The art of conversation is something many adults take for granted. Try to remember a recent casual conversation you had with someone. Focus only on the back and forth flow of statements, responses or questions made by you and the other person. What was the ratio of questions versus statements? Most casual conversations between adults probably consist of an equal give and take of related ideas rather than questions. In fact, if you were talking to a person who constantly asked you a series of unrelated questions, you would leave the conversation feeling like someone had just invaded your personal space!
Conversations between young children are usually relaxed affairs and tend to be about shared interests or play-focused. In contrast, most conversations between adults and children tend to be heavy on adult questioning—don't we want to know everything about what's inside children's heads? It is only through practice and patience that we develop the art of conversation between our children and ourselves.
Our goal in early childhood is to immerse children in language-rich environments—at home and at school. Oral language is an important component in developing cognitive and socal skills. Through conversations with friends and family, the child learns structure and vocabulary that will help in learning to read and write.
Carefully selected children's literature is an excellent resource for introducing rich and multifaceted language. But enriched oral language through the comfortable flow of thoughts and ideas (in short, conversation) is an irreplaceable facet of literacy development. At school, we provide many avenues for developing oral language skills. The two most important are creative drama and journal writing, both of which rely heavily on the art of conversation. In creative drama we establish an arena in which the children are presented with a problem to solve. They are encouraged to work together predominantly using verbal communication to solve that problem. In journal writing, the children are able to dictate observations, stories (imagined or real), or a string of unrelated ideas. As an added bonus, journal writing connects the spoken word to the written word.
In both instances, adult conversational input and/or modeling become an important tool for gaining greater depth and breadth in growing vocabulary. In creative drama (or in any naturally-ocurring creative play) the adult should only use careful responses that further the play and, in turn, the conversation. For example, if a young child says, "I putted baby in the suitcase now she stops crying," it is better for the adult to say, "You put your baby in the suitcase. My baby is crying as well. I think I'll feed my baby. I will put him in his high chair and then he'll stop crying. My baby is always hungry," rather than, "Why is your baby crying?" or "You shouldn't put a baby in a suitcase!"—both examples are conversation "stoppers."
During a one-on-one journal session, begin with "tell me about your drawing" rather than "what is this?" or "I think that looks like a (blank)." If the child rushes through a story consisting of three loosely connected phrases or you want to encourage her to elaborate, consider asking questions that reference what she has already said. "Let's see, you said, 'the dinosaur ranned in and ated my brother ated my other brother he only eats meat then he goed to bed and then we all walked to the park'—I want to understand—who went to the park and who ate the boy? Let's write this slowly."
Reminding a child that you need to write slowly will reinforce the idea of the spoken to written word connection. Recording a child's words as he says them and reading these words back exactly as written allows him to develop a very personal, internal understanding of meaning and structure—a skill that will benefit him greatly in developing strategies for learning to read. It encourages the child to think about how she is using words. Reading the story back to the child as she is telling it and when it is complete also supports this idea.
Take the time to observe how casual conversations unfold—between adults, and, more importantly, between children. You may find all the tips you need during a sandbox session. In the meantime, a "good take-away" to end this conversation is to build onto what was said by the child in order to gain information rather than repeatedly asking questions.