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Telling the story of theory of mind: Deaf and hearing children's narratives and mental state understanding


Correspondence should be addressed to Professor Candida Peterson, School of Psychology, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia (e-mail:


Theory of mind (ToM) was examined in late-signing deaf children in two studies by using standard tests and measures of spontaneous talk about inner states of perception, affect and cognition during storytelling. In Study 1, there were 21 deaf children aged 6 to 11 years and 13 typical-hearing children matched with the deaf by chronological age. In Study 2, there were 17 deaf children aged 6 to 12 years and 17 typical-hearing preschoolers aged 4 to 5 years who were matched with the deaf by ToM test performance. In addition to replicating the consistently reported finding of poor performance on standard false belief tests by late-signing deaf children, significant correlations emerged in both studies between deaf children's ToM test scores and their spontaneous narrative talk about imaginative cognition (e.g. ‘pretend’). In Study 2, with a new set of purpose-built pictures that evoked richer and more complex mentalistic narration than the published picture book of Study 1, results of multiple regression analyses showed that children's narrative talk about imaginative cognition was uniquely important, over and above hearing status and talking of other kinds of mental states, in predicting ToM scores. The same was true of children's elaborated narrative talk using utterances that either spelt out thoughts, explained inner states or introduced contrastives. In addition, results of a Guttman scalogram analysis in Study 2 suggested a consistent sequence in narrative and standard test performance by deaf and hearing children that went from (1) narrative mention of visible (affective or perceptual) mental states only, along with FB failure, to (2) narrative mention of cognitive states along with (1), to (3) elaborated narrative talk about inner states along with (2), and finally to (4) simple and elaborated narrative talk about affective/perceptual and cognitive states along with FB test success. Possible explanations for this performance ordering, as well as for the observed correlations in both studies between ToM test scores and narrative variables, were considered.