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Relationships between Language and Cognitive Skills: Passive-Voice Comprehension, Backward

Repetition, and Matrix Permutation

Author(s): Ellin Kofsky Scholnick and Marilyn Jager Adams
Source: Child Development, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Dec., 1973), pp. 741-746
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Society for Research in Child Development
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Relationshipsbetween Language and

Cognitive Skills: Passive-VoiceComprehension,

BackwardRepetition,and MatrixPermutation

Ellin Kofsky Scholnick

University of Maryland

Marilyn Jager Adams

Brown University


betweenLanguage and
Cognitive Skills: Passive-Voice Comprehension,Backward Repetition, and Matrix Permutation.


1973, 44, 741-746. Semanticand cognitivefactorsgoverningpassive-

voice comprehensionwere explored. 96 children, divided among 3 grade levels (kindergarten

through second), identified the object referred to by nonsense-syllable actors and recipients in
passive sentences and reversed active sentences and a classification matrix. Comprehensionof
passives did not require reversal to an active form since children who understood passive sentences did not necessarily pass the language and matrix reversal tasks. Level of comprehension
of passives, but not backward repetition, was affected by actor content. But, there were significant intercorrelationsamong the tasks, and, therefore, some overlaps in linguistic and cognitive performance.

Since Chomsky (1965) posited that humans are innately equipped with a set of possible hypotheses about language structure and
with mechanisms for detecting and matching
grammatical regularities in linguistic input
against these hypotheses, many developmental
psycholinguists (e.g., McNeill 1970) have considered language acquisition and cognitive
development to be independent. The supporting evidence most frequently cited is the contrast between early detection of syntactic rules
and the later emergence, during the concrete
operational stage, of refined skills for generating and testing nonlinguistic hypotheses. However, it has become apparent that knowledge
of many linguistic rules is not complete by
kindergarten (Palermo & Molfese 1972), so the
independence of language from cognitive development may not be as great as has been

In syntax, a strong hypothesis on the relation between cognitive and linguistic skills
would be that the acquisition of a particular
logical skill is a prerequisite for the mastery of
a given grammatical construction. The relation
between active and passive sentences should
provide a test of this hypothesis. For example,
in the active sentence, "Ann baked the bread,"
Ann, the first noun, is both semantic agent and
grammatical subject while the second noun,
bread, is both recipient of the action and
grammatical object. This correspondence between word order and the semantic reference
of the subject and predicate nouns is most
typical in English. In contrast, in the semantically equivalent passive sentence, "The bread
was baked by Ann," the order of agent and
the recipient is reversed: the first noun, bread,
is semantically the recipient of the action.
Chomsky's (1965) transformational rules imply

The authors wish to thank Andy Sklar for his help in constructingthe stimuli and in data
analysis, Linda Morrisonfor assistance in data analysis, and Nancy Chambers for assistance in
testing children. Miss Carolyn Zack, of the MontgomeryCounty School System, and Dr. Louise
Berman, of the Center for Young Children, University of Maryland, were very helpful in obtaining subjects. The study was supported by a grant to the Center for Language and Cognition from the Biomedical Science Support Committee of the University of Maryland. Reprint
requests should be sent to Ellin K. Scholnick, Department of Psychology, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland 20742.
[Child Development,1973, 44, 741-746. @ 1973 by the Society for Researchin Child Development,Inc.
All rightsreserved.]

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742 Child Development

that the comprehension of passive sentences
may be achieved by reversing the word order
to an active form. The greater difficulty of passive-sentence comprehension and the tendency
to recall passive sentences as actives is consistent with this tenet (Gaer 1969; Slobin 1968).
However, children can comprehend both actives and passives before they can identify
them as equivalent (Sack & Beilin 1971), and
there is some evidence that the transformation
of a passive structure to its active form is not
an obligatory process in an adult's comprehension of passives (Olson & Filby 1972). Perhaps
the relationship between language and cognitive skills is weaker; they develop in parallel,
and perhaps it is the acquisition of logical reversibility rather than word-order reversal that
underlies passive-sentence competence.
Bever (1970) proposed such a relationship between comprehension of passives and
logical skills. Both develop in three parallel
stages. The first stage, based on perceptual and
linguistic universals, reflects innate knowledge
of quantitative and agent-recipient, subjectobject relations. These universals enable 2-yearolds to conserve number and to understand
both active and, to a limited extent, passive
sentences. A year later, the child develops partial linguistic strategies based on either sequential or semantic cues. The first or most probable
noun is actor. Similarly, the child uses a single
perceptual cue like density of elements or row
length in number conservation. The child reconciles conflicting partial strategies as he arrives at interiorized interpretations of passive
transformations and of the logic of concrete
operations. Sinclair (1971) suggested that the
passive and conservations of quantity are acquired simultaneously because passives are also
conservations. In conservation, the child must
ignore an irrelevant perceptual transformation,
while, in comprehending a passive, a transformation of the order of actor and recipient occurs which leaves the meaning unchanged. The
ability to decenter and transpose affects performance on both conservation and language
tasks. But neither Sinclair (1971) nor Bever
(1970) presents correlation coefficients derived
from comparable linguistic and cognitive tasks.
In summary, comprehension of passive
sentences may be linked to skills in transposing
ordered stimuli either because reversibility underlies formulation and testing of syntactic
rules or because comprehension of passive
sentences requires a specific rule, reversal of

word order. Consequently, performance on two

tasks, reversal of word strings and reversibility
of a classification matrix, was compared with
data from a passive-voice comprehension test.
The existence of significant correlations would
support the weak hypothesis of cognitive-linguistic correspondence. Data to support the
strong hypothesis would require everyone who
passes passive tasks to pass the reversal tasks,
Semantic factors were also studied. Differentiation between animate and inanimate appears early in development (McNeill 1970)
and may help in understanding passives. Animate actors appear more frequently in active
than passive sentences (Clark 1965). Because
inanimate objects rarely initiate actions, passive
sentences with inanimate recipients may be
easier for young children to decode than those
with inanimate agents.

Children were chosen from three grades,
kindergarten, first, and second. There were 16
males and 16 females at each level with respective average ages of 5.3, 6.3, and 7.4 years. All
subjects spoke English as their native language
and were performing at an age-appropriate
grade level in the suburban Washington, D.C.,
public school which they attended.
Passive voice comprehension.-Each child
saw 16 20.3 X 12.7-cm colored cartoons like
those in figure 1. Each cartoon showed an actor
either hiding, painting, washing, or bumping
a recipient in the presence of a third element.
The actor and recipient were either animate or
inanimate. All four actor-recipient combinations occurred. The irrelevant element belonged to the same semantic category as the
recipient. Since so few verbs can be illustrated
clearly with both animate and inanimate actors, verb and actor-recipient combinations
were confounded. The pictures of washing and
painting showed animate actors, while cartoons
of hiding and bumping showed inanimate actors. Animate and inanimate recipients were
evenly distributed across all four verbs. There
were two pictures for each of the eight verb
and actor-recipient combinations so generated.
A different tape-recorded passive sentence
accompanied each cartoon. Nonsense syllables
low in meaningfulness (Glaze 1928) described

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Scholnick and Adams 743




1.-Passive-voice stimuli with accompanying sentences

the actor and recipient, for example, "The Dax

was painted by the Bof." Nonsense syllables
decreased the semantic content so that the
listener would have to use syntactic cues or the
pictorial distinction between living and inanimate things as guides in sentence comprehension. The experimenter showed the picture,
played the sentence on the tape, and asked the
child to identify which pictured element was
the actor and which the recipient, "Where's
the Dax? Where's the Bof?" Among sentences
of the same semantic content, the actor was
requested first on half the trials. The child
answered at his own pace and his answers
were not corrected.
The sentences were recorded in four different sequences. In each sequence, each verb
and actor-recipient combination appeared once
within each four-sentence block, and the specific position of each combination and verb was
rotated across blocks. Each sequence had a
different verb and actor-recipient combination
occurring in the first sentence. A quarter of
each grade was assigned to each sequence.
Two preliminary screening tasks were used
to insure a minimal level of comprehension.
Four cartoons were presented from which the
child had to select an instance of each of the
verbs used in testing. Each child also practiced
identification of elements labeled by nonsense
syllables. One kindergarten boy who failed the
latter task was replaced.
Backward repetition.-Each
passive sentence was converted into a three-word active

sentence with a meaningful actor and recipient

in the same semantic category as in the passive
task. For example, the cartoon illustrating the
sentence "The Seb was washed by the Nax"
showed a creature washing an object. The sentence became "John washed dishes" in the
repetition task. The ordering of the 16 sentences duplicated the passive task. Each child
had to repeat backward the sentences he heard
on the tape. Repetitions were self-paced and
without correction. Before attempting the repetition task, children successfully placed pairs
of objects in backward order and reversed the
order of word pairs.
Matrix permutation.-A 45.7 X 30.5-cm
yellow tagboard ruled into a 3 X 3 grid was
placed on the table. Each cell contained a
12.7 x 8.9-cm card. The top row contained
light blue cards, the middle row, medium blue
cards, and the bottom row, navy cards. Cards
in the left-hand column showed a man; those
in the middle showed him at an easel, while
the last column showed vases with flowers.
The columns corresponded to the sentence,
"The man painted the flowers." Each picture
was a black line drawing.
The child first pointed to each color or
picture as it was named and then replaced
from one to three cards after they were removed from the matrix. Then all the cards were
removed and the child had to "put the cards
back the way they were before." At the end
of the task, the experimenter removed the
cards again. She placed the navy vase in the
upper left cell instead of the bottom right cell

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744 Child Development

where it had been originally. The child had to
arrange the remaining cards to make the vase
fit in that corner.

The prevalence of each type of error differed

among the semantic categories, F(9,837) =
4.03. Confusions of agent and object were
greatest when both were inanimate. More irrelevant objects were chosen when the agent
was inanimate, regardless of recipient, than
when the agent was animate. Hence, there was
evidence that inanimate agents decrease the
ease of comprehending passive sentences. There
was no evidence of a bias toward choosing
the first nonsense syllable as agent.

Each child worked individually during two

15-minute sessions spaced a week apart. The
passive tasks were administered in one session
and the other tasks in another session. Half
the children in each grade-sex combination
performed the passive tasks first. In the session
combining the matrix and repetition task, half
the children performed the matrix task first.

Backward repetition.-A

perfect back-

ward repetition was awarded one credit; half

points were awarded when the word order
was reversed but an inflection was omitted.
An analysis of variance of credits categorized
by grade and actor-recipient combination
yielded one significant effect, grade, F(2,93)
= 15.86. The mean repetition scores by increasing level were 6.6, 10.7, and 13.7. Each
consecutive difference was significant. Kindergartners' low scores reflected failures to transpose or remember all the words. Older children
usually deleted inflections or produced other
order permutations than reversal.

Individual performance was evaluated by
means of a mixed design analysis of variance
followed by Tukey's test of significant differences between appropriate means. Only F ratios and-mean differences significant at p < .05
will be reported. Since sex and task order never
affected scores, these variables were omitted
from the analyses to be reported.


categorized by grade, actor-recipient combination, and choice of element. A child could

choose the irrelevant element or confuse the
actor and recipient. Kindergartners made more
mistakes (14.5 out of 32 requests) than first
(10.8) or second graders (8.6) who were equivalent in performance, F (2,93) = 9.68. The
semantic characteristics of the referent influenced error rate, F(3,279) = 26.34, as did the
salience of each pictured element, F (3,279)
= 112.76. Table 1 contains the distribution of
sources of error for each semantic category.
Sentences with both inanimate actors and recipients elicited more mistakes than the other
sentences which were equal in difficulty. Confusions of actor and recipient occurred more
frequently than choice of the irrelevant object.

Matrix permutation.-A



awarded for each row or column in the matrix

where all pictures shared a common value.
The maximum score for construction or reversal of the matrix was 6. An analysis of variance
of the scores categorized by age, task, and
stimulus dimension revealed that each factor
affected performance significantly. More credits were obtained for figure (3.6) than color
(3.0) arrangements, F (1,93) = 8.4. Higher
scores were achieved for constructing (3.7)
than transposing (2.9) the matrix, F (1,93) =
13.37. The scores increased between kindergarten and first grade (4.4, 7.3, and 8.1),
F (2,93) = 9.24. More first and second graders
reconstructed the matrix perfectly than kinder-


Animate-animate ............
Animate-inanimate ...........

Total ....................


Extra Object


Extra Object

















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Scholnick and Adams 745

garten Ss (57% vs. 25%). Few children reversed both dimensions of the matrix.
the tasks
Task interrelationships.-Since
differed in maximum scores and variances, correct responses on each task were converted
into t scores and then correlated. The Pearson
product-moment correlations were r(95) =
+ .50 for the passive and repetition tasks and
r(95) = + .44 for the matrix with either
of the other tasks. Performance was significantly correlated with age, but when age was
partialled out of the correlations, each resulting partial correlation was still significantly
greater than zero, r(95) = + .41 for passive
and repetition scores, r(95) = + .35 for passive and matrix scores, and r(95) = + .32 for
the matrix and repetition scores. The language
and cognitive tasks were related but the overlap was as great as between the two cognitive
A stronger relationship between tasks requires that both reversal tasks be mastered
before the passive. Passage was defined as correct response to all four sentences within a
given actor-recipient combination. The patterns
of passing the four repetition, four passive tasks,
and reversal of one or two matrix dimensions
were analyzed by scalogram techniques (Torgerson 1958). The obtained reproducibility of
.89 and index of consistency of .13 did not
substantiate an invariant sequence of item
mastery. Analysis of interitem homogeneities
for parallel passive and reversal tasks also produced low scores. There was little evidence for
a strong relationship between passive and reversal skills.

mains exist. In the semantic realm, there is

increasing support for the contention that language acquisition depends upon prior nonlinguistic references (e.g., Macnamara 1972;
Moeser & Bregman 1972) and that language
behavior in general is largely a product of
mapping the contentives of a sentence onto a
general cognitive structure (Quillian 1968). If
this is true, syntactic rules might also be governed by general cognitive processes. There
appear to be many similarities in the way children detect linguistic rules and gather information about other aspects of their environment.
At the same time as children's syntactic and
semantic categories are arbitrary, overgeneralized, or context bound, so are their categorizations of objects. Moreover, the disparity between cognitive and linguistic development
may be exaggerated. Children's judgments of
sentence meaning and recall of sentences often
reflect less competence than linguists would expect (Sack & Beilin 1971; Weener 1971) because linguists assume a rule is learned before
the construction rather than the reverse. Piagetians, in contrast, may underestimate children's
competence because the tasks desighed to measure logic are less relevant to the child's life
than language tasks are or because the instructions in Piagetian tasks or the stimulus arrangements are too cumbersome or deceptive (Braine
1962). By choosing cognitive tasks which are
as familiar and relevant as linguistic ones and
linguistic tasks which require the child to make
equivalence judgments or transform word
strings, we may note more parallels in performance.

The major finding of this study must be

viewed with considerable caution. Significant

correlations among scores on matrix, passive,
and repetition tasks were found, but those correlations accounted for only 19%-25% of the
variance. It is also unclear whether other measures of each skill would produce correlations
of the same magnitude. The present data are
just a first step in establishing the existence of
an overlap between given language and cognitive skills. The second step, establishing a
particular cognitive skill which might be a prerequisite for mastery of a given grammatical
rule, was unsuccessful.
However, it is extremely likely that such
parallels and interrelations among the two do-

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