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Learning at home: Having conversations with young children that support learning

Talking with your child is one of the most important things you can do to support their learning! Language helps build children’s brains and gives them the means to think and develop ideas and to express themselves. The quantity and quality of children’s language experiences are strongly linked to their cognitive and language development, their social skills, and their later academic performance. Research shows that meaningful communication with others  is highly beneficial for children’s language development and later academic success.  Language skills are improved by two-way communication rather than passive listening or one-way interaction with a tablet, smartphone screen or television.

How to have rich conversations with your child:

  • Just talk! Every moment is a potential talking moment. Tell children what you are doing, what you see, what you notice about them or what they are doing, where you are going. ‘Yes, I see the water too! What a big splash!’ or ‘I love that blue truck you are playing with. It is driving up and down’. Talk through routines such as mealtimes and nappy changing. Describe sensations and textures: for example, ‘This yoghurt is smooth’ and ‘This banana is sweet’.
  • Validate and expand on what children say using new words and phrases to expand and extend upon their ideas. For example, if they say ‘water’, you can say ‘more water’ or ‘water gone’. Adding more information can be a natural part of the back and forth of a conversation, and shouldn’t interrupt the flow of conversation.

             Child: Look at my tiger!

Adult: Your tiger looks fierce! You’ve drawn a long tail too.

  • Be available, engaged and responsive to your child. Join in and play and get down to a face to face level with children.
  • Use conversations to build up your child’s vocabulary by using rich and varied vocabulary in play (for example, saying ‘We’re squashing it and squishing it!’ while playing with playdough). Outdoor play or science activities provide many opportunities to talk about nature, size, shape, textures, quantity and temperature.  Use specialised language related to topics, such as explaining the terms ‘larva’ and ‘cocoon’ when learning about butterflies. Rather than avoiding difficult or complex words, just explain them.
  • Make more comments and ask fewer questions when talking with your child, as too many questions can make children feel as if they are being tested, while comments offer children more vocabulary, sentence structures and knowledge. During a drawing activity, for example,  instead of asking ‘What are you drawing?’, ‘What colour is that sun?’ or ‘Where will the house go?’, you could use comments such as ‘I like your house’ or ‘That’s a pointy green roof!’ along with occasional open questions like ‘I wonder who lives upstairs?’
  • Engage children in cognitively challenging conversations such as sharing opinions and ideas in pretend play, analysing experiences and different ways of doing an activity or solving a problem, and theorising about how things work.  Give children information when they need it, but try to avoid too much ‘telling’ as children are likely to become passive, bored and disinterested.
  • Ask questions at both low level and higher levels. Lower level questions elicit labels (‘do you know what this is?’), descriptions (‘what do these look like to you?’) and recall (‘what do these remind you of?’). High level, cognitively demanding questions encourage explaining, imagining, interpreting, predicting, and forming opinions. These are generally open questions such as: ‘What do you think would happen if…?’ or ‘How could we end the story differently?’ Ask children  how to make things happen,  how and why things work, and how to find out more about things that interest them.
PREPARED FOR THE EDUCATION HUB BY

Dr Vicki Hargraves

Vicki runs our ECE webinar series and also is responsible for the creation of many of our ECE research reviews. Vicki is a teacher, mother, writer, and researcher living in Marlborough. She recently completed her PhD using philosophy to explore creative approaches to understanding early childhood education. She is inspired by the wealth of educational research that is available and is passionate about making this available and useful for teachers.