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The acquisition of complex sentences in children

Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health

About the Project

Complex sentences such as those involving adverbial clauses (Before you eat your dinner, wash your hands) appear in children’s speech at about three years of age yet experimental studies have found that children have difficulty comprehending these sentences well into the school years. For example, children often misinterpret the temporal order, or reverse cause and effect in causal sentences. The acquisition of complex sentences is important because they form the basis for academic reasoning and writing and are therefore critical to children’s educational success. To date, a number of theoretical models have been put forward to explain children’s early difficulties (e.g. processing/memory difficulties, input frequency effects, information structure), with each receiving varying empirical support. For example, in previous work, we and others have found that children are better at interpreting sentences in which the order of the words matches the order of events in the real world (iconicity).

This PhD will build on previous work to further our understanding of the factors involved in children’s comprehension and production of complex sentences, and how best to support this in the classroom, and will comprise of a number of related studies. Methods may include naturalistic corpus work, experimental behavioural studies, eye tracking and EEG.

As well as this specific project, applications are invited from students interested in pursuing research in any aspect of syntactic, semantic or pragmatic language and communicative development in typically developing children and its relation to general cognitive or socio-cognitive skills. Applicants may submit a specific research proposal in one of these areas, or get in touch to explore possible topics prior to developing a full proposal.

Successful applicants will join the thriving Manchester child study centre and be affiliated to the LuCiD Centre ( enabling them to benefit from tailored seminars, training, and networking with the wider research community. Training in a range of research techniques is available including corpus data and analysis, experimental design, behavioural measures, eye tracking and EEG, and computational modelling. Statistical analysis involves the use of SPSS as well as multilevel modelling in R.

Depending on the particular techniques required, further co-supervisors may be involved to provide appropriate support. In addition to the project-specific training/techniques, students are expected to get involved in lab activities such as reading groups and statistics workshops, and contribute to the many public engagement and outreach activities undertaken by the child study centre (training provided as needed).

Further subject-specific and transferable skills training is provided by the LuCiD Centre and by the Manchester Doctoral Academy (

Candidates are expected to hold (or be about to obtain) a minimum upper second class honours degree (or equivalent) in Psychology, Linguistics, or a related discipline. A Masters in Psychology, Linguistics or related disciplines is an advantage. Applicants who are considering completing a Masters in Research (MRes Psychology) prior to starting a PhD are also welcome.

Funding Notes

This project has a Band 1 fee. Details of our different fee bands can be found on our website (View Website). For information on how to apply for this project, please visit the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Doctoral Academy website (View Website).

Informal enquiries may be made directly to the primary supervisor ().


1. Ambridge, B., Kidd, E., Rowland, C. & Theakston, A. (2015). The ubiquity of frequency effects in first language, Journal of Child Language, 42(2), 239-273. doi: 10.1017/S030500091400049X

2. Brandt, S., Kidd, E., Lieven, E., & Tomasello, M. (2009). The discourse bases of relativization: An investigation of young German and English-speaking children’s comprehension of relative clauses. Cognitive Linguistics, 20(3), 539–570. doi: 10.1515/COGL.2009.024

3. de Ruiter, L., Theakston, A., Brandt, S. & Lieven, E. (2016). Additional complexity in complex sentences in child-directed speech. In T. Tenbrink (Ed.) Proceedings of the UK Cognitive Linguistics Conference, p.29.

4. Diessel, H. (2005). Competing motivations for the ordering of main and adverbial clauses. Linguistics, 43(3), 449–470. doi: 10.1515/ling.2005.43.3.449

5. Junge, B. Theakston, A., Lieven, E. & Tomasello, M. (2015). Given/New-New/Given? Children’s sensitivity to the ordering of information in complex sentences. Applied Psycholinguistics, 36(3), 589-612. doi:10.1017/S0142716413000350

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