Adult Conversations with Preschoolers
Caregivers' altered behavior enables infants to engage in successful communication as early as possible. This process continues in the preschool years. Mothers provide opportunities for their children to make verbal contributions, draw them into conversations and provide a well-cued framework for the exchange, show their children when to speak, and thereby develop cohesiveness between the speaker and the listener. Mothers ask children to comment on objects and events within their experience. They also expand information by talking about the same object or event in different ways or by adding new ideas and elaborating on them. These maternal modifications appear to be correlated with advances in the child's language abilities.
Mothers of 3- to 4-year-olds use many techniques to encourage communication. For example, they use twice as many utterance prefixes, such as well and now, as their children do. These signals, plus varied intonation, are used with responses and help a child understand by signaling that a response is coming. In addition, mothers use a high proportion of redundant utterances to acknowledge and reassure children. A mother frequently acknowledges with "good" or "that's it." This response fills a minimal turn and adds little additional information, but encourages her child without being overly disruptive to the child's speech stream. Maternal repetition of her child's utterance seems to be for the purposes of emphasis and reassurance.
Clearly in control, mothers are not equally helpful in all areas of language. For example, mothers are not as facilitative with turn-taking as they are with other pragmatic skills (Bedrosian, Wanska, Sykes, Smith, & Dalton, 1988). Control of the conversation seems more important to mothers than facilitation. As a child gets older, mother uses more imperatives.
As the dominant conversational partner throughout the preschool years, mothers interrupt their children much more than their children interrupt them. When interrupting, mothers usually omit the politeness markers, such as excuse me, seen in adult-adult dialog. The frequency of these interruptions decreases with a child's maturity level.
When interrupted, children usually cease talking and then reintroduce the topic. In contrast, mothers usually continue to talk when interrupted by their children and do not reintroduce the topic as often.
Naturally, teaching methods change as a child matures. Expansion of her child's utterances is not as effective a teaching tool with the preschool child as it is with the toddler. Instead, a mother's expansion of her own prior utterances may be more important. This expansion is characterized by a maternal self-repetition followed by an expansion, such as "Want big cookie? Does Maury want a big cookie?" Thus, the mother assists the child in finding the structural similarity by a comparison of adjacent utterances.
Mothers also continue to facilitate the structure and cohesiveness of conversations by maintaining and reintroducing the topic. With increasing age, a typical child takes a greater number of turns on each topic, although the number of turns is still low by adult standards and does not change radically until school age.
Maternal speech to 30-month-olds benefits syntactic learning by providing language-advancing data and by eliciting conversation (Hoff-Ginsberg, 1990). From a mother's point of view, it seems more important to engage her child in conversation than to elicit advanced forms from the child. Conversation keeps a child's attention on language input and motivates the child to participate.
The mother sustains her child's interest by the use of mild encouragement ("Oh, that's nice") and praise ("What a lovely picture"). Generally, such elicitation and feedback on the quality of a child's productions does little to contribute to development (Pinker, 1989).
The effects of conversation appear to be structure-specific. As might be expected, questions contribute to the development of auxiliary or helping verbs and the verb to be, because these forms are prominently placed at the beginning of the sentence, as in "Did you eat the cookies?" and "Is he happy or sad?" (Hoff-Ginsberg, 1986; Richards, 1986, 1987, 1990; Richards & Robinson, 1993). Mothers also use yes/no questions to reformulate their children's utterances. For example, when the child says "Mommy eating," the adult might reply in a teasing way "Is mommy eating?"
Mothers invite child utterances, primarily through the use of questions, often followed by self-responses. This form of modeling is an effective teaching tool. For example, she might ask, "What color should we use?" followed by "I pick red." In turn, her child may respond "I pick green."
Shared event knowledge is still important and provides scaffolding for new structures (Lucariello, 1990). Scripts that emerge from these shared events, such as going to the park or ridding in the car, concentrate a child's attention, provide models, create formats, and limit a child's linguistic options, thus decreasing the amount of child cognitive processing and supporting the topic of conversation. This scaffolding is particularly important when discussing either nonpresent referents or topics. Approximately 85 percent of 24- to 29-month-old children's information-providing utterances on nonpresent topics occur in such scripted contexts.
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