How executive functioning, sentence processing, and vocabulary are related at 3 years of age

Lee, C., Jessop, A., Bidgood, A., Peter, M. S., Pine, J. M., Rowland, C. F., & Durrant, S. (2023). How executive functioning, sentence processing, and vocabulary are related at 3 years of age. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 233: 105693. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2023.105693.
There is a wealth of evidence demonstrating that executive function (EF) abilities are positively associated with language development during the preschool years, such that children with good executive functions also have larger vocabularies. However, why this is the case remains to be discovered. In this study, we focused on the hypothesis that sentence processing abilities mediate the association between EF skills and receptive vocabulary knowledge, in that the speed of language acquisition is at least partially dependent on a child’s processing ability, which is itself dependent on executive control. We tested this hypothesis in longitudinal data from a cohort of 3- and 4-year-old children at three age points (37, 43, and 49 months). We found evidence, consistent with previous research, for a significant association between three EF skills (cognitive flexibility, working memory [as measured by the Backward Digit Span], and inhibition) and receptive vocabulary knowledge across this age range. However, only one of the tested sentence processing abilities (the ability to maintain multiple possible referents in mind) significantly mediated this relationship and only for one of the tested EFs (inhibition). The results suggest that children who are better able to inhibit incorrect responses are also better able to maintain multiple possible referents in mind while a sentence unfolds, a sophisticated sentence processing ability that may facilitate vocabulary learning from complex input.
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