Perceptual context and individual differences in the language proficiency of preschool children

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Although the contribution of perceptual processes to language skills during infancy is well recognized, the role of perception in linguistic processing beyond infancy is not well understood. In the experiments reported here, we asked whether manipulating the perceptual context in which stimuli are presented across trials influences how preschool children perform visual (shape-size identification; Experiment 1) and auditory (syllable identification; Experiment 2) tasks. Another goal was to determine whether the sensitivity to perceptual context can explain part of the variance in oral language skills in typically developing preschool children. Perceptual context was manipulated by changing the relative frequency with which target visual (Experiment 1) and auditory (Experiment 2) stimuli were presented in arrays of fixed size, and identification of the target stimuli was tested. Oral language skills were assessed using vocabulary, word definition, and phonological awareness tasks. Changes in perceptual context influenced the performance of the majority of children on both identification tasks. Sensitivity to perceptual context accounted for 7% to 15% of the variance in language scores. We suggest that context effects are an outcome of a statistical learning process. Therefore, the current findings demonstrate that statistical learning can facilitate both visual and auditory identification processes in preschool children. Furthermore, consistent with previous findings in infants and in older children and adults, individual differences in statistical learning were found to be associated with individual differences in language skills of preschool children.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)118-136
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Elsevier Inc.


  • Anchoring
  • Perception
  • Perceptual context
  • Preschool children
  • Preschool language processing
  • Statistical learning
  • Vocabulary

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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