Speaking Your Mind: Language and Narrative in Young Children's Theory of Mind Development

Speaking Your Mind: Language and Narrative in Young Children's Theory of Mind Development

ARTICLE IN PRESS Speaking your mind: Language and narrative in young children’s theory of mind development Virginia Tompkinsa, M. Jeffrey Farrarb, De...

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Speaking your mind: Language and narrative in young children’s theory of mind development Virginia Tompkinsa, M. Jeffrey Farrarb, Derek E. Montgomeryc,* a

The Ohio State University at Lima, Lima, OH, United States University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, United States c Bradley University, Peoria, IL, United States *Corresponding author: e-mail address: [email protected] b

Contents 1. Introduction 2. Theory of mind and language 2.1 Theory of mind 2.2 Language 3. Theory of mind and narrative 3.1 Narrative: A nexus between language and theory of mind 3.2 Why is narrative related to false belief understanding? 3.3 Parents’ narrative input and children’s theory of mind 3.4 Children’s narrative skills and theory of mind 3.5 Adult–child talk during shared reading 3.6 Directionality and underlying mechanisms of change 4. Conclusion References Further reading

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Abstract Research consistently finds that language and theory of mind are interrelated. The content and qualities of language that specifically predict theory of mind remain under investigation and the question of why language might impact theory of mind development is open. In this chapter we analyze and highlight current findings and theory addressing theory of mind and language. The principal focus is upon typically developing children between ages 2 and 5, a period characterized by extensive development in language and social understanding. We propose that the study of young children’s narrative development can inform how and why language and theory of mind are connected. False belief understanding and narrative comprehension share many similarities and this association provides a promising avenue for future work.

Advances in Child Development and Behavior ISSN 0065-2407 https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.acdb.2018.11.003


2019 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.



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1. Introduction Understanding the relation between language and theory of mind is challenging because both constructs are multifaceted. Narrowly construed, theory of mind is the ascription of mental states. More broadly, however, theory of mind is making sense of a behavior by discerning the reasons and goals that motivate it. Although language can be literal and descriptive, it can also be inferential and elaborative by expressing ideas and explanations that go beyond concrete specifics. Verbal utterances feature vocabulary and syntax, but the meaning of those utterances is often tied to the interpersonal and circumstantial contexts in which they occur. In this chapter, we view theory of mind broadly. In doing so, we highlight the connection between making sense of behavior and narrative. We also characterize multiple facets of language and critically review the empirical literature that investigates how those facets relate to theory of mind development. These three strands—language, theory of mind, and narrative—are then woven together by addressing (a) how narrative context promotes the discussion of theory of mind concepts, (b) the relation between children’s narrative skills and theory of mind development, (c) the qualities of adult talk that facilitate the development of narrative skills, and (d) future research directions concerning the relation between narrative development and false belief understanding.

2. Theory of mind and language 2.1 Theory of mind Theory of mind research investigates how children’s mental concepts relate to their understanding of everyday behavior, and thus competence in theory of mind has real-world implications. Individual differences in theory of mind development are positively related to children’s popularity among peers (Slaughter, Imuta, Peterson, & Henry, 2015), prosocial behavior (Imuta, Henry, Slaughter, Selcuk, & Ruffman, 2016), and school readiness (Atkinson, Slade, Powell, & Levy, 2017; Cavadel & Frye, 2017; Guajardo & Cartwright, 2016). Deficits are strongly associated with autism and may also impact other developmental disabilities such as ADHD (e.g., Hutchins et al., 2016). In verbal tasks, children between ages 2 and 3 can accurately predict and explain behavior based upon what someone wants and by ages 4 and 5 they

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can predict and explain the behavior of someone who holds a false belief (see Birch et al., 2017; Wellman, 2014; Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001; Wellman & Liu, 2004). The typical false belief (FB) task involves the displacement of an object when a protagonist is not looking. For instance, in the widely used Sally–Anne task, a doll (Sally) places a marble into a covered basket and then leaves the scene (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985). While Sally is away Anne removes the marble from the basket and places it inside a box. When Sally returns, children are asked where she will look for the marble. Unlike Sally, children know about the new location of the marble; consequently, FB understanding indexes their capacity to reason about a perspective that is different from their own. Performance on verbal theory of mind tasks reflects children’s capacity to explicitly “explain people via their mental states” (Wellman, 2014, p. 5). People’s behaviors are, of course, embedded within situations. If a person is pacing, there are a host of important situational features that provide reasons for what is happening (e.g., “is the person waiting for something or someone?,” “if so, how important is the anticipated outcome?,” “how likely is the anticipated outcome?,” “is the person waiting on someone who is trustworthy?,” etc.). Once discerned, these background features inform which desire and emotion terms (e.g., fear, want, bored, hope, wish) characterize the person. We regard theory of mind development as encompassing the discernment of reasons motivating behavior because doing so is central to understanding people (Hutto, 2008; Perner & Esken, 2015).

2.2 Language The content, context, and quality of language are all relevant features when considering the relation between parents’ and children’s language and theory of mind development (Tompkins, Benigno, Lee, & Wright, 2018). Content is vocabulary and syntax, quality is what one does with language in interaction, and context is the setting within which parent and child talk occurs. Language in this chapter encompasses children’s productive vocabulary and syntactic understanding, the conversations they participate in, and the manner by which parents talk about and explain events and social behaviors with their children (see Table 1). 2.2.1 Language and false belief Theory of mind is comprised of multiple aspects of mental state understanding that have different relations with language. As noted, a critical achievement in theory of mind is FB development. Numerous explanations have


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Table 1 Representative categories of language studied in theory of mind research Category Representative study

Content of Talk: Vocabulary and Syntax 1. Child’s General Linguistic Competence Productive Vocabulary

Astington and Jenkins (1999)

Syntactic Understanding (e.g., word order and Ruffman, Slade, Rowlandson, embedded clauses) Rumsey, and Garnham (2003) Mean Length of Utterance

Farrar and Maag (2002)

2. Parent and Child Mental Terms Mental Terms: Desire (e.g., want, like), Cognition (e.g., think, know) Emotion (e.g., happy, sad)

Ruffman, Slade, and Crowe (2002)

Finite Complement Syntax: Child—Memory for false subordinate complements

de Villiers and Pyers (2002)

Parent—Use of complement syntax with think

Tompkins (2015b)

Qualities of Talk 1. Perspective Ensor and Hughes (2008) Connectedness—A speaker’s utterance is semantically related to the previous turn of the other speaker Contrastive—Parent makes an explicit Brown, Donelan-McCall, and contrast between beliefs or between belief Dunn (1996) and reality 2. Inferential—Talk that explains and elaborates upon behavior and outcomes Explanatory—Cognitive terms are used to Adria´n, Clemente, and Villanueva interpret or clarify facts and behaviors in a (2007) story Causal—Highlighting a causal relationship Dunn, Brown, Slomkowski, Tesla, between events and states and Youngblade (1991) Elaborations—Utterances that expand upon Ontai and Thompson (2008) or add information about an event

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been generated for its development, including language and executive function development (Devine & Hughes, 2014). There have been two primary language explanations. The linguistic determinism perspective (e.g., de Villiers, 2005) argues that to represent a FB, children need to master complement syntactic structure. The complement structure is an embedded proposition that can follow a communication (e.g., told) or mental (e.g., think) verb. In the sentence, Molly said that Jane left the keys in the car but they were in the kitchen, the tensed complement (that Jane left the keys in the car…) provides a distinction between the reality of the world and the speaker’s communication or belief about that reality. In other words, the sentence is true regardless of the key’s location. According to the linguistic determinism perspective, complements provide the necessary linguistic format for representing a FB. Distinguishing complements with mental state verbs (e.g., think) from those with communication verbs (e.g., told) is important to evaluate the necessity of complementation syntax. That is, mental state complements reflect both syntactic and semantic measures, whereas communication complements are a syntactic measure. In the memory for complement task that is used to assess mastery of false belief understanding (FBU), children are shown two pictures and a description (e.g., She thought there was a bug in her hair, but it was really a leaf. What did she think was in her hair?). In contrast, the general language hypothesis argues that basic language (e.g., vocabulary, syntax) is sufficient for FBU and complementation is not necessary. While there are different general language hypotheses (e.g., Slade & Ruffman, 2005), we adopt a social constructivist perspective in which participation in linguistically mediated conversations or narratives contribute to children’s discovery of the mind (Fernyhough, 2008; Nelson, 2005). Section 3 develops this perspective in detail. Numerous studies have explored which aspect of language contributes to FBU by using correlational/regression approaches or training studies. For instance, de Villiers and Pyers (2002) reported that memory for complements task performance made a unique contribution to later FBU. Similar effects have been reported in other studies (e.g., Durrleman & Franck, 2015; Low, 2010). However, studies of typically developing children have also supported the general language hypothesis (Farrar, Lee, Cho, Tamargo, & Seung, 2013; Tardif, So, & Kaciroti, 2007). In a cross-linguistic study of children acquiring either English or Cantonese, after controlling for general language, memory for complements was unrelated to FBU (Cheung et al., 2004). Training studies of complementation compared to training other


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forms of deceptive discourse both lead to enhancing FB performance (Hale & Tager-Flusberg, 2003; Lohmann & Tomasello, 2003). Thus, studies of typically developing children do not show consistent support for the complementation hypothesis indicating that it is not necessary for the development of FB. Children with language delays provide an interesting test of the role of language in FB development. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience delays in FBU (Durrleman et al., 2016). Similar FB delays have been found in children who are deaf (de Villiers & de Villiers, 2012) or have specific language impairment (SLI) (Miller, 2004). Children with SLI are delayed in language with no known neurological causes and are also delayed in FBU. In contrast to studies of typically developing children, FBU in language delayed children is consistently related to complementation performance. Together, these results indicate different linguistic routes to FB development, depending on the population. This suggested multiple pathways pattern between language and FB development is supported by a recent meta-analysis of over 2200 children from typical and atypical groups (Farrar, Benigno, Tompkins, & Gage, 2017). One explanation for the different patterns is that for typically developing children, theory of mind is socially constructed. That is, it is through interactions with others that children come to understand that people have minds which may differ. Measures of general language (receptive vocabulary and/or syntax) are an indirect reflection of these conversations. Children with language delays, however, are less capable of participating in social interactions and need complementation to “bootstrap” their representation of FB (Tager-Flusberg & Joseph, 2005). For instance, children with ASD have difficulty participating in social interactions and are exposed to less mental state talk than typically developing children (Hutchins, Deraway, Prelock, & O’Neill, 2017). Within social interactions, specific qualities of parental linguistic input appear to positively impact theory of mind development in typically developing populations. The standard method is to examine correlations between the frequency of parental mental term use and children’s FB development ( Jenkins, Turrell, Kogushi, Lollis, & Ross, 2003). The general assumption is that mental terms reflect the parents’ reference to various internal states when interpreting events. Studies of maternal use of mental terms indicate different effects of content on FBU. For instance, Ensor, Devine, Marks, and Hughes (2014) found that maternal references to cognitive mental states

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were related to later FBU compared to other categories of mental references (see also Tompkins et al., 2018). A recent meta-analysis of the role of family variables (parent mental state talk, siblings, and SES) reported that each contributed to FBU (Devine & Hughes, 2018). Mental state talk had a moderate but stable relation to FBU. Interestingly, the effect sizes were weaker than the effect sizes for basic language measures found in Milligan, Astington, and Dack (2007). This is opposite of what one would expect if theory of mind was more directly facilitated by reference to mental states than by general conversational participation. Some researchers make a distinction between simple mentions of mental states compared to qualitatively more informative uses of mental states (e.g., explanations, contrasts between belief and reality, or appropriately attuned mental states in infancy) and find that these more informative uses are more strongly related to children’s FBU (e.g., Adria´n et al., 2007; Meins, Fernyhough, Arnott, Leekam, & de Rosnay, 2013; Peterson & Slaughter, 2003; Slaughter, Peterson, & Mackintosh, 2007; Tompkins, 2015a). These findings suggest that the quality of parental input appears to be an important moderator and highlights the importance of accounting for the nuanced context of parent–child conversations. If conversation is integral to the pathway for typically developing children’s theory of mind, then what features of conversational input might be especially relevant for guiding young children’s understanding of others? Generally speaking, a parental conversational style that helps children remember and interpret behavior will (a) embed actions and persons (or characters) within settings (e.g., by asking “where?” or “when?”) and (b) interpret, explain, and elaborate upon actions and events by drawing attention to goals, reasons, and the child’s own previous or anticipated experiences (e.g., Fivush, Haden, & Reese, 2006; Rollo, Longobardi, Spataro, & Sulla, 2017; Rowe, 2012; Tessler & Nelson, 1994). We highlight representative qualities of parental talk that research indicates are associated with theory of mind and FBU in Table 1. 2.2.2 Mental terms and reference In some studies, “mental state talk” is coded so that referential uses of mental terms are distinguished from conversational uses (see Miller, 2016). “Genuine references” to mental states are viewed as descriptive statements about internal experiences (e.g., Taumoepeau & Ruffman, 2008; Wellman, 2014). To illustrate, a mother’s request during storytelling, “You want to turn the page?”


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references “the child’s current, genuine mental state” (Ruffman, Puri, Galloway, Su, & Taumoepeau, 2018, p. 679). In contrast, a mother’s query, “Do you want to come over here?” is a conversational figure of speech and not a reference to a mental state (Ruffman et al., 2018, p. 679). According to social constructivist theories, it can be problematic to draw a distinction between “referential” and “conversational” uses of mental terms (Carpendale & Lewis, 2004; see Taylor, 2016). Within everyday discourse, utterances that feature “mental state references” (a) often do have conversational, pragmatic uses and (b) those uses do not always involve drawing attention to an internal state (referent). The two “want” utterances in the previous paragraph appear to be indirect speech acts aimed at eliciting action rather than confirmation from the child about an internal state (“Yes, that’s what I want”). Toddlers routinely apprehend the action-oriented nature of such requests and respond accordingly (e.g., Shatz, 1978). When using think in conversation with children, parents are often drawing attention to the subordinate clause by making an indirect assertion that it is true (e.g., “Get your umbrella, I think it’s raining,” see Hacquard & Lidz, 2018). Similarly, preschoolers’ use of think is generally formulaic with the complement clause serving as the main point of the utterance (“I think it is in here,” Diessel & Tomasello, 2001, p. 111). Mental terms that might appear similar because they, ostensibly, have a similar referent have different meanings because of their different uses. To illustrate, hope and want are usually coded together as desire references (e.g., Ensor et al., 2014). In everyday discourse, however, young children’s uses of hope are generally found with finite clauses, “I hope (that)…” rather than in the to + infinitive phrases associated with want (Montgomery, 2017). The different purposes of the words in everyday discourse—want associated with requests, hope associated with expressing future, possible outcomes—and the possible implications those purposes have for theory of mind development are obscured when the words are coded as exemplars of the same referent (see Dudley, Rowe, Hacquard, & Lidz, 2018, for a similar analysis regarding the different pragmatic ends of think and know). In short, discourse analyses suggest that the complement, rather than the mental verb, is routinely the conversational focus of the speaker and listener (e.g., Childs, 2014; Dehe & Wichmann, 2010; Diessel & Tomasello, 2001; Hacquard & Lidz, 2018; Roberts, 2016; Thompson, 2002). Utterances with complementation syntax often aim to influence rather than inform the listener about a mental state (Verhagen, 2008).

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Suggestions that parents’ mental term use promotes theory of mind development by explicitly drawing children’s attention to internal referents may miss the broader and more nuanced purposes these words serve in everyday discourse (e.g., Montgomery, 2002; Nelson, 2005, 2007). Research that codes for “genuine references” in parent and child talk risks obscuring what speakers are doing—how they are managing social interactions—when using mental terms in discourse (Carpendale & Lewis, 2004). Coding categories that account for the purpose mental terms serve within interactions enhance our understanding of the relation between language and theory of mind. For instance, Tompkins (2015a) examined mothers’ mental terms used with their preschoolers while reading a storybook by coding vocabulary (i.e., a sum of all cognitive state terms), complement syntax using the cognitive verb think, and contrastives (i.e., an explicit contrast between thought and reality) as these were central to understanding the story. Mothers’ mental term vocabulary and contrastives, but not complement syntax, were significantly related to children’s FBU. Further, the contrastives were the only significant predictor of children’s growth in FBU over 6 months. This finding suggested that it was not the complement syntax or cognitive state vocabulary per se that promoted children’s growth in FBU, but instead when parents used complement syntax in a more informative way. It may not be enough to simply use the term think with an embedded clause (e.g., in this study, “The penguins think that Mr. Peek is talking about them.”), but necessary to make the conflict explicit for children (e.g., “The hippo thinks that Mr. Peek said that she’s getting fat. But he’s really talking about himself.”), which is perhaps facilitated through the story illustrations. Interestingly, parents did not use these contrastives more than a few times, yet they were the better predictor of children’s FBU compared to parents’ use of total cognitive terms.

3. Theory of mind and narrative 3.1 Narrative: A nexus between language and theory of mind In her seminal work on intention, Anscombe (1957) describes a man operating a water pump that supplies water to a house. The water is poisoned. Outwardly, the man is simply, “moving his arm up and down with his fingers round the pump handle” (Anscombe, 1957, para. 26). If children


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were to explain this behavior by engaging in “mindreading” or “mentalizing,” they would attribute a mental state that causes the man’s behavior. In doing so, however, children would be challenged to figure out which, or which set of, mental state combinations (desire-belief ) to infer. Anscombe (1957) points out that a series of ascriptions are possible. To illustrate, the man (a) wants to grip the pump because he believes he needs to grasp it in order to activate it, (b) wants to move his arm up and down because he believes that doing so will make the water flow, (c) wants the household to have water and believes that moving the pump up and down will satisfy that desire, and (d) believes the pump has poisoned water and wants to poison the household. Even if children engaged in sorting out the options, how would they know whether there is a “correct” mental cause that makes sense of (explains) the behavior? To make sense of the behavior, children need a “basis for interpreting why a character acted as he or she did. Interpretation is concerned with ‘reasons’ for things happening, rather than strictly with their ‘causes’” (Bruner, 1991, p. 7). Human activity is understood in the context of event, or narrative, structures (Baldwin, Baird, Saylor, & Clark, 2001; Flores, Bailey, Eisenberg, & Zacks, 2017; Loucks, Mutschler, & Meltzoff, 2017). To borrow a term from the text comprehension literature, action is understood within a situation model wherein children (and adults) integrate discrete episodes into a coherent whole using their background knowledge and inferential skills (Graesser, Singer, & Trabasso, 1994). According to the narrative practice hypothesis, children’s capacity for understanding motives (reasons and goals) emerges through engagement with narratives (Gallagher, 2014; Hutto, 2008). This is because stories do more than simply describe action—they supply context that provides reasons for goal-directed actions (in Anscombe’s story the house is occupied by Nazis). Situations and circumstances inform why a person wants, hopes, believes, and so forth. Stories, and personal narratives, enrich children’s familiarity with canonical themes and scripts. Using this normative background, children can anticipate and explain behavior. They learn what people do, and why they do it, when hungry, sad, excited, and so forth. The basic elements of a narrative episode include an initiating event followed by goals (and, often, obstacles), actions, and outcomes (e.g., Nelson, 1996; Trabasso & van den Broek, 1985). The episodes have a causal and temporal organization. “Narrative practice” extends beyond storytelling and encompasses everyday interactions (see Table 2).

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Table 2 Narrative structure of everyday parent–child interaction in early development

Setting condition (problem)

Child (24 months) sees chocolate cake on table

Goal (and obstacle) Child: “Bibby on” (expressing a desire for the cake) Mother: “You don’t want your bibby on. You’re not eating” Action

Child: “Chocolate cake. Chocolate cake” Mother: “You’re not having any more chocolate cake either” Child: “Why?” [whines] “Tired” Mother: “You tired? Ooh!” Child: “Chocolate cake”


Mother: “No chance”

Adapted from Dunn, J., Bretherton, I., & Munn, P. (1987). Conversations about feeling states between mothers and their young children. Developmental Psychology, 23(1), 132–139.

Play and games (e.g., “peek-a-boo”), reminiscences, scripts (e.g., bedtime routines), and interpersonal actions commonly conform to story grammar (Bruner, 1990; Nelson, 1999, 2009). For example, beginning around age one, “request formats” are characterized by vocalizations (e.g., “more”) and pointing gestures that express the infant’s goal. These expressions are followed by parental clarification or articulation of the request (“Is this what you were after?”; “What do you want?”, Bruner, 1983, p. 99) and eventual resolution. The parent’s use of “want” provides an opportunity for an informal lesson in how to verbally articulate goals with mental terms (see Montgomery, 2005). Mental term use within mother–infant dyads can enrich theory of mind development when the terms are attuned to the actions and/or internal experiences of the infant (e.g., Laranjo, Bernier, Meins, & Carlson, 2014). Narrative structures, such as this infant–parent interaction, organize early social understanding into a predictable format in which goals are pivotal in comprehending and bringing order to events. Narrative practice, whether within interpersonal episodes or in storytelling, familiarizes children with story grammar. Extracting this grammar may, in turn, help children organize the sparse FB narrative found in experimental tasks into a coherent form of sequence and connected events (see Table 3). We turn to the relation between FBU and narrative in the following section.


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Table 3 The narrative structure of an explicit false belief task

Setting Condition

A toy figure of a boy and a sheet of paper with a backpack and a closet drawn on it. “Here’s Scott”

Goal (and obstacle) “Scott wants to find his mittens. His mittens might be in his backpack or they might be in the closet” “Really, Scott’s mittens are in his backpack. But Scott thinks his mittens are in the closet” Action

“So, where will Scott look for his mittens? In his backpack or in the closet?”


(The participant’s response)

Adapted from Wellman, H. M., & Liu, D. (2004). Scaling of theory-of-mind tasks. Child Development, 75(2), 523–541.

3.2 Why is narrative related to false belief understanding? In addition to the story grammar approach to narrative discussed previously (e.g., Trabasso & van den Broek, 1985), narrative has also been defined as containing two fundamental characteristics—pentadic imbalance and the perspective of the protagonist (Lucariello, 1990). Burke (1969) defined the pentad of narrative as including actor and goal or intention, actions, scene, and instrument. Good stories are those that involve some discrepancy in these elements or a violation of a canonical state—this is what makes the story interesting (Bruner, 1986; Lucariello, 1990). The second, related, characteristic is the consciousness of the actors in the story (Lucariello, 1990). Recent research linking theory of mind and reading comprehension acknowledges that to comprehend a story, the child must be able to interpret the character’s mental states—emotions, beliefs, desires, intentions, motivations— that provide the justification for their actions (Kim, 2015a, 2015b; Kim & Phillips, 2016). Research with younger children that focused on narrative (rather than reading) comprehension (Guajardo & Cartwright, 2016; Pelletier & Astington, 2004) also points to the importance of understanding the dual landscape of narrative—both the explicit actions of the story and the consciousness of the protagonists (Bruner, 1986; Lucariello, 1990). Another important viewpoint of many narratives is that of the narrator (i.e., the intended meaning or moral of the story; Pelletier & Beatty, 2015). We use a children’s book to illustrate these criteria. In the book Enemy Pie (Munson, 2000), appropriate for an older preschooler, the explicitly stated character perspective is that of the main protagonist—a boy who

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wishes to get rid of his enemy (a new kid in the neighborhood who he perceives as a threat). This conflict motivates the actions that follow, which involve the boy seeking his father’s help to eliminate the enemy. A second, more implicit character perspective is that of the boy’s father. His consciousness is never explicitly stated but must be inferred from his actions. For example, the boy’s father offers to make “enemy pie” but tells his son he must first spend the day with his enemy. By the end of the story, it becomes clear that the father’s motivation was for his son to befriend the enemy. At the end of the story when his father serves his son and his enemy (now friend) a delicious pie, the son states that he still doesn’t know how to make enemy pie or if enemies really do hate it, demonstrating his ignorance of the father’s plan. Thus, there is a third perspective—the moral of the story being conveyed by the author, but that must be inferred from the actions (get to know your enemy and you may find you are more alike than you think). Other required components of the pentad are also present, including the scene (a canonical American neighborhood) and instrument (the pie). Below we discuss how these narrative requirements in children’s storybooks may relate to their FBU. We focus specifically on storybooks that are fictional narratives, not expository texts or picture books without stories because theory of mind is important for the narrative genre specifically. We acknowledge that not all narratives or books contain these elements or contain them as fully as the “enemy pie” example; in some children’s literature consciousness of the characters is completely absent (Wagner, 2017). However, we explicitly make the assumption that in the majority of narrative books (with or without text) experienced by 2- to 5-year-olds, it is necessary to understand the character’s consciousness in order to comprehend the story as stories are nearly always about people (or animals and objects anthropomorphized). Parents report preferring the narrative genre when reading to preschoolers in comparison to other genres (e.g., expository, poetry; Robertson & Reese, 2017), and teachers use more inferential talk while reading books to preschoolers compared to other contexts (e.g., play, art, music; Massey, Pence, Justice, & Bowles, 2008). Inferential talk goes beyond literal descriptions by expressing or explaining events and circumstances beyond the concrete here and now (see Tompkins, Bengochea, Nicol, & Justice, 2017). Some qualities of inferential talk are noted in Table 1. Thus, narrative storybooks are common for young children and may offer an opportunity for talk about mental states specifically and inferential talk more generally.


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3.3 Parents’ narrative input and children’s theory of mind As mentioned previously, parents’ mental terms in their talk to young children play an important role in facilitating children’s theory of mind. However, parents’ mental terms in talk to children can occur in a variety of contexts, including those that are not narrative (e.g., parent discipline; Miller, 2016). So what is unique about mental terms in narrative per se in relation to FBU? Bruner (1990) argued that children rely on two landscapes in narrative to make sense of the world—the landscape of action (i.e., what is stated explicitly) and the landscape of consciousness (i.e., what is implicit or must be inferred from the story). Thus, narrative may facilitate children’s FBU because much of people’s (and characters’) mental states must be inferred. Researchers have argued that storybooks make these invisible mental states more comprehensible to children and have advocated for using storybooks to assess parents’ talk about mental terms with children (Symons, Peterson, Slaughter, Roche, & Doyle, 2005; Tompkins, 2015b). In a metaanalysis of the relation between parents’ talk about mental terms and children’s FBU, Tompkins et al. (2018) found that the effect size for this relation was largest (0.25) in a picture or book reading context (compared to self-report, play, naturalistic observation, and reminiscing), but only significantly different from the reminiscing context ( 0.15). This finding suggests that, at least compared to reminiscing, there may be something unique about talking about book characters’ mental states in relation to children’s FBU. There are at least two reasons why mental states in books matter for FBU. First, books simply provide the opportunity to expand on mental states because mental state vocabulary is common in the books read to preschoolers. Researchers have found that 78%–95% of storybooks for preschoolers included internal state language, mostly cognitive and emotional states (Cassidy et al., 1998; Dyer, Shatz, & Wellman, 2000; DyerSeymour, Shatz, Wellman, & Saito, 2004) and 34% of books included FBs (Cassidy et al., 1998). Cassidy et al. (1998) proposed that children’s storybooks may be one mechanism by which children learn about mental states, and perhaps this context is even more explicit than in everyday interactions. Researchers examining explicit mental state terms in the parental input to children (in both narrative and nonnarrative contexts) often find that it significantly predicts preschoolers’ FBU (Devine & Hughes, 2018; Tompkins et al., 2018). Second, the context of book reading may promote FBU. Regarding context, the question is not which context allows for more talk about mental terms, but in which context is talking about mental terms a stronger

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predictor of children’s FBU? One possible benefit of book reading for discussing mental states is that children’s comprehension of consciousness can be facilitated both by the language of mental terms, but also by the visual representation of that consciousness, unlike other narratives like reminiscing. Researchers have found that toddlers’ comprehension of stories is better when they paid more attention to the illustrations that depicted key narrative scenes (Kaefer, Pinkham, & Neuman, 2017), preschoolers’ story recall is better when stories told by parents are accompanied by illustrations (Greenhoot, Beyer, & Curtis, 2014), and older elementary school children’s ability to draw inferences from text is significantly greater when text is accompanied by pictures (Holmes, 1987). Younger children also seem to have more to gain from pictures than older children. Feathers (2002) found that kindergarten children were more likely than sixth graders to include illustrations in their recall of narrative stories. In other words, they used statements more often with information that could only have come from the illustrations, not the text. Another possible benefit of the book context is that storybooks often involve familiar, canonical experiences, leaving more opportunity to work out the noncanonical (e.g., a conflict between character perspectives). Researchers have shown that 2- to 5-year-olds understand the canonical relations among the elements of the pentad (e.g., characters, actions, goals, scenes; Bruner & Lucariello, 1989; Nelson, 1986). In Enemy Pie, the neighborhood setting and character actions (e.g., basketball, treehouse, trampoline) and character relationships (e.g., son and father, jealousy that the enemy may steal his best friend) are likely familiar to children. As Lucariello (1990) pointed out, these are the aspects of narrative that provide pentadic balance—there is no need to elaborate on why a child would want to play on a trampoline or in a treehouse. It is the imbalance that motivates us to think about the consciousness of the characters (Lucariello, 1990; e.g., why would the boy’s father make a pie that tastes so delicious if it is supposed to get rid of his enemy?). Lucariello (1990) found that stories containing pentadic imbalance were more likely to lead kindergartners to provide narrative responses to story comprehension questions (i.e., they elaborated the literal events of the story in an attempt to make explanations about it), suggesting that young children are motivated to work out these inconsistencies through narrative. From a pragmatic perspective (e.g., Harris, 2005), what dyads do with language facilitates children’s understanding of the mind. A pragmatic framework applies to narrative input and FBU when different perspectives


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are made salient during storytelling (Turnbull, Carpendale, & Racine, 2009). Different perspectives are highlighted when dyads coconstruct a narrative or when a parent repairs a child’s story with an explanation. As mentioned earlier, a limitation of the “referential” count of mental terms is that it does not capture how those words are used in context. For example, the phrase “I think” can be used in a more formulaic way (e.g., I think that …) rather than truly drawing children’s attention toward an internal state of a person/character. Parents may not need reference a mental term to convey to children that there is a conflict between character perspectives or between a mental state and reality. For example, Turnbull, Carpendale, and Racine (2008) found that more so than mothers’ mental state terms, their discussion of the FB elements of a storybook (many times in the absence of mental terms) predicted children’s FBU. Literacy researchers also recognize the importance of understanding characters’ perspectives for comprehending the story (Kim, 2015a, 2015b; Kim & Phillips, 2016). These perspectives, including characters’ emotions, desires, beliefs, and intentions, motivate characters’ actions, and without understanding these internal states, cannot be completely understood. Some character perspectives are explicitly stated, some character perspectives can be inferred from actions, and at a higher level, the reader must also understand the author’s intended message to arrive at a deeper understanding of the story events (Pelletier & Beatty, 2015). Although most of the work on parents’ input to children and children’s FBU has been correlational with two meta-analyses now summarizing this large literature (Devine & Hughes, 2018; Tompkins et al., 2018), there is also causal evidence that adults’ input causes growth in FBU (Guajardo & Watson, 2002; Ornaghi, Brockmeier, & Gavazzi, 2011; Tompkins, 2015a). Tompkins (2015a) conducted a training study in which experimenters read storybooks with preschoolers that were focused on FBs. In the training sessions, the experimenter read the book, but also engaged children in discussion of theory of mind concepts, including labeling and explaining mental states, using complement syntax and contrastives, making the link between seeing and knowing, and discussion of deception and trickery. An important finding was that children in the experimental group had improved FBU relative to a control group that was read the same storybooks about characters with FBs, but without the discussion of theory of mind concepts. This control group was no different in FBU from one that did not engage in any storybook readings. This complements the parental input studies by suggesting that there are qualitative differences in the mental term input that impacts children’s FBU.

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3.4 Children’s narrative skills and theory of mind Thus far, we have been discussing narrative as a context through which theory of mind concepts can be discussed with children by parents. Another approach is to examine children’s narrative abilities in relation to theory of mind, a relation that has received less empirical attention in children 5 years and younger as compared to school-aged children. There are a wide range of assessments used for prereaders’ narrative comprehension, such as story and listening/sentence comprehension, generating inferences, story retelling, and picture sequencing, as described below. Perhaps the narrative genre most relevant to theory of mind is that of fables, as they typically involve deception and FB (e.g., one character’s representation of reality is often incorrect; Pelletier & Beatty, 2015). A specific challenge to young children may be to understand the author’s intended meaning—the moral of the story, which is often only implicitly conveyed as in the previously discussed example from Enemy Pie. Pelletier and Beatty (2015) examined the relation between 4- and 5-year-olds’ FBU and story comprehension of a fable (including the moral of the story) and found that they were significantly correlated. Riggio and Cassidy (2009) also found that preschoolers who passed a FB question asked during a storybook reading were better able to explicitly describe the FB in their retellings. Similarly, Pelletier and Astington (2004) found that preschoolers were better able to integrate the landscapes of action and consciousness in a narrative retelling task when they had better FBU. In general, researchers have not focused on the relation between prereaders’ FBU and narrative skills with tasks that focus on more than the FB of the story. An exception is a finding that preschoolers’ theory of mind was related to phrase and sentence comprehension of passages not specific to FBs (Guajardo & Cartwright, 2016). The comprehension assessment used by Guajardo and Cartwright (2016) was somewhat limited because it assessed comprehension of isolated sentences rather than a complete story where inferences must be drawn across events. We argue that FBU may be important not only for understanding the FB elements of a story, but for understanding the story as a whole. This is the argument made by researchers examining this link in older children—that the ability to create a coherent situation model of the story involves understanding the various character perspectives and being able to make correct inferences while reading (Kim, 2015a, 2015b; Kim & Phillips, 2016). To explore this possibility in prereaders, Tompkins, Blosser, and Downing (under review) recently examined preschoolers’ FBU and story comprehension, including questions about character mental states, but also other story elements, such as setting,


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causal inference, and predicting what happens next. Story comprehension and FBU were significantly related at two timepoints 6 months apart. Surprisingly little research has linked the literature on understanding consciousness in narrative and theory of mind to children’s general narrative development, which has focused on the inferences that must be generated while one reads (or hears) a narrative. Extratextual inferences are those inferences that must be drawn from prior knowledge and are not based on information explicitly stated in the story, as opposed to inferences that can be made by linking clauses presented in the text (Graesser, Bertus, & Magliano, 1995). Superordinate goals are those that motivate the character’s intentions and actions that follow and thus require an understanding of the character’s consciousness. Although other inferences are not directly about mental states (subordinate actions are inferences about the actions that achieve the character’s goal), they only make sense when considering why the protagonist is motivated to perform that action. For example, in Enemy Pie, the son spends all day with his enemy engaging in several different activities because he thinks this will get rid of his enemy; for example, on the surface, playing in the treehouse, playing basketball are just events, but the motivation behind those actions is what young children might have difficulty with. Causal connections between events are also crucial to narrative comprehension (Graesser et al., 1995; van den Broek, 1989), and these also often involve an understanding of characters’ consciousness. For example, in Enemy Pie, the reader must understand that the son climbs his tree house before his enemy to remove the sign that states that Jeremy Ross is his #1 enemy. These causal connections appear to help children’s recall of stories as children tend to remember statements better the more they are causally linked to other statements in the text (Lynch et al., 2008; Trabasso & van den Broek, 1985). Also important for narrative comprehension is the ability to understand the causal chain of events leading from the beginning of the story to the outcome of the story (these represent the events that are central to the story rather than peripheral) as well as the categorical labels of the key story grammar elements, such as initiating event, unfolding events, and outcome (van den Broek, Lorch, & Thurlow, 1996). Some of these earlier formalist descriptions of children’s inferences while comprehending (often retelling) narratives focused more on the events themselves and causal connections between events than on the necessity of understanding character consciousness (e.g., van den Broek et al., 1996), whereas theory of mind researchers place understanding characters’

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consciousness at the forefront of story comprehension (Pelletier & Beatty, 2015). To bridge these two literatures, Tompkins et al. (under review) also examined FBU and children’s inferences while narrating a wordless book (in addition to the story comprehension measurement mentioned previously). Children’s inferences generated while narrating a wordless book, including goals, actions, causal connections, mental states, etc., were coded. Because the inferences children generated could have been more peripheral to the story, the number of initiating events, unfolding events, and outcome resolution events that were central to the story (the story grammar approach) were also coded. Preschoolers’ total inferences generated were significantly related to their FBU at two time points; additionally, their identification of the story grammar at time 1 was related to their FBU concurrently and 6 months later. Importantly, the stories used to assess these narrative skills—two of the Mercer Mayer frog stories, which are popular tools for assessing narrating prereaders— do require an understanding of mental states to comprehend the story, but they are not solely focused on theory of mind concepts. This research raises the question of whether children’s FBU is related only to narratives that are specifically about FBs or to narrative skills more broadly?

3.5 Adult–child talk during shared reading One approach to answering this question may be to examine the research on adult (i.e., parent or teacher) book reading and its relation to young children’s narrative skills. This research most often examines children’s story comprehension, assessed by reading an unfamiliar book to children and asking comprehension questions typically including both literal and inferential questions. Although most research on narrative input to children and theory of mind has focused on mental terms, we argue that the same qualities of narrative input that may promote children’s narrative skill could also promote children’s theory of mind. Using language to characterize and interpret persons and their actions is common to both theory of mind and narrative. One quality of adult narrative input receiving empirical attention is the degree to which adults use inferential and explanatory talk while reading with children. Researchers examining adult–child book reading often approach this relation from the same theoretical viewpoint (i.e., a social constructivist orientation) as those interested in mental terms specifically (e.g., van Kleeck, 2004), and researchers coding for parents’ mental state talk while reading books to children are essentially coding for extratextual inferential talk.


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Both inferential talk and the understanding of internal states are difficult for prereaders; in their retellings of stories, they tend to list the sequence of events rather than to understand the story on a more holistic level (e.g., Shannon, Kameenui, & Baumann, 1988), and researchers argue that children need the scaffolding of teachers and parents to become competent in both inferential language/reading comprehension skills (e.g., van Kleeck, 2008) and theory of mind (e.g., Tompkins et al., 2018). Researchers assessing inferential talk typically invite parents to read a book with children and code for their extratextual utterances (i.e., talk that goes beyond the text in the book). Of specific interest is the quality of this talk, which can range from literal (e.g., describing the perceptual qualities of objects on the page, describing character actions, counting, etc.) to inferential (e.g., predicting what will happen next, integrating information across pages, discussing characters’ mental states, providing factual information such as definitions of words). Researchers find that preschoolers tend to have better story comprehension when parents use more inferential talk during shared reading (Haden, Reese, & Fivush, 1996; Reese, 1995; Robertson & Reese, 2017). Additionally, teachers’ inferential talk during book reading with preschoolers also predicts kindergarten story comprehension (Dickinson & Smith, 1994) and first grade reading comprehension (Zucker, Cabell, Justice, Pentimonti, & Kaderavek, 2013). A recent training study also provided causal evidence that using inferential talk with preschoolers during book reading resulted in gains in their story comprehension, particularly on the inferential questions (Collins, 2016). Narrative talk in other contexts during the preschool years, such as during mealtimes, is also related to kindergarten story comprehension (Beals, 2001). However, some researchers have also failed to find a relation between parents’ and teachers’ inferential talk during book reading and children’s story comprehension (e.g., Reese & Cox, 1999; Sonnenschein & Munsterman, 2002). One difficulty leading to these inconsistent findings may be in assessing story comprehension; unlike other language skills, such as vocabulary for which we have standardized and widely used assessments, there are limited standardized narrative assessments for prereaders. All studies cited here assessing preschoolers’ or kindergartener’s story comprehension used studyspecific, experimental tasks. Another possibility, however, is that the coding typically used, which includes a range of inferential and explanatory talk, does not capture the specific inferences that are particularly important for children’s story comprehension. In a recent training study explanations and discussions of characters’ mental states with preschoolers during shared reading (essentially extratextual inferential talk) led to gains in their story

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comprehension (Tompkins et al., under review). Additionally, in another training study with preschoolers, researchers found that a condition focused on the comprehension process led to greater gains in oral comprehension (i.e., a composite of story comprehension and other related skills) compared to participants in groups focused either on story grammar or phonological awareness; children in this group improved from the age of four into first grade relative to these two groups (Bianco et al., 2010). The comprehension group is relevant here as the training was largely focused on making inferences and in detecting inconsistencies in the stories (essentially the pentadic imbalance discussed earlier). Similarly, Strasser, Larraı´n, and Lissi (2013) found that preschoolers trained using coherence questions during book reading (largely focused on character consciousness, such as thoughts, emotions, and character goals) had significantly higher story comprehension compared to an open-ended questions group (focused on distancing questions, descriptions, and predictions) about 1 week after training. Future research could explore whether extratextual, inferential talk, in general, or mental state talk, specifically, is a better predictor of children’s story comprehension. The significant relation between narrative and FBU is perhaps not that surprising given the overlap in fictional stories and the prototypical assessments of FB (e.g., the Sally–Anne task). However, we think this link is intriguing for its potential to bridge research findings from these two areas to shed light on new research questions. For example, can training FBU lead to improved reading comprehension? We know that training FBU in a storybook context improves preschoolers’ story comprehension (Tompkins et al., under review) that teachers can be trained to implement theory of mind interventions with resulting improvements in school-aged children’s theory of mind (Valle et al., 2016), and that theory of mind is predictive of reading comprehension in school-aged children (e.g., Kim & Phillips, 2014). Thus, it seems plausible that theory of mind training would lead to gains in reading comprehension.

3.6 Directionality and underlying mechanisms of change The research on narrative and FBU raises questions of directionality and underlying mechanisms. In the parent input literature, it is assumed that parents’ mental term input in narratives with children influences children’s FBU. Longitudinal studies confirm that parents’ mental term use predicts children’s later FBU, but children’s earlier FBU does not predict parents’ mental term input (Adria´n et al., 2007; Ruffman et al., 2002). The experimental studies also confirm this causal relation (Guajardo & Watson, 2002; Tompkins, 2015a).


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However, children’s own narratives skills appear more likely related to FBU in a bidirectional way. In a recent study, children’s earlier narrative comprehension predicted FBU 6 months later and their earlier FBU also predicted later narrative comprehension (Tompkins et al., under review). Perhaps children’s growing experience with stories and narrative skills helps them to better understand the stories of FB tasks, and a greater FBU helps them to better understand characters’ mental states, intentions, and motivations in stories, which is crucial for comprehending most children’s narrative books. A remaining question then is how are these processes related? Does parents’ narrative input containing mental terms (or inferential talk more broadly) facilitate both children’s narratives skills and FBU, or one skill via the other? Another possibility is that narrative and FBU are related only indirectly via some other more foundational skill, such as vocabulary. However, others have also found a direct link between theory of mind and narrative/reading comprehension even when vocabulary is considered (Atkinson et al., 2017; Kim, 2015b; Pelletier & Beatty, 2015). Another possibility is that executive function explains the relation between these skills. Is it possible that children’s FBU is related to narrative understanding even when FBs are not central to the plot? Perhaps as character motivations and mental states become more comprehensible to children (as reflected in assessments of FBU), more working memory space is available to focus on the other aspects of the narrative often assessed in story comprehension assessments (e.g., who the characters were, where the story took place, causal relations among story events). In contrast to research with children 5 years and younger, the research on older children (i.e., 6 years and older) has only examined theory of mind as a predictor of reading comprehension, not the reverse, assuming theory of mind is a higher-order skill among others that influences comprehension (Kim, 2015a, 2015b, 2016; Kim & Phillips, 2014; Mota et al., 2016; Pelletier, 2006; Strasser & del Rı´o, 2014). Future work might examine the pathways among parent and teacher mental term (and inferential) input in early childhood, preschoolers’ narrative and theory of mind, and schoolaged children’s theory of mind and reading comprehension.

4. Conclusion We have brought together two literatures—theory of mind and narrative development—and this section offers an opportunity for highlighting common points those literatures share. In doing so, we briefly note new

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and promising lines for future research. Many additional suggestions for future research are found throughout the chapter. Theory of mind in young children is commonly measured with verbal FB tasks. FB reasoning is an index of the capacity to make sense of behavior through connecting the protagonist’s experience to a resultant perspective (i.e., belief) and then anticipating how the protagonist’s perspective will impact subsequent behavior. We summarized evidence indicating that parental linguistic input and children’s general linguistic competence contribute to theory of mind development for typically developing populations. Children’s linguistic competence influences, and is influenced by, their social interactions. Social constructivist perspectives emphasize parent–child talk within interactive episodes as a key mechanism for theory of mind development. “Talk” is more than making mental state references with mental terms. It is elaborating, contrasting, questioning, asking, explaining, drawing causal connections—in other words, it is putting language to use. In this chapter, we focused on narrative contexts where language is put to use to interpret behavior. Whether narratives are told, observed, or coconstructed in everyday interactions, they provide a structure for children that highlights mental concepts and the role those concepts play in making sense of people and behavior. To illustrate, we described in the previous section how fiction highlights mental concepts because stories generally (a) feature multiple perspectives, (b) explicitly articulate dual landscapes of action and consciousness, and (c) contain pentadic imbalance that draws attention to the epistemic qualities of the actors. When children hear a narrative, they must generate inferences that organize events within a causal and temporal sequence. Inferring the actor’s reasons and goals integrates those events into a meaningful and coherent structure. The actor’s superordinate goal is usually an intention that is itself informed by theory of mind concepts such as desire and belief. Narrative comprehension and theory of mind tasks both call on children to infer someone else’s perspective. Given this apparent conceptual overlap, there is surprisingly little empirical evidence addressing possible relations; however, we summarized recent evidence suggesting that narrative and theory of mind are related and that children’s skill at making narrative inferences predicts FBU 6 months later. More research is needed to clarify how preschool-aged children’s narrative experiences and skills relate to and predict their theory of mind development (and vice versa).


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These relations would not, of course, exist in a vacuum, and children’s linguistic environment is an obvious potential mediator or moderator. The precise aspects of young children’s linguistic environment that impact theory of mind development are in need of clarification and theoretical motivation in future research. As we noted earlier, researchers have examined qualities of adult talk that effectively scaffold narrative comprehension (e.g., Reese, 1995). However, this research is infrequently cited or used as motivation for the coding schemes developed for theory of mind studies of parent–child talk. This chapter offers one theoretical motivation for future research by proposing that the same categories of extratextual inferential talk that positively impact narrative comprehension skills in preschoolers should have a comparable impact on theory of mind development. Comparisons between parents’ extratexual talk and the quantity of their mental term use on children’s theory of mind would be instructive. The dynamic interplay of children’s linguistic and theory of mind competence with adults’ linguistic input is also an area for future research. Because the theory of mind and narrative development literatures share a common methodology—analyzing verbal exchanges during shared book reading— theory of mind research can gain from the literacy and education literatures that have fruitfully analyzed moment-by-moment exchanges (see Luo & Tamis-Lemonda, 2017; Zucker, Justice, Piasta, & Kaderavek, 2010, for examples). Specifying the qualities of parent–child exchanges that elicit mental terms (in both children and adults) would inform future languagebased training studies and educational interventions aimed at promoting theory of mind development.

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Further reading Bartsch, K., & Wellman, H. M. (1995). Children talk about the mind. New York: Oxford University Press. Carpendale, J., & Lewis, C. (2005). How children develop social understanding. Malden, MA: Blackwell. Fecica, A. M., & O’Neill, D. K. (2010). A step at a time: Preliterate children’s simulation of narrative movement during story comprehension. Cognition, 116(3), 368–381. Hoff, E. (2006). How social contexts support and shape language development. Developmental Review, 26, 55–88. Huttenlocher, J., Waterfall, H., Vasilyeva, M., Vevea, J., & Hedges, L. V. (2010). Sources of variability in children’s language growth. Cognitive Psychology, 61(4), 343–365. Kidd, E., Lieven, E., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Examining the role of lexical frequency in the acquisition and processing of sentential complements. Cognitive Development, 21(2), 93–107. Mar, R. A. (2018). Evaluating whether stories can promote social cognition: Introducing the social processes and content entrained by narrative (SPaCEN) framework. Discourse Processes, 55, 454–479. 1–26. Price, L. H., van Kleeck, A., & Huberty, C. J. (2009). Talk during book sharing between parents and preschool children: A comparison between storybook and expository book conditions. Reading Research Quarterly, 44(2), 171–194. Rodrı´guez, C. (2009). The ‘circumstances’ of gestures: Proto-interrogatives and private gestures. New Ideas in Psychology, 27(2), 288–303. Schick, B., de Villiers, P., de Villiers, J., & Hoffmeister, R. (2007). Language and theory of mind: A study of deaf children. Child Development, 78(2), 376–396. https://doi.org/ 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01004.x. Tsai, J. L., Louie, J. Y., Chen, E. E., & Uchida, Y. (2007). Learning what feelings to desire: Socialization of ideal affect through children’s storybooks. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(1), 17–30.