How do children learn about different types of verbs?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    Children learn languages easily, mostly without explicitly being taught any of their rules. For example, previous research has shown that children have some awareness of different types of verbs and when they can or cannot be used in sentences. Some types of verbs can be used in what is known as a “resultative construction”, where the verb is followed by a phrase indicating the result of the action (e.g. “The snowman melted into a puddle”). However, some verbs cannot be used in this way (e.g. “The boy painted red”) without including a noun immediately after the verb (e.g. “The boy painted the barn red”). We are interested in exploring children’s understanding of different types of verbs and resultative constructions.

    In this study, children (3 – 6 years old) will interact with a puppet that says a sentence to describe an action. Then, children will be asked to determine whether the puppet’s sentence sounded “okay” or “silly” and reward them with a coin or give them an “X” accordingly. The puppet’s statements will be formed in different ways to see how children analyze the sentence structure and words in each sentence. For example, children might hear different verbs used in the sentences, or hear different types of resultative constructions. The puppet might say sentences like, “The robot broke into pieces”, or, “The robot danced dizzy”.

    We predict children’s understanding of verb types and sentence structure may be different from that of adults, and that this may change with age. This research will help us better understand how children’s language skills develop and how they may communicate with others.

    This research is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by the Language Acquisition Lab at MIT

        » Language Acquisition Lab at MIT

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Animal Charades

    In the Children’s Gallery of the Discovery Center, find one of the animal puppets, masks, or costumes. Together with your child, come up with a list of the activities your animal might do, paying attention to the verbs you and your child use (e.g. build a home, feed your young, hide from predators, search for food). Then, pretend to do some of the activities, and ask your child to narrate or guess what you are doing.

    How does your child use the verbs you identified together? When s/he describes what your animal is doing, does s/he use a similar sentence structure that you would use? Are some verbs more difficult for your child to use in a sentence than others?

    Activities to Try at Home

    Silly Stories

    While reading a storybook with your child, note the different types of verbs used, as well as the sentence structures they appear in. Try switching out some of the verbs in the sentences of the story for different verbs. For example, instead of “I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down!”, try substituting verbs like dance, or smell. Does your child recognize that the verb you have substituted in the sentence does not belong?

    Ask your child to try making some “silly sentences”! Read a sentence together (e.g. “The farmer washed the pig clean”) and identify the verb (washed) that your child can change. Does s/he replace that action with another verb? A different part of speech (e.g. noun, adjective)? If your child replaces the action with another verb, does s/he adjust the sentence structure to make sense with the new verb?

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