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Relative Clauses in Reading Schemes: How does Children's Comprehension Align?

Previous work concerning children’s reading schemes has often focused on their vocabulary (Wan-a-rom, 2008; Stuart et al, 2003; Nation & Wang Ming-tzu, 1999), as opposed to their grammar. The aim of this proposed study is to investigate the frequency of four types of relative clause within a reading scheme, before comparing this to children’s comprehension of such clauses.
There is conflicting research into the roles of embeddedness (the position of the relative clause within the sentence) and focus (“the role that the head noun plays in the relative clause” (de Villiers et al, 1979:500)) in children’s comprehension of relative clauses. Some studies have found children understand right-branching clauses more easily (Gaer, 1969; Sicuro-Corrêa, 1995), whereas others, such as Lahey (2019) have found the opposite. Although there is less research into the effect of focus, general consensus is that subject focus is easier to comprehend than object focus (Brown, 1971; de Villiers et al, 1979). There is very little evidence of children’s comprehension when both factors are controlled simultaneously. Therefore, the four types of relative clause I aim to investigate are: subject embedded, subject focus (SS); subject embedded, object focus (SO); object embedded, subject focus (OS); and object embedded, object focus (OO).
Some children do not have a language-rich environment outside of school, and in these cases a reading scheme is their primary exposure to reading. It is therefore important that these schemes are as supportive as possible for children’s grammatical development. If children are able to comprehend relative clause types that are not particularly frequent within the reading scheme, this may suggest that the scheme could be developed to include greater grammatical complexity. Alternatively, the schemes may already be reflective of children’s comprehension abilities, which would not suggest the need for any development on these grounds.
My proposed method consists of two parts. Part one will involve the analysis of books from three adjacent levels of the reading scheme. Relative clauses will be identified and coded according to their embeddedness and focus. In part two, I will be conducting an experiment with children aged 6-7. Participants will be equally split between the three levels of the reading scheme that I analysed. They will be read a selection of sentences including the four relative clause types and asked to act these out with animal toys, such as “The cat that bit the dog jumped over the rat”. If they correctly act out the sentence, it will be assumed that they have understood it. I will consequently be able to see whether children can comprehend each relative clause type, and if there are any differences between them. This can then be compared to how frequent each relative clause type is in the corresponding reading scheme level, which will determine if the complexity of the clauses in the books is reflective of children’s comprehension of them.

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De Villiers, J., Tager Flusberg, H., Hakuta, K., & Cohen, M. 1979. Children’s Comprehension of Relative Clauses. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research. Vol 8(5). Pp.499-518.
Gaer, E. 1969. Children’s Understanding and Production of Sentences. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour. Vol 8(2). Pp289-294
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