How to talk to children
To be effective communicators and to teach children good speaking and listening skills, teachers and parents need to use talking and listening techniques that engage the child in meaningful conversation and allow her or him adequate time to respond to questions. Michael Jones, an educational consultant from the UK, explains
Research into practices in adult education and the Early Years can teach us a huge amount about just how much influence an adult's speaking style has on children's learning.
Engaging learners in the subject matter, helping them understand and leading them forward in their learning are vital techniques for teaching adults. Fundamental to the process is the use of talk: not just lecturing and explaining, but creating a real dialogue with and among the students. Being able to answer students' questions requires as much skill as delivering a training session. This topic is sometimes feared and often avoided by many presenters.
Talk in pre-school
These principles are exactly the same for very young children, though described differently. The influential Effective Provision for Pre-School Education Project (EPPE) had amongst its findings a clear and simple indicator of how effective a pre-school setting is in developing language: whether or not adults give children enough time to answer questions.
This clearly focuses on the way that adults behave, and recognizes that this has a major influence on children's language development. Other studies have highlighted that young children learn an enormous amount from talking with parents and older children at home, but that the style of talk in class is significantly different.
Talk at home and talk at school
Children at home usually talk about familiar subjects, or new ideas that have caught their imagination. They may have to compete with brothers and sisters for their parents' attention by interjecting themselves into the conversation, but studies show that children engage in vast amounts of talk at home.
This is irrespective of the social background of the family. Crucially, it is the child who leads the conversation, and the adult who responds. This finding is similar to studies of how mothers talk with babies and how this has a positive effect on language development.
The most important factor is how responsive the adult is. Another interesting finding is that though parents do ask children lots of questions, they actually spend more time responding to what children have said, commenting on what the child is doing.
The balance of talk between child and adult is completely reversed in school. The teacher plans the topics and children do far more listening; usually in groups, with the children having to put their hands up if they want to say something. Adults also have less time to talk with individual children, and ask many more questions than at home.
This is entirely understandable, as teachers have to manage large groups in small spaces, and need to ensure that their time, and talk, is shared fairly between children.
However, there are ways that we can use talk to its best effect in large groups, and make the children more effective talkers: by being aware of our own talking style and becoming more responsive.
Adults' talking style
A typical scene in a primary school class is for the children to sit in front of the teacher, while the teacher asks questions and the children answer. The teacher usually adopts a questioning style. This has an important place, but only requires children to give answers. A more responsive style, however, has very different effects on children.
I led a science lesson with a group of six-year-olds, and we were looking at the question, ``Is a big torch (flashlight) always brighter than a little one?'' We began with the children sitting in front of me, and I passed around torches of various sizes. Instead of giving me their answers straight away, I asked the children to turn to each other and to talk about their torch. Then I asked one child in each group to tell me, and the class, what they had found out.
My responses to the children were important: to keep the flow of the session going, to ensure everyone was included and to make sure they could listen to each other's ideas. I was genuinely interested in what the children had to say, and helped the class to reflect on what was being said. I used phrases like: ``I think you mean... . Is that right? What do other people think about that idea? Did anyone else think that? That's interesting. I'm not quite sure about that. Can anyone help me understand that? That sounds like a good idea, but is it true? Who agrees with that? Who has another idea? Does anyone else want to say something?''
Yes, I did ask the children to put their hands up, because this was the main way of ensuring that everyone could be heard, but the difference here was, and it's a big difference, that I was responding to what the children were saying and reflecting this back to the larger group.
I finished the talk session by praising the children for good talking and listening, by saying, ``That was a good talk, we've learned a lot. We listened to each other well too. We have worked hard. Well done everybody. We'll stop talking in a big group now, but we can talk to each other as we are working, and we'll come back at the end with some more ideas.''
Here I was giving them feedback on what I regard to be good talking and listening, and acknowledging that this is hard work. By my responsive listening, I was modelling good listening behavior to the children. Over time I hope they will copy me when they talk with each other in groups.
Michael Jones is an educational consultant from the UK working with schools and parents, helping them support children with communication and other learning difficulties. He is an associate education advisor at the Village International Education Centre in the Ekamai area of Bangkok. He can be contacted via www.talk4meaning.co.uk or at the Village International Education Center at www.village-education.com .
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Last modified: April 9, 2007