Conversational Turns Linked To Better Communication

We all know that we need to provide a lot of language to children to help them develop language, literacy and social skills. Hart and Risley showed in 1995 that children who heard 30,000 words in a 14 hour day had significantly higher language skills and IQ than children who heard 14,000 or 7,000 words.

Dana Suskind, and ENT in Chicago has a program also showed the value of talking, talking, talking. But, current research shows that it’s not just the number of words, but the quality of the language.


Parent role in language


Parents play a critical role in early speech and language development so what do we need to tell parents? Cognitive scientists at MIT have shown that the quality of the language parents use makes a difference. They have shown that interactive dialogue, rather than just number of words makes a difference. The scientists looked at the number of words spoken by the parent and the child and the number of times the child and parent had back and forth engagement.


The effect of conversational turn-taking


More conversational turns was correlated with better language skills and increased activity in Broca’s area (the area of the brain linked to speech production and language processing). So what does this mean? It means that we need to talk with our children, not just to our children. We need to have discussions. Parents often teach labeling. This is a shoe, this is a dog. What’s this?  We know that if we talk with children in sentences they can still pick up dog or shoe.


When we talk to babies and little kids, we talk to them with all the inflection that is typical of motherese. But we should also talk in sentences. Ask questions (knowing full well they are not going to answer) but providing more typical conversation. When walking with a child try and talk about what we are seeing. Look, that man is walking 5 dogs. Why do you think he is doing that? Are all those dogs his? That’s a lot of dogs for one person to have.


For very little ones they will not understand but they will be hearing conversation and start attending. And hearing the word “dog” over and over will help them get the concept of dog.

Years ago Judith Simser (an extraordinary auditory verbal therapist) taught me this clearly many years ago when she taught a group of use the word for shoe in Mandarin by using lots of sentences that had shoe in them and then asking us what the word for shoe was. We knew just by hearing it over and over as she help up a shoe and talking to us in Mandarin. It was a very clear lesson to me about how to talk with children.


What’s the lesson for working with children with hearing loss?


It is important that the example we set for parents be clear. We are not just labeling items, and not just asking questions. Parents who know that exposing children to language may not know how to do conversational turn taking. They don’t know, that they can talk to the child about what the child is doing, and if/when the child babbles back, even something unintelligible, they are taking a conversational turn. They are getting the idea that people talk to each other.


Years ago when one of my granddaughters was about 15 months old, one of the cats disappeared. I was pushing her in the stroller and calling out Lila where are you? And Rosie started calling yaya, ya ya ya. No clear words but the inflection was perfect. I am not sure she knew what I was asking. I think she recognized the name Lila because the cat had been called that many times. But she understood something about conversation and was helping me search for the cat.


We need to model talking in sentences and rewarding the most minor response from the child. What ever the child says we need to respond as if we understand what the child is saying. We say do you think we should go to the park? and when the child makes a little bit of noise we can say Really? Okay, let’s get ready? What do you think we will see when we get to the park? etc.

If we can teach parents to provide a lot of conversation we will do a wonderful job of building language skills in our children. Model model model, Explain the need and continue to model. Everyone will benefit.


*featured image courtesy Simon Blackley, Flckr

About Jane Madell

Jane Madell has a consulting practice in pediatric audiology. She is an audiologist, speech-language pathologist, and LSLS auditory verbal therapist, with a BA from Emerson College and an MA and PhD from the University of Wisconsin. Her 45+ years experience ranges from Deaf Nursery programs to positions at the League for the Hard of Hearing (Director), Long Island College Hospital, Downstate Medical Center, Beth Israel Medical Center/New York Eye and Ear Infirmary as director of the Hearing and Learning Center and Cochlear Implant Center. Jane has taught at the University of Tennessee, Columbia University, Downstate Medical School, and Albert Einstein Medical School, published 7 books, and written numerous books chapters and journal articles, and is a well known international lecturer.