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59. Ask versus tell: Potential confusion when child witnesses are questioned about conversations
Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (2017)
  • Stacia N. Stolzenberg, Arizona State University
  • Kelly McWilliams, CUNY John Jay College
  • Thomas D. Lyon, University of Southern California
Children’s potential confusion between “ask” and “tell” can lead to misunderstandings when child witnesses are asked to report prior conversations. The verbs distinguish both between interrogating and informing and between requesting and commanding. Children’s understanding was examined using both field (i.e., Study 1) and laboratory (i.e., Studies 2-4) methods. Study 1 examined 100 5- to 12-year-olds’ trial testimony in child sexual abuse cases, and found that potentially ambiguous use of ask and tell was common, typically found in yes/no questions that elicited unelaborated answers, and virtually never clarified by attorneys or child witnesses. Studies 2-4 examined 345 maltreated 6- to 11-year-olds’ understanding of ask and tell. The results suggest that children initially comprehend telling as saying, and thus believe that asking is a form of telling. As such, they often endorsed asking as telling when asked/yes no questions, but distinguished between asking and telling when explicitly asked to choose. Their performance was impaired by movement between different use of the words. Child witnesses’ characterization of their conversations can easily be misconstrued by the way in which they are questioned, leading questioners to misinterpret whether they were coached by disclosure recipients or coerced by abuse suspects.
  • ask,
  • tell,
  • child witnesses,
  • linguistic development,
  • child sexual abuse,
  • child testimony
Publication Date
Spring May 17, 2017
Citation Information
Stolzenberg, S.N, McWilliams, K., & Lyon, T.D. (2017). Ask versus tell: Potential confusion when child witnesses are questioned about conversations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 23, 443-459.