
Degree ProgramGraduate College