A Conversation about Conversation in Early Childhood Classrooms

Conversation Compass

Although there are four components of the language arts, it seems we give the most attention to reading and writing. But listening and speaking are equally important and lead up to reading and writing in a developmental progression. In fact, literacy expert Gay Su Pinnell has stated that oral language is the foundation of literacy learning.

That’s why quality conversations are important…and that’s the topic of a Redleaf Press-sponsored segment of Studentcentricity, in which Stephanie Curenton, Sonia Cabell, and Heidi Veal joined me to talk about talking.

Here are Heidi’s thoughts following the conversation:

Getting students in early childhood settings talking should be a top priority for all early childhood educators. I believe it is a doorway to a child’s future development. In order for young children to develop oral language, they have to be provided time to hear quality language modeled and practice speaking with adults and peers alike. Creating environments where interaction is the norm is key!

This happens in several ways. First, young students must feel safe and loved in their learning environment. Acquiring and practicing language is a natural thing, but also involves taking a risk. A child will explore and experiment with new language when they know their teachers are invested in them and feel safe in their care. Second, rich oral language must be modeled by educators and scaffolded at every opportunity. This requires listening, really listening, to young children when they speak and engaging them in conversations that introduce and reinforce the new vocabulary they are acquiring.

This leads me to my third thought: questions and conversation prompts must go beyond prompting single word responses. Teachers of young children, any age for that matter, should constantly be on the lookout for ways to engage students in higher order reasoning. A way to facilitate this is by engaging students in conversations around areas of interest, while they are in natural play environments, or involved in structured or unstructured explorations. Sentence stems like How did… , What else… , How come… , I wonder… , Tell me about… are all open ended and can facilitate increasingly meaningful conversations with our young ones.

In closing, it is critical to educate our students in such way that they develop proficient oral language. I hope these tips from the field are both thought-provoking and helpful as you consider how you inspire quality classroom conversations for your early childhood students.

Stephanie added:

Research shows that most of the talk that happens in the early childhood classroom does not facilitate higher-order reasoning or complex verbal expression. In order to facilitate such reasoning and expression, I recommend using instructional peer conversations. An instructional peer conversation is a child-led conversation in which children work or play together to solve problems, complete an activity, or talk about their experiences, ideas, or opinions. These types of classroom conversations are good for ALL children because they provide a chance to engage in extended dialogue with their peers. But these types of conversations are especially important for culturally and linguistically diverse students because the play- or activity-based small-group settings can “take the pressure off” because children are not having to answer a teachers’ question in a large group setting, which can be really intimidating for children whose home language or dialect is different from the language used at school.

It is not easy for teachers to create high-quality classroom conversations. In fact, even after professional development training teachers’ use of conversation facilitation techniques is pretty low. So, I began asking myself, “How can I take all the knowledge I have about young children’s language and literacy development and share it with lots of teachers in a way that they might be able to readily apply it in the classroom on a regular basis.” Inspired by that question, I developed the Conversation Compass© Approach which comprises a teacher’s desk copy workbook and an online course. The Conversation Compass© Approach (http://www.redleafpress.org/Conversation-Compass-P1339.aspx) encourages teachers to use peer-play and small-group activities as the spring broad to children’s conversations with their peers. During these conversations, teachers model a few open-ended questions to get the conversation going, and then listen and watch as children engage in problem-solving and critical thinking with their peers.

And, finally, from Sonia:

Children’s language learning during their earliest years of life sets the stage for their later reading and academic success. Therefore, it is critical for preschool teachers to foster language development in the classrooms. Children need to engage in many daily conversations that help them practice important language skills and hear advanced models of language. Unfortunately, research shows that children living in poverty have limited opportunities to engage in multiple turn conversations in their preschool classrooms. A lot of times teachers simply do most of the talking or do not follow up on what children are saying.

But there are some easy strategies that teachers can use to set the stage for conversations, keep them going, and provide advanced language models.

1. Set the stage for conversations.

To set the stage, teachers can identify times in the day where they can have more conversations with children, such as at centers, meal times, during shared book reading, and recess. These conversations can be one-on-one or with a group of children. It is especially powerful to follow the child’s lead in what to talk about and build off their words.

2. Keep conversations going for many turns.

It may be helpful to think of a conversation like a rally in the game of tennis. It starts with a serve and then the ball goes back and forth many times before ending. In a conversation, teachers and children should remain on a topic for many turns. This allows children to hear different vocabulary words associated with a given topic and allows children to practice their language skills in powerful ways. A conversation should be a minimum of four turns on the same topic, where children take at least two turns.

3. Provide children with advanced language models.

A conversation allows the teacher to naturally provide more advanced language model for children. If a child says, “I goed to the park,” the teacher could respond by saying, “You went to the park! How fun!” and she could follow up with an open-ended question, “What did you do there?” As the conversation continues, the teacher could add information to what the child says, allowing the child to hear more language around a particular idea.

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