Monday 2 April 2012

Young children’s question answering

Children start learning to answer questions at a very young age

Young children answer many questions every day but at what age do they learn to provide the appropriate information required by the question when they answer? Researchers Dorothé Salomo, Elena Lieven and Michael Tomasello set out to investigate this under-researched topic. By ‘appropriate information’ the authors mean whether children answer in an adult-like way by responding with the requested information, no more and no less. For example, in a question such as ‘Who/what is chasing the cat?’ we already have the given information that someone/something is chasing the cat so there is no need to repeat that part of the question; the appropriate answer would then simply be to identify who or what is doing the chasing, e.g. ‘The dog’.

In their study, the researchers asked three types of questions. The first (argument-focus question) is the type as in the above example, where the question itself tells us that something is chasing the cat and the answer needs to identify WHAT that something is i.e. the dog. The answer requires a single piece of information. Taking the same example we might want to ask ‘What is the dog doing?’ This is the second type of question (predicate-focus question) in which we already get the information that the dog is doing something and the appropriate answer would be to identify WHAT the dog is doing and, in this case, to WHOM i.e. chasing the cat. The answer thus requires two pieces of information. Note that this type of question might also only require a single piece of information e.g. Q: ‘What is the dog doing?’ A: ‘barking’.  The researchers tested for both sub-types. In the third type of question (sentence-focus question) the question itself offers no specific information about the event e.g. ‘What is happening?’ and so the answer requires the WHOLE EVENT to be expressed, as in ‘The dog is barking’ (two pieces of information) or ‘The dog is chasing the cat’ (three pieces of information).

In this experimental study, young monolingual German children at different ages (18 x 2-year-olds, 18 x 3-year-olds and 18 x 4-year-olds) were presented with all three types of questions in order to investigate the development of their ability to give appropriate answers based on the given and requested information in the question.  In the first phase, the children watched video clips of eighteen different scenes e.g. a cow jumping; a monkey waving; a pig pushing a dog; a crocodile biting a mouse. During this phase, the children also heard a soundtrack, which introduced the child to the needed vocabulary, by labeling the character and the action. In the second phase, the child watched the video clips again but had no soundtrack. During this phase, they were asked the various questions. The children’s answers were considered appropriate if the required number of pieces of information were mentioned, regardless of how they structured their answers.

The analysis was of course more fine-grained than space allows for here but generally the results showed that the 4-year-olds almost always gave the appropriate answer. Children in the two younger age groups gave more appropriate answers when the question only required one element than when they required multiple elements. This would seem unsurprising, since one-word utterances are easier to produce than multiword utterances, but we know that young children can and do produce multiword utterances and so the researchers suggest that it is more likely to be the children’s underdeveloped pragmatic skills which cause the difficulties. In other words, children have to learn to process information that is not contained in the question. Hence, the questions which required the whole event to be described (where the question contained no given information) were found to be the most difficult by the children, followed by those questions where multiple elements were missing, with the easiest being those where only one element was missing.

A further line of reasoning that the researchers pursued was that young children may be more familiar with questions that require one-element responses than with those that require more. In other words, perhaps caretakers of young children adapt their speech so that they only ask questions that can be answered simply. In order to test this possibility, the researchers analysed four corpora for four children who had been recorded with their mothers during daily activities in their home. Over 11,000 questions were analysed and the researchers found that young children were only asked to confirm or disconfirm a proposition, that is they were not asked for any additional lexical information, in around two-thirds of the questions e.g. Q: ‘do you want some juice?’ A: ‘yes/no’. The next most frequently asked question types (around 15%) were those that asked for a single lexical item in the answer, the ‘WHAT is chasing the cat?’ type question above. They found that the young children were rarely exposed to questions that required more than one lexical item in their answer and therefore they had little opportunity to practice with them.

The researchers conclude by drawing attention to the fact that younger children struggle with multi-element questions for two reasons: the first involves their lack of pragmatic skill in identifying the specific elements of information needed and the second is their relative lack of experience with questions involving this requirement. Nevertheless, this study shows that even children as young as two years old are good at identifying given and new or needed information and that by the age of four, they are able to give adult-appropriate type answers.
Salomo, D., Lieven, E. and Tomasello, M. (2012). Children’s ability to answer different types of questions. Journal of Child Language 1-23.
 doi: 10.1017/S0305000912000050

This summary was written by Sue Fox

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