Adult Conversations with Preschoolers (page 3)
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.
The turn-taking goals of adult-adult and adult-child conversations differ. In adult-adult conversations, the participants try to obtain a turn, whereas the adult goal in adult-child conversations is to get the child to take her or his turn. As with a younger child, mothers rely heavily on the questioning technique of elicitation. One variant of this technique is a turnabout, an utterance that both responds to the previous utterance and, in turn, requires a response. Thus, a turnabout fills a mother's turn and then requires a turn by her child. By using turnabouts, a mother creates a series of successful turns that resemble conversational dialog. Here's an example:
CHILD: We had pizza.
ADULT: Pizza! Hmmm, I bet you went to a _____
CHILD: Birthday party!
ADULT: I love birthday parties. Whose party was it?
Generally, a turnabout consists of some type of response to, or statement about, a child's utterance and a request for information, clarification, or confirmation that serves as a cue to the child. The mother often initiates a topic or an exchange with a question, thus gaining control. If asked a question, she regains control by responding with another question. Resultant dialogs consist of three successive utterances: the mother's first question, the child's response, and the mother's confirmation, which may include another question. For example, the mother might say, "Can you tell me what this is?" and then respond to the child's answer with "Um-hum, and what does it do?" Thus, the mother is now back in control. In general, the child is less likely to respond to the mother without a turnabout.
Repeatedly hearing a caregiver's questions can have a beneficial effect on a preschooler's development of more adultlike questions (Valian & Casey, 2003). Corrective feedback, as noted in imitation and expansion, also facilitates development of some syntactic structures.
There are several types of turnabouts, shown with examples in the table below. One type, the request for clarification or contingent query, is used by both adults and children to gain information that initially was not clearly transmitted or received. Its use requires that both the listener and the speaker attend to prior discourse. Thus, its use may be related to the development of the ability to refer to what has come before. Children receive little negative feedback via contingent queries (Morgan & Travis, 1989). Parental requests for clarification are just as likely to be attempts to clarify genuine misunderstandings and miscommunications as to correct production errors.
The contingent query consists of the original utterance, the query, the response, and the utterance for resumption of the speaker's turn. These four components are illustrated as follows:
|Original utterance||CHILD: We saw mahmees. (Topic)|
|Query||ADULT: What did you see?|
|Resumption||ADULT: Oh, did they do funny things? (Return to topic)|
Children aged 3 to 5½ are able to produce and respond effectively to contingent queries from both adults and peers, although younger children are more effective in their use with adults.
With 2- to 3-year-olds, mothers employ yes/no questions in turnabouts most frequently. This form requires a confirmation and is easy for children as young as 18 months to process. If a child does not respond appropriately, the conversational expectations of the mother are not fulfilled, and she will ask fewer contingent queries. It is clear that once again the caregiver's conversational behaviors reflect the feedback she receives from the child.
|Wh-question||How did that happen?|
|Yes/no question||Does he scratch a lot?|
|Tag question||I bet he doesn't like fleas, does he?|
|What does your dog have?|
Does he have fleas?
|Correction||Fleas! (With an expectant tone)|
|I wonder statement||I wonder where he got them.|
|Fill-in||Fleas make you...|
|Expansion with (yes/no) turnabout||Your dog has fleas. Did you give him a bath?|
|Extension with (wh-) turnabout||My dog had fleas once. Yukk! What did you do?|
Source: Adapted from Kaye & Chaney (1981)
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