In my most recent post, I wrote about how powerful words are in a young child’s development. As I mentioned then, it’s been said that sometimes we’re in such a hurry to give kids the things we never had, that we forget to give them the things we did have. Meaningful conversation may rank high on that list of simple, yet powerful things we take for granted.
So here are a few tips for getting our kids more engaged in rich conversation at home and in the classroom:
READ. Hand in hand with conversation is reading. If the goal is to introduce our children to rich language, it’s hard to beat simply sharing a story. Recent research points to the more formal structure of storybooks as giving kids an increased edge for vocabulary development and grammar mastery than conversation alone. Add in the meaningful discussion that can accompany a good story (“Why do you think that happened?”, “What do you think will happen next?”) and it’s hard to beat those benefits.
Ask Open-Ended Questions. Ask questions that can be answered by something more than yes or no. Or hmpf and uh-huh. Stretch their vocabulary and their thinking. “How do you think those window washers will get down?” “What do you think that is?” “Where do you think that big truck is going?” “Tell me about this picture.” (I know, not technically a question, but you see the pattern.)
As a teacher, ask open ended questions even *before* you begin a unit. One of the best science units I ever taught was on the topic of winter. Pretty basic and predictable, right? I thought so too, until I asked my first graders what they wanted to know about winter. What did they wonder about? Several students mentioned being puzzled by the white residue on the bottoms of cars in the winter time. Was this left over snow that become dry and hard? As an adult, of course I knew this was the residue left from road salt after the snow had melted and then evaporated. And because I knew this, I had completely missed the wonder until they brought it up.
What ensued was a great opportunity to explore freezing, melting, evaporation, (phases of water – check) and the “magic” of separating impurities in that process. It was a purposeful and meaningful road I never would have gone down if I hadn’t taken the time to ask them what they were wondering about.
Follow Up. As Dr. Risley pointed out in the quote I included in the last post, what distinguishes the parents who talk more from those that talk less is that they follow up. As I quoted before, “It’s that the talkative parents are taking extra turns responding to what the child just said and did, and elaborating on it, or responding to it, or caring — taking extra turns.” It’s the, “Tell me more.” “Then what happened?” Why do you think that is?” Not only does it invite more words, but it takes an active and invested listener, which is a necessary ingredient in meaningful conversations.
Share (Appropriate) Current Events. Just as story books engage children on a higher level, so do news stories. (Think: Weekly Reader program.) Preview and share news pieces your child might find interesting. My friend Amy Mascott, of Teach Mama fame, does this regularly with her kids and was my inspiration recently as I shared this fascinating story with my creature-loving third grader. Not only was it a powerful literacy activity, but the discussion that naturally followed (“How did they survive?” “What should they do now?”) stretched his vocabulary, scientific knowledge, and reasoning skills. Plus, it’s another parent-child connection as you take note of their interests and share that interest together. Share news stories appropriate to the age and interests of your children, and ask what they think or what they would do. Let them be the experts!
Don’t Shy Away From Big Words. As I’ve written before, “ It is very common for adults to simplify their language when talking to young children. Instead of referring to the veterinarian, we talk about the “animal doctor”. While a sentence full of new words would be a bit overwhelming for anyone, throwing in a new word now and then is a great opportunity to build vocabulary! If we are referring to the veterinarian, we should use that word, offering “animal doctor” as an explanation, and then referring to “veterinarian” a few more times in the conversation. If you’re explaining what something is, you might as well use the right word the first time. Children may not always pick up on those big words, but they certainly won’t if they don’t ever hear them. There isn’t much opportunity for growth if we’re always using words they already know. So go ahead, use words like “identical” instead of “same” and “metamorphosis” instead of “change”. You’ll be surprised at what your children will pick up on when you give them the chance!”
Make it routine. Make conversation a regular part of your routine so that it becomes natural and expected. Dinner time. Drive time. Bed time. One on one care-giving times like diapering and bathing are easy to miss as conversation spaces, but powerful when taken advantage of. This doesn’t mean you have to talk incessantly, but when you make these conversation times routine, not only does it remind you to spark discussion, but it teaches kids there’s always a safe space reserved for their thoughts and ideas. That can go a long way, not just in language and cognitive development, but in the strengthening of your family relationships.
Connect. Make sure conversation isn’t just about words. Connect. Make eye contact. Get close. Slow down. Certainly there are valuable conversations that will happen as you work together to make dinner or fold the clothes (and, in fact, there are some benefits to having difficult conversations while both parties are occupied with another task rather than explicitly focused on face-to-face talk) but in our hustle-to-the-next-spot, call-out-as-you-head-through-the-door whirlwind, we would do well to remind ourselves that conversation is about connection, and to model that for our kids.
How do you make time and space for conversation?