Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who talked only about what she was interested in? How about someone who merely told you what to do without asking for your input, or someone who asked a lot of questions as if they were testing you?
When we interact with someone who uses this kind of conversational style, we might feel as though we aren't being heard or that this person doesn't care about our values, ideas, and interests. In contrast, when someone shows genuine interest in what we are saying—by giving us plenty of time to initiate conversation, by waiting for us to finish our messages, and by responding in a contingent way—we feel that what we say is valuable. Usually, this encourages us to talk more about the topic or idea.
In this sense, children are like adults. Children appreciate a conversational partner who gives them plenty of time to speak, lets them finish, and responds in a contingent way. Such responsiveness encourages children's language and communication growth.
Being "conversationally responsive" with young children is somewhat different from doing so with adults. One reason is that children have less vocabulary and ability to handle grammatical complexity than adults. Thus, adults must make sure that they understand what children are trying to communicate. Another reason is that children and adults usually have very different interests; what may seem mundane or trivial to an adult may be novel and fascinating to a young child, which may motivate the child to talk about it.
Researchers Elaine Weitzman and Janice Greenberg (2002) describe several strategies that early childhood educators can use to be more conversationally responsive to children and ultimately promote their language and communication. One strategy is to Observe, Wait, and Listen.
Observing involves paying attention to children to see what they are interested in and to determine when they are trying to communicate. For example, infants and toddlers oftentimes hold up toys they are interested in or point to things. Older children might become involved with an activity for an extended period of time, also indicating interest. These subtle gestures and signs indicate interest and can serve as a springboard for comments or conversation.
Waiting involves giving children an opportunity to initiate conversation and communicative exchanges. Teachers may feel the need to talk for children who are not yet fully competent conversationalists. However, children often need extra time to formulate what they want to say. For this reason, waiting expectantly for them to express their thoughts should help them feel comfortable in gathering their thoughts and initiating conversation.
Listening involves paying attention to children so you can respond appropriately to their initiations. Once they initiate, it is important keep the conversation going by truly listening to their message. Listening to children by facing them, being on their physical level (usually low or near to the floor), and giving them your full attention shows them that you value their comments.
Although this strategy—Observing, Waiting, Listening—may seem easy and intuitive, communicating with young children is something that early childhood educators sometimes forget. For this reason, it is often beneficial to ask a partner (e.g., a co-teacher, a teaching assistant, a paraprofessional) for feedback on your Observing, Waiting, and Listening. This can help you to use this strategy consistently, effectively, and intentionally when communicating with young children.
Weitzman, E., & Greenberg, J. (2002). Learning language and loving it (2nd ed.) Toronto, Ontario: The Hanen Centre.
Khara Pence Turnbull, Ph.D. is a Research Scientist in Washington, DC. She is editor of Assessment in Emergent Literacy (Plural Publishing) and author of Language Development from Theory to Practice (Merrill/Prentice Hall).