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The Role of Adults in Language Development III

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Dr. Turben wants teachers to have acess to a program she gave to the ODE Annual Conference - How Children Tell Us How They Think Before They Have the Language to Epress Thought ad Feeling

Adults can make the most important contribution to a child’s development:

As both these examples show very clearly, a really satisfying conversation needs to go beyond a single exchange.  And it is in enabling this to happen that an adult can make perhaps the most important contribution to the child’s development.  As already emphasized, conversation involves the cumulative and collaborative construction of meaning, in which the linguistic links between utterances are like the mortar that holds together the bricks in a wall.  For the child to be able to understand the nature of the meaning connections and to discover how the links are made linguistically, it is important that he or she should be able to form expectations about how the building process might proceed.  For this to happen, the adult needs to try to adopt the child’s perspective and, in his or her next contribution to the conversation, to incorporate some aspect of what the child has just said and to extend it or invite the child to do so him – or herself.

In the first extract from the recordings of Mark, we see very clear examples of these strategies for sustaining and extending Mark’s meanings:

Mark: (looking out of the window at the birds in the garden):  Look at that.  Birds, Mummy.

Mother: Mm.

Mark: Jubs (birds).

Mother: (inviting Mark to extend his own meaning): What are they doing?

Mark: Jubs bread (bird eating bread (?) )

Mother: (extending Marks meaning): Oh, look!  They’re eating the berries, aren’t they?

Mark: Yeh.

Mother: (extending and paraphrasing):  That’s their food.  They have berries for dinner.

Mark: Oh.

Help build conversation:

This short sequence of conversation seems an almost ideal example of the way in which parents can most helpfully contribute to their children’s language development.  In it we see how the mother adjusts her speech to take account of the child’s capabilities and helps him to build a conversation with her about a topic that is clearly of interest to him, as it is one that he initiated.  In her turns she encourages Mark to extend his initial topic and then takes what he contributes and extends is still further in a number of simple, related sentences that provide evidence for him as to how to express more fully what it is he has invited her to look at with him.  Notice, too, how she is also providing him with information about the topic to which they are jointly attending (the O in the triangle of communication), thus simultaneously enabling him to extend his model of the world to which the language refers.

Conversation does not become a monologue:

There is one final point to note about this example of collaborative meaning making.  Although in the latter part of the sequence it is the mother who is contributing all the new material, the conversation does not become a monologue.  Even though Mark may not have fully understood all that his mother is saying, he keeps up his end of the conversation, providing acknowledgement where they are required.  He, too, is playing his part in the collaborative enterprise.  This is important for, without these minimal but appropriate responses from Mark, his mother would not have felt able to continue to play her part.

Be responsive to cues that children provide:

Mark’s responses have another important function.  Together with his nonverbal behavior – gestures, facial, expressions, and so on- they provide his mother with feedback on the success of her contributions.  And, in the light of this, she is able to “tune” her speech fairly closely to his current ability to comprehend.  As that ability increases, she increases the complexity of what she says and of the ideas that she tries to communicate.  Adults do not need to know about the relative complexity of linguistic items, therefore, in order to provide appropriate evidence for children to learn from.  All that is required is that they be responsive to the cues that children provide as to what they are able to understand.  Rather than adults teaching children, therefore, it is children who teach adults how to talk in such a way as to make it easy for them to learn.

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