Engaging Young Children in Conversation

byRuthie Dearson, M.A., CCC-SLP

Recent research highlights the significant effect engaging children in conversation has on their language development (July 2009 issue of Pediatrics). While it was once thought that children mostly needed to be provided with language input, i.e., reading, story telling and simple narration of daily events, it is now understood that being actively engaged in back and forth conversation is what contributes most significantly to children’s cognitive, social, and emotional growth.

Engaging children in conversation can sometimes be challenging, and it’s important to have realistic expectations about a child’s participation; however, very young children are able to take conversational turns. Infant turns consist of hiccups, coos, and gurgles, toddler turns consist of single words and short phrases. Adult responses to these turns provide children with their initial experiences in conversational turn-taking. What we know from research and our work here at Family Compass is that allowing children plenty of time to respond (i.e., count in your head s..l..o..w..l..y to 5 or 10 before saying something else) helps children to participate.

Although it’s natural to attempt to engage children by asking lots of questions, make sure you also use comments when interacting with your child, and then wait, allowing him/her time to process what you said and formulate a response. The following list provides ideas for engaging your child in conversation using both questions and comments:

  1. Make the most of the questions you ask. Use this question hierarchy as a guide and adjust your questions to the right level for your developing child:     Yes and No questions are the easiest.
    Who, What, and Where questions are a bit harder.
    When, Why, and How questions are the most difficult.
  2. Ask questions about what your child is interested in…use sincere questions that build on your child’s focus in order to promote back and forth conversation. Example: “why does your dolly have a suitcase?” vs. “what are you doing?”
  3. Ask questions that really have no right answer to stimulate creative thinking and problem solving. “Figuring-out” questions require more thought and reasoning than “fact” questions. Example: “how are tomatoes the same as strawberries?” vs. “what color is this?”
  4. Use creative questions to help your child come up with his/her own imaginative ideas: “what would you do if that were you?” or “what might happen if…” or “I wonder what it would be like to…”
  5. Use books and story telling to expand your child’s narrative language skills. Encourage your child to predict what a story will be about by reading the title and looking at the cover. When possible, relate the story to your child’s or your own experiences. Example: “that reminds me of the time when we baked cookies at grandma’s house.”
  6. Use classic stories such as The Three Little Pigs or Goldilocks and the Three Bearsand after reading them act them out with your child using different props. This will encourage creativity, problem solving (“what should we use for the straw house?), sequencing, and narrative skills. This is also a great activity for playdates.
  7. Spend some time each evening to review fun or interesting things that happened during the day. Example, “that was so much fun going to the park today” and give your child a chance to respond with his/her own thoughts. Expand on what your child says by reflecting back the ideas and adding to them.
  8. Cut out pictures from old catalogs. Then make silly pictures by gluing parts of different pictures together in an improbable way. For example, glue a picture of a dog to the inside of a car as if the dog is driving. Help your child explain what is silly about the picture.
  9. Look at family pictures, and have your child explain what is happening in each one.
  10. When your child draws pictures, encourage him/her to tell you about what he/she drew. Write down what your child says on the paper. Encourage your child to consider making a whole story out of pictures where your child draws the pictures and tells the story and you write it down. Once it’s finished staple it together and read the story to your child. If your child just labels the pictures that’s fine, but encourage expansion by using story language…for example, if your child draws a picture of a tiger and says, “tiger” you could say, “once upon a time there was a tiger…” and see if this sparks an interest in your child to add more information and details.

Zimmerman, et al. Teaching by Listening: The Importance of Adult-Child Conversations to Language Development. Pediatrics 2009; 124 (1) 342-349.

www.asha.org, “How Does Your Child Hear and Talk?”
Let Language Lead the Way to Literacy by Janice Greenberg and Elaine Wietzman