Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Enhancing Preschoolers' Understanding of Ambiguity in Communication: A Training Study on Misunderstandings

Academic journal article Merrill-Palmer Quarterly

Enhancing Preschoolers' Understanding of Ambiguity in Communication: A Training Study on Misunderstandings

Article excerpt

Understanding knowledge acquisition involves a comprehension of the relationship between a person's access to relevant information and that person's subsequent knowledge. This report investigates how preschoolers improve in their ability to evaluate the effects of two distinct types of messagesambiguous and informative-on a listener's knowledge. Three- and four-year olds were pre- and posttested for their ability to judge message quality from a third-person perspective. Between sessions, children were assigned to one of three training conditions. In all conditions, children observed a speaker providing ambiguous messages and informative messages to a listener. In the general-feedback condition, children were informed as to whether the listener gained knowledge after each message. In the specific-feedback condition, children were informed as to whether, as well as why, the listener gained knowledge. In the no-feedback condition, children were not informed as to the listener's state of knowledge. Children in the specific-feedback condition improved their ability to judge messages, and children in the general-feedback condition showed a marginally significant improvement. No learning effects, however, were observed in a transfer task for any of the groups. Results suggest that informing preschoolers about message quality during conversational exchanges contributes to their developing understanding of how people acquire knowledge about the world.

Developing an understanding of how people acquire knowledge about the world involves a variety of challenges for the child. One of them is to comprehend the causal relationship between access to information and a person's state of knowledge. This understanding emerges around the first birthday, when infants become able to track people's attentional states and thus react accordingly (Liszkowski, Carpenter, & Tomasello, 2008; Moll & Tomasello, 2007; Poulin-Dubois, Sodian, Metz, Tilden, & Schoeppner, 2007; Tomasello & Haberl, 2003). Another, more difficult, challenge is to realize that access to information does not guarantee knowledge; rather, the child must learn it is the quality of information that is accessed - whether or not it is informative - that plays a fundamental role in the process of knowing.

In communicative exchanges, young children are able to avoid ambiguity and to be as informative as their interlocutors require them to be (O'Neill & Topolovec, 2001), even if they do not yet appreciate that the access to good-quality information is a precondition for knowledge acquisition (Perner, 1991; Wellman, 1990). Evidence deriving from the theory-of-mind literature indicates that children's appreciation of this condition emerges at around the same time as their understanding of false belief, which is when they start to pass knowledge-attribution tasks. In addition, explanations of this developmental progression propose that particular conversational experiences may be critically important in the development of this understanding (Astington & Baird, 2005). The question that we address in this report is precisely whether the experience with a specific kind of conversational experience - namely, conversational breakdowns - contributes to this developing understanding.

By using the knowledge-attribution task, previous researchers have assessed children's appreciation of the role that information quality plays in the process of knowing. For this task, children predict the effects of exposure to ambiguous information and informative information on a person's knowledge. In its linguistic version, the child observes while a speaker places an object in one of several similar available locations; later, the speaker provides to a naïve listener either an ambiguous or an informative description of the object's location. After hearing each description, the child judges the listener's knowledge concerning the object's location (Miller, Hardin, & Montgomery, 2003; Montgomery, 1993; Sodian, 1988). …

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