Journal of Child Language


The role of working memory and contextual constraints in children's processing of relative clauses*


a1 Department of Psychology, Sociology & Politics, Sheffield Hallam University

a2 Department of Psychology, University of York


An auditory sentence comprehension task investigated the extent to which the integration of contextual and structural cues was mediated by verbal memory span with 32 English-speaking six- to eight-year-old children. Spoken relative clause sentences were accompanied by visual context pictures which fully (depicting the actions described within the relative clause) or partially (depicting several referents) met the pragmatic assumptions of relativization. Comprehension of the main and relative clauses of centre-embedded and right-branching structures was compared for each context. Pragmatically appropriate contexts exerted a positive effect on relative clause comprehension, but children with higher memory spans demonstrated a further benefit for main clauses. Comprehension for centre-embedded main clauses was found to be very poor, independently of either context or memory span. The results suggest that children have access to adult-like linguistic processing mechanisms, and that sensitivity to extralinguistic cues is evident in young children and develops as cognitive capacity increases.

(Received July 08 2008)

(Revised March 16 2010)

(Accepted May 11 2010)

(Online publication November 02 2010)


c1 Address for correspondence: Dr Anna R. Weighall, Department of Psychology, Sociology & Politics, Faculty of Development and Society, Sheffield Hallam University, Collegiate Crescent Campus, Sheffield S10 2BP, UK. tel:+44 114 225 5563; fax:+44 114 225 2430; e-mail:


[*] This research was supported by a BBSRC studentship awarded to Anna Weighall while at the University of York. Andrew Thompson drew the pictures used in the experiment, and in . We thank the children who participated in the study and their primary school for their involvement, and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments.