Referential context and executive functioning influence children's resolution of syntactic ambiguity

Zhenghan Qi, Jessica Love, Cynthia Fisher, Sarah Brown-Schmidt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Classic studies reveal two striking differences between preschoolers and adults in online sentence comprehension. Adults (a) recruit referential context cues to guide syntactic parsing, interpreting an ambiguous phrase as a modifier if a modifier is needed to single out the intended referent among multiple options, and (b) use late-arriving information to recover from misinterpretation. Five-year-olds fail on both counts, appearing insensitive to the referential context and often failing to recover from parsing errors (Trueswell, Sekerina, Hill, & Logrip, 1999). But other findings suggest that 5-year-olds show delayed rather than absent sensitivity to the referential context, and that individual differences in executive functioning predict children's ability to recover from garden-path errors. In 2 experiments, we built on these findings, focusing on whether children recruit referential-context cues if given time to do so. Children heard temporarily ambiguous instructions (e.g., Put the frog on the pond into the tent), while we monitored their eye-gaze and actions. We used a slow speech rate, and manipulated referential context between rather than within subjects, to give children time to bring referential context cues into play. Across experiments, eye-movement and action analyses revealed emerging sensitivity to the referential context. Moreover, error rates and eye-movement patterns indicating failures to revise were predicted by individual differences in executive function (scores in Simon Says and Flanker tasks). These data suggest that children, like adults, use referential context information in syntactic processing under some circumstances; the findings are also consistent with a role for domain-general executive function in resolution of syntactic ambiguity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1922-1947
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2020


  • Executive function
  • Eye movements
  • Kindergarten-path effect
  • Referential context
  • Visual world paradigm

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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