Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Interacting (25 - 36 Months) – Developing Better Conversation Skillsclick to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Carrie Gotzke and Heather Sample Gosse, University of Alberta

In the period between twenty-five and thirty-six months, children’s vocabularies grow and they become able to use different types of sentences. These developments lead to increasingly successful communication. Their understanding of the rules of conversation also continues to develop. As a result, caregivers allow these older toddlers to lead conversations more often. Twenty-five- to thirty-six-month-old children may use imitation as a way to take part in conversation. They are also beginning to use story-telling to communicate.

Toddlers’ Interests and Abilities That Support Interaction

Twenty-five- to thirty-six-month-old children continue to learn by imitating others. They may use imitation to share in conversations with others. They discover new ways to interact with others using objects and books. As their language skills develop, they rely less on gestures and other cues to understand others and to express themselves. For more information on gestures, see Interacting 13-24 months.

Imitation

Twenty-five- to thirty-six-month-old children continue to use imitation to learn. They typically imitate about 20% of all caregiver repetitions. For example, when Max pointed to a star and said “ar,” his mom repeated “star.” Max imitated his mom, saying “tar.”

Older toddlers may view caregiver expansions as cues to imitate. Expansions occur when caregivers repeat words spoken by a child in a phrase or sentence form. For example, when 30-month-old Avery said, “Doggie sleeping” her mom expanded her words into sentence form saying “Yes. The dog is sleeping.” Imitating caregiver expansions may help older toddlers learn new sentence structures. Avery did this when she imitated the new sentence, saying “Doggie is sleeping.” Older toddlers imitate about one-third of all caregiver expansions. They are most likely to imitate sentence structures they are in the process of learning. For example, if a child is learning to use is + -ing verb tense (e.g., is walking, is running), that child is more likely to imitate caregiver expansions with that structure. Imitation allows children to practice sentence structures that they are uncertain about saying on their own.

Twenty-five to thirty-six-month-old children also use imitation as a way of taking their turn in a conversation. The following example shows how Max used imitation to take a turn in a conversation with his Dad:
Dad: (out for a walk with Max) “Look at the bird Max. Bird.”
Max: (pointing) “Bird!”
Dad: “Yes, a black bird.”

This type of imitation helps older toddlers show their caregivers that they are interested in talking. It also allows them say something that relates to what the other person just said, keeping the conversation going.

When they are imitating, older toddlers most often repeat one or more words of a caregiver’s utterance. For example, when Avery’s dad said, “Put the bike away,” Avery replied, “Bike away.” As they get older, older toddlers no longer simply repeat one or more words. They add information in their imitation. For example, when Max’s grandma said, “Look at the monkey Max!” Max said, “Monkey swing.” These partial repetitions more closely resemble adult conversational patterns, where speakers add new information with each turn.

After 30 months, children imitate less often. The amount that older toddlers imitate others varies depending on their language level. Once they are able to use new structures on their own, they imitate those structures less often. Imitation becomes less useful as a learning strategy once toddlers learn structures of more than a few words.

Interest in Objects and Books

By 25 months, most children can match familiar objects. For example, Avery enjoys pairing up shoes that she finds in the closet. They are often also able to predict where familiar objects may be located. Avery has learned that her shoes are kept in the top drawer of her dresser. When her mom asks her to find her shoes, Avery goes straight to her dresser.

Twenty-five-month-olds typically prefer action toys. For example, Max’s two favorite toys are his wooden hammer and work bench and his battery-operated train. He enjoys pounding the pegs into the work bench and pressing the button that makes the train go.

Twenty-five to thirty-six-month-old children typically begin to use objects in pretend play. At 26 months Max began to pretend to give his teddy bear a drink and put it to bed on a cushion, covering it carefully with a blanket.

Older toddlers continue to develop object permanence – the understanding that objects exist even when they can’t be seen. Twenty-five-month-olds will search for objects even if they do not see them being hidden. Deciding Max had had enough snack, his mom hid the crackers in her backpack while he was busy playing at the park. Later, Max was found searching for the crackers in his stroller’s basket.

By 25 months, children may pretend to read books and are able to turn pages independently. While her dad makes dinner, Avery amuses herself with her board books. She sits and turns the pages, pointing to the pictures and making talking noises. Older toddlers may also recognize when pictures in a book are upside-down. Sometimes when Avery picks up a book she opens it upside-down but she quickly turns it around. Twenty-five-month-olds are also typically able to hold crayons and scribble circles and lines. Max’s parents now encourage him to use his crayons to decorate birthday cards for friends and family.

Talking about Emotions

Between 25 and 36 months of age, many children learn to use words that describe feelings. These words often relate to sleep, distress, dislike, temperature, pain, and pleasure. Older toddlers may talk about emotions to start conversations with others or to take turns in conversations.

By 25 months of age, most children are able to describe their own feelings. For example, when she was out at the park near her nap time, Avery came to her mom and said, “I sleepy.”

Between 27 and 36 months of age, children become able to identify how others are feeling. They are also learning that emotions may cause behaviors such as crying or laughing. When Max saw a picture of a woman crying in a book, he frowned and said, “Sad mommy.” These older toddlers may also be able to talk about emotions that they experienced in the past. One afternoon, Avery fell and scraped her knee. She cried until her mom comforted her. When her dad came home from work later, Avery ran to him saying, “Avery hurt.”

Interacting Through Conversation

In the 25 to 36 month period, children gradually understand more about interacting through conversation. Between 25 and 30 months, they are using more words than gestures when talking with caregivers. By 30 months of age, children are able to gain their listener’s attention by speaking. Thirty-month-olds also respond to feedback from listeners about whether their message is understood and try to communicate their message again in a different way.

Older toddlers are able to express more of their feelings and communicate for a wider range of reasons such as to get attention, ask for things, comment, and share their feelings. As a result, their conversations are longer. They are developing new ways of using language to get what they want. Caregivers continue to support the development of older toddlers’ communication skills.

Understanding Conversational Rules

Twenty-five to thirty-six month-old children continue to develop their understanding of the rules of conversation. They start conversations more frequently but are still only able to maintain a conversation for one or two turns. Older toddlers are increasingly successful at sending messages that can be understood by their listeners. As they still do not fully understand their listeners’ perspectives, misunderstandings continue to occur.

Introducing Topics

Between 25 and 36 months of age, children become increasingly successful at introducing topics as their language skills develop. They are often able to stay with a topic for only one or two speaking turns. The following conversation between 30-month-old Max and his mom provides an example of both his ability to introduce topics and his inability stay with a topic for more than one or two speaking turns:
Max: “My bear.” (cradling bear and holding it out towards his mom)
Mom: “Bear is sleepy.”
Max: “Bedtime bear.” (sets bear down and turns to mom) “Juice Mom.”
Mom: You want juice?
Max: “Yeah.” (sees his truck puzzle on a high shelf) “Trucks. Up Max.”
Mom: “Let’s go get the juice first Max.”
Older toddler’s frequent topic changes may be difficult for conversational partners to follow. Frequent topic changes also mean that older toddlers produce few responses that depend on what the conversational partner said.

Older toddlers have more success maintaining conversations about topics they introduced than with topics their partner introduced. Topics introduced by older toddlers primarily concern things or events around them. Even with their growing vocabulary and language skills, they still have difficulty talking about things that are absent or that occurred in the past. Twenty-eight-month-old Avery demonstrated this when her dad came home from work and joined her in her playroom. She talked to him about the cars and trucks she was playing with. She didn’t tell him about how she and her mom had gone to the zoo in the morning until her mom said, “Tell Daddy what we saw at the zoo Avery.”

Researchers have found that about half of topics between mothers and their 25- to 30-month-old children concern events that the children are very familiar with such as bath time and meal time interactions. Researchers have also found that caregivers use their older toddlers’ knowledge of routines and events when introducing conversations about past or future events. For example, Avery’s mom used Avery’s knowledge of her bedtime routine to introduce her to the idea of an upcoming hotel stay. She talked with Avery about taking her toothbrush, pajamas, and favorite story books with them and how they would go through the same routine at the hotel.

Maintaining Topics

When older toddlers exactly match the conversational topic of their communication partners, researchers say they are “topic collaborating.” Twenty-five- to thirty-six-month-old children continue to have difficulty maintaining topics. Imitation is one strategy they use to maintain conversations with their caregivers. For more information on this use of imitation, see Imitation.

Another strategy for maintaining topics older toddlers use is to answer questions from conversational partners. Caregivers may find that asking questions helps increase the length of their conversations with their older toddlers. For example, Max’s grandfather found that he could keep Max talking about his toy gas station by asking him open-ended questions such as “Where does this man go?” “What do I do now?”and “How do I open this?” Open-ended questions require more than a yes or no response and can be answered by children in many ways.

Taking Turns

Twenty-five- to thirty-six-month-old children appear to understand how people take turns in conversations. They usually wait for their partners to finish before speaking. Interruptions occur only 5% of the time. Interestingly, these older toddlers most commonly interrupt partners at the end of phrases or sentences and when a partner’s pitch and intonation seem to indicate that their speaking turn is over. This pattern shows that they are becoming more aware that the end of a phrase or sentence and a drop in voice signal when someone is done speaking.

Twenty-five to thirty-six month-old children are learning that a pause in conversation indicates that it is time to take their turn. They allow longer pauses between turns than adults who only pause for one second between turns. Gradually, these older toddlers learn that a long pause may be interpreted as the end of conversation. As a result, by 36 months of age, they will have shortened their pause time between turns.

Researchers have found that caregivers use “turnabouts” to encourage their older toddlers to respond during conversation. Turnabouts occur when caregivers both respond to something an older toddler has said and request a response. Some examples of turnabouts include:
1)Tag questions – “It’s dirty, isn’t it?”
2)Specific requests – “What’s that?”
3)Expansions – “It is a monkey.”
4)Expansion questions – “And then what happened?”
5)Confirmations – “Is that a horse?”
6)Clarifications – “What?”

Repairing Broken Conversations

Older toddlers become increasingly aware when their messages have not been received or understood by caregivers. Between 20 and 30 months, children may respond to more than 75% of communication partners’ requests for clarification (e.g., “What?”).

Although older toddlers respond to many clarification requests, researchers have found that they may be successful at repairing the communication breakdown only 36% of the time.

When their communication partners do not understand them, older toddlers may respond by repeating or changing what they said. Between 13 and 24 months of age, children are most likely to repair a failed communication attempt by changing a speech sound from their original message. For example, when Max asked his dad for his toy truck he first said “big kuk.” When his dad said “What Max?”, Max said, “Big tuck.” By 25 or 26 months old, children are more likely to delete a word from what they first said when repairing. Now if Max started by saying “That big truck” he might change it to “that truck” or “big truck” if his dad didn’t understand him. By around 30 months of age, children’s preferred conversational repair strategy is to change words. For example, when Avery’s grandma didn’t understand her when she said “She eat cookie,” Avery changed it to “Baby eat cookie.” By using these different strategies, older toddlers become more successful at repairing breakdowns.

Older toddlers are better at repairing communication breakdowns when they are requesting an action than when they are making a statement. For example, Max repeated “want juice” when his dad said he didn’t understand. But when Max made a comment about a mean dog to his dad, he didn’t repeat his message even when he dad asked “What?” several times. Max’s dad has noticed that when Max is asking for something he is more persistent about getting his message across than when he just making a comment.

Older toddlers ask their communication partners to clarify less often than adults do. They initially request clarification with facial expressions and actions. For example, at 18 months of age, Avery let her listeners know when she didn’t understand them by her puzzled facial expression. By 25 months of age, children use words to request clarification 75% of the time. At that age, Avery continued to show a puzzled expression but would also say “What?” or “Huh?”

Using Presupposition

Presupposition refers to knowledge of what information needs to be included in or left out during conversations. For example, once two adults have established who they are talking about it is common to refer to that person as “he” or “she” instead of by name.

Older toddlers’ presupposition skills continue to develop in the 25 to 36 month period.

They put new information first when introducing a new topic. Avery did this at the zoo when she ran ahead of her parents, pointing and shouting, “Monkey go Mom! Monkey go!” Older toddlers may also use stress to call their partners’ attention to new information. When Max wished to correct his grandmother’s operation of his family’s new DVD player, he said “No Grandma. Push THAT one.” Older toddlers may even provide some descriptive details about topics to help their partners understand. Frustrated with a new babysitter’s attempt to style her hair, Avery tried to explain what she wanted by pointing to the barrettes with cats on them and saying, “No. Up top. Mommy do. Kitty ones.” The use of word order, stress and details to emphasize new information shows that older toddlers are becoming better able to understand their listeners’ point of view.

Despite these gains, twenty-five to thirty-six-month-old children still do not completely understand presupposition which may result in communication breakdowns. For example, unlike adults, older toddlers may use pronouns without letting their communication partners know who they are talking about. For example, at the playground, thirty-month-old Max walked up to his grandfather and said, “She eat it” without giving his grandfather any idea who or what he was talking about. In such cases, communication partners have to try to figure out what older toddlers mean by using cues from the surroundings. Max’s grandfather looked around for a female eating something to figure out what Max was talking about.

Developing New Ways of Using Language to Get What They Want

Twenty-five-month-old children get the attention of communication partners through gestures, intonation and attention-getting words. They commonly use less specific attention-getting words. For example, they are more likely to say “Hey!” than “Mommy!”

Older toddlers may use problem statements such as “I’m tired” to indicate what they want. Max did this when he came over to his mom and said “I’m hungry” to let her know he wanted a snack. In contrast, “directives” occur when older toddlers say something to direct the action of their communication partner. Older toddlers commonly use requesting words such as “want” and “need” when providing directives, such as when Avery told her mom, “I want cookie.” Demands, such as “Gimme cookie,” are another form of directive. In these types of direct requests, toddlers refer specifically to the action or object they want or need.

During the 25 to 36 month period, children begin to use the word “please” when asking for things or help. Interestingly, they commonly say “please” with a softer tone than other words in the sentence. If older toddlers recognize the listener to be older, dominant or less familiar, they are more likely to use “please” in their request. For example, Max is more likely to use “please” when asking a friend’s visiting grandmother for a snack than he is when asking his own mother. They are also more likely to use “please” if they strongly desire what the listener has.

Communicating for Different Functions

As noted in Interacting 13-24 months, researchers have found that what older toddlers say during interactions may serve any of the following six functions:
1)Control – making demands, protesting, and giving directions (e.g., saying “Mommy up” to demand to be picked up)
2)Representation – naming, labeling, requesting information and discussing objects and events (e.g., saying “Nana go” when talking about grandma leaving for work)
3)Expression – expressing emotions and attitudes, including protests such as “no” and “mine” (e.g., saying “Oh wow” to express surprise)
4)Social – including calling and greeting (e.g., saying “Hi” to friends)
5)Tutoring – practicing using language and pronouncing words without expecting a response (e.g., talking to him or herself while playing with toys)
6)Procedure – calling, requesting information and directing attention (e.g., saying “Look Dad!” to get dad’s attention).

Between 25 and 36 months, approximately 70% of what children say serves control and representational functions. Children older than 24 months produce fewer control statements indicate “wanting” than they did in the 13 to 24 month period.

Thirty-month-old children produce three times as many statements (e.g., Those are my cars) compared to direct requests (e.g., Help me mom). Ninety percent of children this age also use questions that request specific information such as “What” and “Where” questions. At thirty months of age, Avery was able to ask “What eating?” to find out what her Mom was eating and “Where Daddy?” to find out where her Daddy was.

By thirty-three months, many children are able to use language in the following ways:
1)To forbid others from doing something
Example: “Don’t touch mom.”
2) To indicate what they intend to do
Example: “I go with dad.”
3)_ To express their feelings
Example: “I’m hurt.”
4) To answer questions that request specific content
Example question: “Where is Daddy?” Older toddler response: “In the chair.”
5) To repeat when someone else has said when asked to do so
Example request: “Say thank you.” Older toddler response: “Thank you.”

By 36 months old, most children can produce questions that can be answered with yes or no. For example, Avery says “Is it Grandma?” to her mom when she’s talking on the phone. They are also able to request clarification by restating a previous remark with a questioning tone of voice. Max wasn’t sure if his mom had gone to the store so he asked his dad, “Mommy went to the store?” Thirty-six-month-olds can also be heard talking to themselves when they play or do other activities. They are using talk to guide their actions. For example, when working on a puzzle, Avery was heard saying, “The bird goes here. The puppy goes here.”

Caregivers’ Support for Conversation

Researchers have found that caregivers continue to control the flow of conversations with children during the 25-36 month period. During conversations with their older toddlers, caregivers use their experience with language and communication to figure out what their children mean. For example, when Max came up to his grandmother and said, “Doggie go up,” she understood that he wanted to help him lift his puppy onto the couch because it was something he often asked for.

Caregivers help repair communication breakdowns. Avery’s dad did this when he said, “I’m sorry Avery. I don’t understand what you want. Do you want something to drink? Or eat?”

Caregivers also provide feedback to older toddlers about the success of their communication attempts. Feedback is provided with words such as “I’m sorry. I don’t understand” and also through actions. For example, Max’s mom lets him know she understands when he asks her for a drink of water by getting out his cup.

Caregivers may model more advanced sentence types and conversational strategies for their older toddlers through expansions. Expansions happen when caregivers add words to what their older toddlers have said to make longer and more complex sentences. For example, while watching a video with her Dad, Avery said, “Dora go!” Her dad said, “Dora, go to the bridge.” By repeating what Avery said and adding more information, her dad modeled a longer and more complex sentence. Expansions also let children know that their comments were understood.

Developing Storytelling Abilities

Between 25 and 36 months, children begin to tell their own stories. Researchers refer to these stories as “narratives.” Narratives are a set of sentences which tell about events or experiences. When telling a story, a child is responsible for providing all the information needed for a listener to make sense of the story.

The information in a narrative should be provided in a logical order or sequence, telling the listener what happened first, then next, and last. Understanding of sequences is therefore necessary in order to produce narratives. Routines such as bath time, meal time, and bedtime help older toddlers develop their understanding of sequences. Although 25-month-old toddlers understand routines and some event sequences, most children are not able to accurately describe a sequence of events until 48 months of age. As a result, the narratives produced in the 25-36 month period are less mature stories that researchers refer to as protonarratives. For more information in the development of narratives, see the Narrative section of this website.

Protonarratives

A protonarrative is made up of a set of unrelated sentences about a topic. The frequency with which children produce protonarratives doubles between 25 and 30 months of age.

Each sentence in a protonarrative provides additional information about the topic and may be of a similar sentence type. The plot is vague and the “story” lacks an easily identifiable beginning, middle, and end. Older toddlers typically use protonarratives to talk about specific, often upsetting, events. They often do not introduce their listener to the topic before beginning a protonarrative. As a result, these early stories may be difficult for listeners to understand. For example, imagine yourself as Avery’s mother listening to the following “story” that 2 ½-year-old Avery told after a trip to the park:
“Woof, woof!”
“I owie!”
"Sun, sun.” (holding arms over head)

Avery’s mom was able to figure out that Avery had got an “owie” or hurt at the park but wasn’t sure if it had something to do with a dog. She needed Avery’s dad to explain that Avery had leaned back on the swing and fell off, hurting herself. She had actually seen a dog on the way home from the park. Researchers have found that protonarratives contain five times as many descriptions of feelings and opinions (such as Avery’s “I owie,”) as do conversations. Children clearly use stories to express their opinions to others.

Strategies for Organizing Stories: Centering and Chaining

Researchers have found that older toddlers use two strategies when structuring their stories (protonarratives): centering and chaining.

At first, older toddlers use centering to create protonarratives around a central theme, as Avery did in her “story” about going to the park. Each object or action mentioned related to the theme but the relationship may not be clear to the listener. Sometimes researchers refer to a protonarrative created using a centering strategy as a “heap.” There is little or no sequencing and no cause and effect in these types of protonarratives so changing the order of the sentences does not affect the meaning. For example, the meaning of Avery’s “story” about going to the park is not changed in the sentences are reordered as: “Sun, sun.” “Woof, woof!” “I owie.”

With chaining, older toddlers relate a series of events which each events logically building on the previous one. For example, three-year-old Max told the following story about going to the zoo:
“We went to the zoo. There was a monkey. And elephants. We rode on a train. And I got ice cream. We went home. It was fun.”
By 36 months of age, children may be using both centering and chaining strategies when building protonarratives.

Contexts for Interaction

Although 25- to 36-month-old children become increasingly independent during routines, these familiar activities continue to be an important context for interaction. These older toddlers use routines as a basis for developing play skills. Their play becomes increasingly complex and varied. Older toddlers are beginning to seek their caregivers’ active involvement during play.

Routines

In the 25 to 36 month period, children begin to act out common routines with toys and are able to role play for short sequences. For example, Avery can pretend that she is her dolly’s mommy and act out feeding the doll using her tea set.

Older toddlers’ self-help skills continue to develop and as a result, they become more independent during routines. They are typically able to feed themselves, undress except for shoelaces, open doors and straighten a bed. When not able to perform a task, toddlers are able to request help. When Max was unable to reach a toy on a high shelf, he went to his dad and pulling on his arm, said, “Daddy help Max.”

Play

During the 25 to 36 month period, children’s play becomes increasingly complex. Pretend play develops and older toddlers may involve caregivers in play. Max likes to get his parents to sit down and play with his toy farm set. When they do, Max and his parents act out “a day at the farm” together. Max passes out the animals, giving one to each person.

Caregivers model play behaviors for older toddlers. For example, Max’s parents have shown him by example different actions that can be done with the toy animals such as putting them to sleep, having them eat, and having them run around outside the barn. Caregivers also model “play stories” that include a basic problem and solution. For example, Max’s parents might say, “Oh-oh, the pig is hungry” to present a problem and “He’s going to eat some hay” as a solution.

Older toddlers combine play episodes with more than one theme. For example, Avery likes to play with her toy doll. Sometimes she starts by playing that she is giving the doll breakfast and then continues the play by getting the doll dressed in a new outfit.

Older toddlers who engage in longer play sequences typically use longer and more complex sentences. Play sequences are the steps or stages in play activities. For example, Max’s play with his toy farm and animals often has three steps:
1)Max pretends that the animals are eating.
2)Max has the animals run around the pretend farmyard.
3)Max puts the animals to bed in the barn.

Sample Gosse, H., & Gotzke, C. (2007). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Interacting 25 - 26 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 8. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development