Building your evidence engine: Five evidence-informed strategies for promoting rich conversations with young children

Strong oral language skills provide children with a platform to communicate effectively, and predict children’s success in formal classroom settings and life trajectories more broadly.

Acquisition of oral language development is one of the most remarkable and significant features of development across the early years. Strong oral language skills provide children with a platform to communicate effectively, and predict children’s success in formal classroom settings and life trajectories more broadly (Girard, 2015; Law, 2000; Snowling, 2015). Research from Australia and internationally has demonstrated that young children who are exposed to rich oral language environments, at home (Cartmill, 2013; Thorpe K., 2003) and in education settings (Chambers, 2016; Golinkoff, 2019; Holmes, 2019), have increased expressive language skills (use of words and construction of communications) and receptive language skills (knowledge of words and understanding of communication).

Communication and language approaches used in education settings emphasise the importance of spoken language and verbal interaction for young children and explicitly support communication through talking, verbal expression, modelling language and reasoning. These approaches are one of the highest impact approaches in Evidence for Learning’s new and developing resource, the Early Childhood Education Toolkit. On average, children who are involved in communication and language approaches make approximately six months’ additional progress over a period of a year. All children benefit from such approaches, but some studies show slightly larger effects for children from disadvantaged backgrounds (Education Endowment Foundation, 2019).

Some types of communication and language approaches appear, on average, to be more effective than others (Education Endowment Foundation, 2019). In this article we share some evidence-informed ways that educators can make a difference by creating rich oral language environments for children.

What does a rich oral language environment look and sound like?
Evidence suggests that rich oral language environments are those in which children are not only exposed to complex and varied language, but are those that engage children in sustained conversations, provide opportunities for exploration and expression (e.g. using gestures, words and sentences) and allow a child to communicate their thoughts, feelings and ideas. Whilst oral language is embedded across the Early Years Learning Framework, and speaking and listening are important elements in the Literacy Strand of the Australian Curriculum, how educators achieve rich conversations is not always well ‘articulated’.  

How can educators promote rich oral language environments?
There is a large and varied range of strategies that educators can use intentionally to promote rich conversations with children in formal educational settings.  These interactional strategies can be useful tools in an educator’s toolkit, and understanding how these strategies work, can help educators to select those most appropriate for achieving their teaching goals.

Below we provide five evidence-informed strategies that have been shown to be effective in promoting rich conversations with children in early education settings. These strategies emerge from a recent systematic review of Australasian research conducted by the University of Queensland for Evidence for Learning to support the communication and language approaches strand of the Early Childhood Education Toolkit. This review focused specifically on evidence of “how” rich conversations may be promoted within early childhood education and care settings for children aged 2-5 years. The strategies, however, are likely to be useful for educators and caregivers more broadly, as ways to purposefully and intentionally promote rich conversations with children.

Strategy 1: Position children with knowledge
Engaging children in conversations is a balancing act. Moving between leading and following in conversations allows children space to express their thoughts and ideas. It’s much easier for a child to contribute to conversations if they are treated as knowledgeable and their ideas are valued.

Traditionally, educators have been considered ‘experts’ who impart their knowledge to learners (i.e. the children), creating an unbalanced power dynamic. Research evidence, however, shows that educators can use a range of strategies to position children as equal partners in conversation. These strategies focus on downplaying the educator’s position as ‘expert’ in the classroom and position children with knowledge and ideas to contribute to conversations (Houen, Danby, Farrell, & Thorpe, 2018). A key example includes the use of ‘problem’ questions (e.g. “What’s happened, where’s all  the sand gone?”), to elicit descriptions of problems encountered in the classroom and to initiate discussions about children’s ideas relating to solving these problems (Bateman et al., 2013) or ‘I wonder…’ questions, which can reduce the power dynamic, and invite children’s thoughts and ideas about a topic (Houen et al., 2018). 

Experiment with positioning a child with knowledge:

  • Indicate that you are not an expert on a topic and are interested in finding out more:
  • Try using ‘I wonder…’ statements: You could ask, “I wonder what might come out of this egg when it hatches” or “I wonder, do all eggs hatch into birds?”
  • Ask questions that you really don’t know the answer to.

Strategy 2: Practice intentional pausing
Pauses can be an effective tool for encouraging children to participate in conversations. Using intentional pausing creates time for children to think, process and construct a response and signals to children that it is someone else’s turn to contribute to the conversation (Bateman, 2013; Bateman, Danby, & Howard, 2013; Cohrssen, Church, & Tayler, 2014b). In contrast, the absence of pauses restricts or even prevents children from answering or taking turns in conversations, thus reducing opportunities for practicing speech.

Pauses are powerful because they (1) slow down the interaction, (2) provide a child with time to think, to process, and construct a response, (3) allow other children to initiate turns to talk and (4) enable educators to plan their follow-up moves in response to a child’s talk.

Experiment with pauses:

  • Play with pausing for different lengths of time (eg. 3-5 seconds, 5-10 seconds) after asking a question. “What happened when you tried it? Did different lengths support different children to contribute?”
  • Reflect with staff in your room or team on pausing as an interactional strategy. “Do you think about pausing when you talk with children? How will your reflection influence your future practice?”

Strategy 3: Make conversations personal
Educators can also foster rich and sustained conversations through linking children’s conversations to their personal experiences, lives and interests (Bateman, 2013; Bateman et al., 2013; Carr, 2011; Cohrssen, C., Niklas, F., & Tayler, C., 2016; Reese et al., 2019). For example, visual stimuli such as learning stories (Reese et al., 2019) and photographs of learning experiences (Carr, 2011), can encourage children’s personal connections within conversations, foster shared attention (where educator and child are focused on the same object) and prolonged conversations. Other strategies such as second stories and pivoting have also been shown to nurture extended engagement of children in conversations through personal connections (Bateman, 2013; Bateman, Danby, & Howard, 2013).  Second stories are responses to an initial story offered by one person (e.g., “I went to the beach on the weekend”). When children make a personal connection to the first story, it can prompt a telling of their own story (e.g. “I also went to the beach on the weekend and I saw dolphins diving in the water”). These strategies create opportunities to talk about and co-construct narratives within conversations (Bateman, 2013). 

Experiment with Linking:

  • Experiment with both the ‘Reminiscing Approach’ (prompting a child to use their memory to tell a story about the experience) and the ‘Book Reading Approach’ (reading the learning story as if it were a story book) when talking with children about their learning stories.
  • Take a sequence of photos from the start to the end of projects, so that children can revisit and provide a commentary on the experience with others.
  • Find out about children’s lives.
  • Talk with caregivers about family experiences and children’s interests so that you can draw on this knowledge to make personal connections when talking with a child (e.g. when reading a book about boats, you might make a personal connection to a child that had been on a fishing boat, to encourage them to tell their story).

Encourage children to provide a second story or use a pivot at different times and contexts during the day (e.g. when reading stories to children, when sitting with them at mealtimes).

Strategy 4: Use questions effectively
Asking questions is a common approach to prompting children’s talk and participation in conversations, however not all questions are equal. Questions can be either closed- or open- ended. Closed-ended questions require a child to produce a narrow response or an answer that the educator is looking for. Open-ended questions, on the other hand, invite a range of answers and usually prompt a longer conversation. Research has shown that educators use three main question types in their interactions with children: yes/no, WH (i.e. who, what, where, when and how); and “I wonder…” (Houen et al., 2016, 2018).

Yes/no questions (e.g. “Is the sky cloudy today?”) are typically considered to be closed-ended as they call for children to respond with a simple yes or no answer, restricting children’s opportunities for extended turns of talk. WH questions can be considered as either open- or close- ended, depending on the situation in which the question is applied.  For example, if an educator points to a dog and asks, “what is that?” the question is typically closed-ended, prompting the child to provide the answer that the educator is looking for. Alternatively, “what do you think the dog likes to do?” is an open-ended question, prompting a broader range of potential responses.  “I wonder…?” statements (e.g. “I wonder what kind of butterfly it would turn into?”; Houen, Danby, Farrell, & Thorpe, 2016; page 73) have been shown to be effective in inviting, rather than expecting, children’s responses and encouraging longer turns of talk by children.

Experiment with Questions:

  • Ask genuine questions (those that you don’t know the answer to)
  • Try using statements instead of questions: Instead of “What’s that?” try “Wow, look at the … (eg. hairy caterpillar on the tree!)” and pause to wait for a response.
  • Value children’s questions by using their questions as a focus for the next turn at talk.
  • Experiment with using ‘open-ended’ questions when reading to children (eg. “What do you think might happen next?”)
  • Try to repeat or modify the question, or alternately provide a hint, instead of answering you own question.
  • Try an ‘I wonder…’ question, instead of using a ‘WH question’.
  • Be careful of rapid-fire question-answer, question-answer, question-answer interactions. These interactions are more like inquisitions than conversation.

Strategy 5: Keep the conversation going
While questions can be open- or closed- ended, it is important to note that, regardless of the type, educator’s responses are pivotal in promoting and sustaining rich back and forth interactions. How educators respond to children’s talk is key to keeping conversations going. An educator’s response can close down the conversation or promote shared conversations that continue over a number of turns. There are a range of interactional strategies to respond to children’s contributions that may support sustained conversations (Bateman, 2013; Bateman et al., 2013; Houen, Danby, Farrell, & Thorpe, 2018; Paatsch, 2019).

For example, active listening (such as making eye-contact, nodding, using short verbal cues such as “mmm”, “yes” to show you are listening, facial expressions (e.g. surprise, concern) and gestures (e.g. shrugging) and allowing a child’s interest to steer the conversation) shows a child that what they have to say is important. This helps a child to maintain attention and to offer more complex thoughts and ideas to a conversation as it unfolds. Other strategies for keeping the conversation going include (1) using statements, rather than asking question after question after question (e.g. “Ah, you’ve seen the rainbow lorikeet sitting in the tree”, or “Your building is really high!”), (2) following with a question that encourages their explanation or opinion (“Why do you think that may happen?” or “What are your thoughts about going outside when it’s raining?”), (3) paraphrasing a child’s talk modelling more complex language (e.g. If a child says, “Look there’s a bird”, a teacher may respond, “Oh yes, I can see the lorikeet in the tree. It reminds me of a colourful rainbow.”), and (4) pausing or waiting before responding after a child talks.

Experiment with Responses:

  • Experiment with varying your responses.
  • Avoid relying too heavily on questions. A ‘question, answer, question, answer, question, answer’ pattern makes the interaction more like a test rather than a genuine conversation.
  • Aim for genuine conversation, which feel more real-life (e.g. the type of conversation that would happen over a cup of tea with a friend).
  • Try different prompts to encourage a child to explain their ideas or provide their opinions such as: “what do you think about…”, “I’m interested to hear more”, “tell me more”.
  • Avoid answering your own question when children show you that your question is tricky (instead you might try repeating the question, providing a longer pause, modifying your question, provide a hint, or encourage consulting with others).

Further international and Australasian evidence on communication and language approaches is available in the Early Childhood Education Toolkit. Tip sheets that summarise the strategies outlined in this article are available for download from Evidence for Learning’s dedicated Early Childhood Educators pages.

References
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Bateman, A., Danby, S., & Howard, J. (2013). Everyday preschool talk about Christchurch earthquakes. 40(1), 103-122.

Carr, M. (2011). Young Children Reflecting on Their Learning: Teachers' Conversation Strategies. Early Years: An International Journal of Research and Development, 31(3), 257-270.

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Chambers, B., Cheung, A.C., & Slavin, R.E. (2016). Literacy and language outcomes of comprehensive and developmental-constructivist approaches to early childhood education: A systematic review. Educational Research Review, 18, 88-111.

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