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Individual Differences in Syntactic Ability and Construction Learning: An Exploration of the Relationship

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Nick Riches, Laura Jackson



This is the authors' accepted manuscript of an article that has been published in its final definitive form by Wiley-Blackwell, 2018.

For re-use rights please refer to the publisher's terms and conditions.


Syntactic abilities vary across individuals. Weak syntax is typically ascribed to limited competence (knowledge) or poor performance (processing). However, with many questioning this dichotomy, alternative explanations should be considered. Arguments related to language exposure are insufficient because language-impaired children often have good input. An alternative account, the learning hypothesis, assumes that individual variation in syntactic abilities reflects variation in construction learning ability. To evaluate this claim, we tested construction learning in 49 five-year-old English-speaking children, targeting two complex constructions rarely attested in child-directed speech, though with no control of prior exposure. Results revealed that there was substantial variation in the children’s construction learning ability, which was strongly associated with their performance on static standardized language assessments (Test of Reception of Grammar, Renfrew Action Picture Task), and that nonadjacent open slots were problematic. While our findings supported the learning hypothesis, further research should determine causes of individual variation in syntactic ability.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Riches NG, Jackson L

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Language Learning

Year: 2018

Volume: 68

Issue: 4

Pages: 973-1000

Print publication date: 01/12/2018

Online publication date: 26/07/2018

Acceptance date: 09/04/2018

Date deposited: 24/07/2018

ISSN (print): 0023-8333

ISSN (electronic): 1467-9922

Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell


DOI: 10.1111/lang.12307


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