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

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Interacting (37 – 60 Months) – Increasingly Social Communicatorsclick to print Print
Research Review / Parent

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

Three- to five-year-old children are increasingly social. Although they are still developing their understanding of the rules of conversation, preschoolers are better able to understand the point of view of their communication partners. This skill results in clearer, more organized conversations. Caregivers continue to support their children’s developing conversational skills. Children’s stories become longer and increasingly complex as they begin to understand more about how the order of events can be reflected in language. During the preschool years, play is also more social and well as more imaginative.

Interacting Through Conversation

Preschoolers are continuing to develop their understanding of how to communicate successfully. They communicate for a greater variety of reasons and have also become better at communicating different meanings. Three- to five-year-old children are beginning to change the way they speak depending on their listeners, speaking differently to caregivers than they do to friends. During the preschool years, children’s sentences become increasingly clear, well-formed, and well-suited to their listeners. Caregivers continue to support the development of their children’s conversational skills.

Understanding Conversational Rules

Between three and five years of age, children continue to develop their understanding of the rules of conversation. They become able to talk with their partners about one topic for more than two turns. They are also increasingly able to recognize when their message was not understood and how to fix misunderstandings. Preschoolers have also gained a greater understanding of the meaning of pauses in conversations. They are better able to understand the point of view of their listeners and what information needs to be included or left out of conversations. As a result, their messages are clearer and few misunderstandings occur.

Starting Conversations

Three- to five-year-old children are still learning about how to politely start conversations. These preschoolers typically start a conversation by speaking loudly rather than saying “Excuse me” or tapping the shoulder of their intended partner. They do not take into account how close they are to their listeners. For example, as Avery and her mom walked up to the monkeys at the zoo, Avery shouted loudly, “Look at that one Mom!” even though her mom was right beside her.

Introducing a Topic

Preschoolers typically start conversations about things or events in the present. Despite their growing vocabularies and language skills, they continue to have difficulty talking about things that are absent or that occurred in the past. For example, when visiting his neighbors, four-year-old Max ran excitedly over to his dad to tell him about their new puppy. Later, when his grandparents asked about his day, Max talked about his toy he was playing with and did not mention his visit with the puppy.

Caregivers continue to use their children’s understanding of their usual routines when introducing conversations about past or future events. When Avery was a toddler, her mom introduced the idea of staying overnight at a hotel by talking to Avery about they would go through her usual bedtime routine at the hotel. Now that Avery is four years old, her mom still uses her understanding of her usual routines to talk about past or future events. When talking to Avery about a recent trip to the zoo, she started by talking about how they packed a snack and put the stroller in the van, things that are part of their usual routine when going on an outing.

Staying on Topic

By three-and-a-half years of age, children are able to talk about one topic for more than two turns. During conversations, approximately 75% of what they say is related to the main topic. The following conversation between Max and his dad provides an example of the conversational skills of typical 3 ½ year olds.
Max: “Daddy, look at my tower!”
Dad: “Wow Max, that’s a really tall one.”
Max: “It’s a big one.”
Dad: “It must have been tricky to build.”
Max: “I was very careful.”

By age five, children will typically be able to maintain a topic for an average of five turns. In comparison, adults maintain topics for an average of eleven turns.

Preschoolers have more success staying on topic when talking about familiar routines and activities, an ongoing event or an object that they can see. For example, at 3 ½ years old, Avery was fascinated by toy trains. When looking at a new one at the toy store, she would talk with her dad for quite a while about what it looked like and how it sounded. Preschoolers may also maintain a topic over several turns when problem solving or engaging in dramatic play. At four years of age, Max was able to stay on topic when talking with his dad about what they were doing while putting his new bike together. Five-year-old Avery had fun making play dough ice cream cones for her mom and dad, talking with them about what flavor and how many scoops they wanted and negotiating the price.

Preschoolers will also have more success staying on topic when talking about familiar routines and activities, an ongoing event or an object that they can see. For example, at 3 ½ years of age, Avery was fascinated by toy trains. When looking at a new one at the toy store, she would talk with her dad for quite a while about what it looked like and how it sounded.

Conversations may contain fewer turns when children are trying to get their caregivers’ attention, describing a play situation and assigning toys or roles during play. For example, when playing farm with a friend, Avery suggests, “You do the cow.” Because her friend agrees, there is no need for more conversation.

Preschoolers continue to imitate what has been said to keep conversations going with their caregivers. To stay on the same topic, they repeat part of their partner’s turn or ask questions about something their partner has said. For example, when getting ready to take Max to the store, his mom said, “Time to go to the store Max” and Max took his turn by saying, “Going to the store now!” Imitation is an important way for children to maintain topics even after they are five years old. By repeating part of what their partner has said, children show that they know that it is their turn to speak and link what they say with their partner’s comment. Preschoolers also ask questions to make sure they understood what was said as a way of taking their turn. For example, four-year-old Avery and her dad often talk while she helps him make supper. When supper is ready, Avery’s dad says, “Supper is ready Avery.” Often Avery says, “Supper is ready Daddy?” keeping the conversation going by checking on what has been said.

Turn-Taking: Understanding Pauses

Preschoolers are learning more about turn-taking through greater attention to conversational pauses. Three-year-old children learn that pauses greater than one second mean that their partner is not going to respond. Three-year-olds also learn that pauses of less than one second mean that the conversation will continue on that same topic.

Understanding conversational pauses is an important step towards the adult pattern of very short pauses between speaking turns. Three-year-old children may show that they heard their partner’s turn by using fillers, such as uh-huh and yeah. The following conversation between Max and his nan about his new toy truck provides an example:
Nan: “That’s your new truck Max?”
Max: “Yeah.”
Nan: “It makes a big noise”
Max: “Uh-huh.”

Around the time they are three-and-a-half years old, children begin to use pauses to understand when it is time to take their turn. For example, when talking with her dad about a snack they are making together, three-and-a-half-year-old Avery waits for the pause that means that her dad is done talking before she begins. Three-and-a-half-year-olds also show greater awareness of the content of their partner’s turn as their responses become more complete and appropriate. They are increasingly sensitive to the ability of their partner to complete their turn. When they think that their partner is having difficulties, they may try and finish their partner’s turn themselves. For example, when Max was talking with his dad and his dad stumbled over the name of a dinosaur they saw at the museum, Max jumped in and said, “Triceratops.”

In the period between three and five years of age, children begin to realize that if they speak at the same time as their partners, information may be lost. As a result, they become increasingly willing to wait or give up their turns in order to maintain the topic of conversation. For example, when in a group of her friends who are all talking about the toys they have at home, four-year-old Avery waits patiently for her turn to speak. She seems happy that the conversation is going on even if she can’t be apart of it at the time.

Conversational Repair

With their growing language skills, preschoolers are better able to respond to when communication partners ask them to fix misunderstandings. For example, when his nan doesn’t understand something Max has said, and asks, “What did you say Max?” three-year-old Max repeats what he said. Communication partners must still ask for help in these situations. Preschoolers do not yet realize that they can watch the facial expressions of their communication partners to see if their message has been understood. They may also have difficulty identifying which part of the message was not understood.

Most often, preschoolers fix misunderstandings by repeating their sentence but with clearer speech. The following conversation between 3-year-old Avery and her mom provides an example:
Avery: “I wan cackus pease”
Mom: “What do you want?
Avery: “I want crackers please.”

Preschoolers may also substitute a different word for the word in question, as in the following example:
Max: “A Hot Wheel.”
Nan: “A what?”
Max: “A Hot Wheel. A racing car.”

Children become better at fixing misunderstandings over time. Preschoolers continue to respond to requests from others to fix misunderstandings more frequently than they ask for their own misunderstandings to be addressed by others. When they do ask for help with misunderstandings, approximately 33% of the requests are general or non-specific such as What? and Huh?

Presupposition

Presupposition is a term used by researchers to refer to knowledge of what information needs to be included or left out during conversation. Children’s presupposition skills continue to develop between three and five years. Preschoolers better understand that they need to provide more information to their communication partners about the topic if they are talking about something that is not present. They provide less additional information when their partner is looking at the object of the conversation. Preschoolers’ presuppositional skills continue to be limited by their vocabulary, language abilities and understanding of the topic. If they do not understand the topic, they provide less information to their partners. For example, when at her Grandma’s house, three-year-old Avery became interested in the hummingbirds who gathered near a feeder. She didn’t understand that they were feeding so she just said, “Grandma. Birds!” excitedly.

Communication partners must share an understanding of their topic in order to understand the meaning of the definite article (i.e., the), demonstratives (i.e., this, that, these, those), pronouns, proper nouns and some verbs. During the preschool years, children become better at knowing how and when to use these words in conversation. Three-year-old children use a and the accurately 85% of the time. At three years old, Max says, “a dog” when he is talking about dogs in general and “the dog” when he is talking about his neighbor’s dog. Inaccurate use may occur when children use the without first identifying what they are talking about. In these cases, they may be incorrectly assuming that their conversational partner already understands what they are talking about. For example, Max said, “The dog was barking” when telling his nan about what happened on his walk to her house, not realizing that she wouldn’t know he was talking about his neighbor’s dog. Preschoolers may also assume their listener already understand who they are talking about when using pronouns. After playing with her two boy cousins, Avery came to her mom and said, “He hit me,” not understanding that her mom wouldn’t know who she was talking about.

Between three and three-and-a-half years of age, children begin to adjust what they say to match the language skills of their communication partners. This adjustment requires children to first make a judgment about what they think their listeners would understand. For example, when speaking to younger children, the vocabulary and grammar of their sentences will be simpler than when communicating with adults or children their own age. When visiting the zoo with friends, three-year-old Max used a simple sentence “See. A monkey.” to tell a younger child about what he was seeing, He then used the longer, more complex sentence “Look Mom. That monkey is hanging upside down.” when he turned to his mom. Preschoolers also adjust their answers to questions based on what they think their communication partners understand. Answers contain more detail and less repetitive information when responding to more knowledgeable partners than to less knowledgeable ones. For example, three-and-a-half-year-old Avery was playing her toy drum when a toddler came up and asked, “What’s that?” Avery answered, “My drum.” A short time later when the toddler’s mom asked Avery what she was playing with, Avery said, “It’s my new drum. I got it at music class.”

Preschoolers also demonstrate their presuppositional skills by manipulating word order and stress. When asking questions, children follow the adult-like pattern of putting the topic at the end of the sentence. For example, Avery said “Where is my new dolly?” establishing dolly as the topic of the conversation. Younger children put the topic at the beginning of sentences such as Dolly gone? Preschoolers continue to use stress to let their communication partners know when they are providing new information. For example, when asked what her doll’s name was, Avery said, “Her name is Molly” pronouncing Molly very deliberately and slighter louder than the rest of the sentence.

Children also demonstrate their understanding of presupposition when answering questions. Preschoolers also leave out shared or understood information in their responses to questions, a process researchers call ellipsis. For example, in response to the question “What are you doing?”, children may answer “Playing” leaving out the shared information “I am.” Three-year-old children put the most important information first when responding to questions. For example, in response to “What did you do today?”, they are less likely to provide information about their daily routine, as they assume the listener already understands what happens on a daily basis. Max would be more likely to talk about going to the park with his dad than he would be to talk about his bath time.

Developing Indirect Requests and Directives

Two-year-old toddlers primarily used direct requests in the form of statements or declaratives (e.g., “I want that block.”) and demands or imperatives (e.g., “Give me that block.”). Due to their growing understanding of modal auxiliary verbs such as may, might, and could, three-year-old children are able to produce indirect requests. For example, instead of saying “Go outside?” Max now asks, “Can we go outside?” They are also learning to use indirect directives. For example, instead of directing, “Give me a cookie”, Max can ask “Do you have any cookies?” Indirect requests and directives are one way in which children change their speaking style to fit the social situation.

Direct requests continue to be used more frequently than indirect requests until children are about four-and-a-half years of age. Between three-and-a-half and four-and-a-half years of age, indirect requests typically account for less than 10% of all children’s requests. By the time they are four years old, children are usually more aware of how their partner’s role affects whether they should use a direct or indirect request. They learn that caregivers respond more positively to the more polite indirect form of requests and directives as opposed to the more abrupt direct forms. Indirect requests typically increase to 40% of all children’s requests in the second half of their fourth year. For example, instead of saying “Get my drink Mom”, four-and-a-half-year-old Max now says, “Don’t forget to get my drink.” Instead of saying “Let’s go to the park,” four-and-a-half-year-old Avery now says, “Why don’t we go to the park?” These children may also provide reasons why their request should be granted. For example, older preschoolers may say, “I picked up my toys. Why don’t I have a candy?” By four years of age, children are also able to respond appropriately to indirect requests such as “You should…” and “Please…” They know that they are being directed to do something – although they might not always do it!

Developing Different Styles of Speaking

Between three and five years of age, children begin to develop different styles of speaking known as registers. Registers are the different styles of language used when speaking with others. In order to create different registers, children first change the pitch and loudness of their voices. For example, they may use a louder, lower voice when pretending to be a man. Over time, children learn to use different vocabulary, mean length of utterances and topic choices to create different registers.

Young children first use registers to play various family roles, such as mommy or baby.

Four-year-old children are able to use different registers while pretending to be someone else and when speaking to younger children. The register used by children speaking to younger children has a higher pitch and more singsong rhythm than child-to-adult registers. It is quite similar to the way that adults talk to small children. For example, Avery said to her baby cousin, “Ohhhh. Hiiii! You’re cuuuuute!” Five-year-old children may develop registers that allow them to play roles outside the family such as doctor and mechanic. At five years old, Max likes to pretend that he is Dr. Winters, his family doctor. He uses a very serious and low tone of voice to say, “How are you today, Mrs. Phillips?”

Another aspect of register is politeness. Using polite words such as please and thank-you, a softer tone of voice, and indirect requests are ways in which we make speech sound more polite. Three-year-old children use the word please when making requests of more dominant or older listeners. For example, at three years old, Avery was more likely to say please when she was asking for something from an older friend or a neighbor. By the time they are four years old, children use please with a wider variety of listeners. Four-year-old Avery now uses please with friends her own age. Two- to-five-year-old children use direct requests with peers (e.g., Give me that one) and indirect requests with older children and adults (e.g., Can I have that one please?). However, children do not really understand that indirect requests are more polite until they are five years old. For more information on indirect requests, refer to Developing Indirect Requests and Directives.

Developing Communicative Functions

Researchers have found that what children say during interactions may serve any of the following six functions:
1) Control – such as making demands, protesting, and giving directions
2) Representation – such as naming, labeling, requesting information and discussing objects and events
3) Expression – expressing emotions and attitudes
4) Social – including calling and greeting
5) Tutoring – practicing using language and pronouncing words without expecting a response
6) Procedure – such as calling, requesting information and directing

Children communicate for these functions from their second year of life. The frequency with which they communicate these different functions changes over time. By 39 months, approximately 25% of children’s control talk is direct requests (e.g., “Give me the phone.”).

Three to five-year-old children also add new types of control sentences. New control sentences produced by preschoolers include request permission, suggestion, physical justification, offer and indirect requests. By 45 months, most children use questions to request permission, such as “Can I have a cookie?” Suggestions such as “Should we go outside?” are produced by 90% of children by 48 months of age. Physical justifications, such as “I can’t ‘cause I am tired,” are produced by 90% of children by 54 months. By 57 months, most children are also producing indirect requests (e.g., Can you cut it?) and offers (e.g., Do you want one?).

Caregivers’ Support for Conversation

Caregivers continue to take the lead in conversations with preschoolers. They work to understand what their children intend, fix misunderstandings, and give feedback to their children about whether they have communicated successfully. Caregivers may model more advanced sentence structures and conversational strategies for their children. Expansions are an important way in which caregivers model more advanced sentence structures. They also provide feedback to preschoolers and encourage conversations to continue. Expansions occur when caregivers repeat words spoken by a child in a phrase or sentence form. Children may imitate the new phrase or sentence. For example, when Max said, “I’m driving” his mom expanded on what he said by responding, “You’re driving the fast, red car.” By what she said, Max’s mom let him know that he communicated successfully and by including the adjectives fast and red modeled a more advanced sentence structure.

Caregivers may ask questions as a way of encouraging the development of their children’s topic maintenance and turn-taking skills. The following conversation between Avery and her dad shows how he encouraged Avery to keep talking about the pictures they were drawing.
Avery: “Nice cat Dad.”
Dad: “Thanks Avery. What type of tail should I give him? Long or short?”
Avery: “A long one!”
Dad: “Okay. Now what color should he be?”

Developing Storytelling Skills

A narrative may be described as a series of sentences that provides information about events or experiences in an orderly sequence. Children do not begin producing true narratives until after they are five years old but they take steps toward that skill in the preschool period. Some basic information about the development of storytelling skills is provided below. For additional information, please refer to the Narrative section of this website.

Strategies for Organizing Stories: Centering and Chaining

Researchers have found that children follow two strategies when organizing their stories: centering and chaining. With centering, children create a story around a central theme. Each object or action mentioned relates to the theme but the listener may have difficulty recognizing the relationship. With chaining, events share one or more features in common with each event in the story building on the one before it. By three years of age, children may be using both centering and chaining strategies to organize their stories.

Four-year-old Max’s story about going to a parade provides an example of a time-based event chain: “We went to a parade. There were horses. And trucks. The drums and horns were loud. There was a clown in a little car. I got a balloon. And we went home.”

Types of Stories Produced by Preschoolers

As children get older, the structure of their stories, or narratives, becomes increasingly complex. The stories also become easier for listeners to understand. Between three and five years of age, children produce three different types of narratives: sequence stories, primitive narratives and chain narratives.

Sequence Stories

Three-year-old children produce what researchers have called sequence stories. The topic of this type of story is usually an event. The stories are organized around a central theme, character or setting. There is no time organization to the order of the sentences. There is also no plot. The child may not provide enough background information, such as names of characters or where the story takes place, for listeners to fully understand the story. Children frequently change their tone of voice (e.g., to sound excited or scared) and use gestures (e.g., pointing, waving) when telling these stories.

The following story told by three-year-old Avery about her day at the park provides an example of a sequence story:

“I ate a burger (Mimes eating). Mommy threw the ball, like this. Daddy took me swimming (Moves hand, acts silly). I had chips.”

Primitive Narratives

Between four and four-and-a-half years, children begin producing what researchers call primitive narratives. These stories are organized around an object, character or event. The story describes an event that caused a character to act, the actions of that main character, and the outcome of the character’s actions. Primitive narratives may not have a well-developed conclusion.

The following story told by four-year-old Avery about her uncle trying to catch his dog provides an example of a primitive narrative:

“Gotta get Daisy. Uncle Steve called her but Daisy didn’t come. Uncle Steve went to get her. Daisy ran away. Daisy is bad. And Uncle Steve is mad. He said, “Come on Daisy!” Then she came in.”

Chain Narratives

Between four-and-a-half and five years of age, children begin to produce what researchers call chain narratives. These stories are organized in a way that tells what happened and in what order. They have a central theme but no plot. They do not describe why things happen. Children may shift characters, setting, and actions over the course of the story. Although chain narratives may have a conclusion, it may not logically follow the events and may seem to come too soon. Children may use pronouns, past-tense verbs and conjunctions such as and, and then, and then in their chain narratives.

Five-year-old Max’s story about going to the movies with his mom provides an example of the chain narrative:

“Mommy took me to the movies. We saw “Cars.” There was a red race car. He was fast. There was a tow truck. He was silly. And I got some popcorn. And we went home.”

Caregivers’ Support for Storytelling

Being able to sequence or order events from beginning to end or first to last is an important skill for telling organized stories. Caregivers help develop their children’s understanding of sequencing by asking “what happens next” while reading of familiar stories.

Monologues

In addition to conversation and story-telling, preschoolers may also produce monologues. Monologues are a form of self-talk. They are little speeches that they give to themselves. They may use them to guide themselves through an activity. For example, three-and-a-half-year-old Avery talks to herself as she works on a puzzle, “This puppy goes here. This cat goes here.” Monologues may account for 20-30% of the talk of four-year-old children. Preschoolers may also produce monologues before they go to sleep. These pre-sleep monologues may contain songs, sounds, nonsense words, expressions of feelings, and stories. After tucking him into bed, four-year-old Max’s parents often hear him singing, “Twinkle, twinkle little star” quietly to himself. Sometimes he talks to his stuffed animals. Preschoolers produce fewer monologues as they age.

Play

Play continues to be an important context for interaction for preschoolers. In this period, they actively involve others in their play. Three-year-old children may “make-believe” while they play. They may use one object to stand in for another, such as using a banana as a telephone. Unlike two-year-olds, three-year-olds may play together in groups, sharing toys and taking turns. During play, they may make environmental noises like saying “beep, beep” for cars and explain their actions using a combination of sounds, words and role play. While he was playing, four-year-old Max picked up a toy dog and rocked it, saying, “Shh, puppy,” He then turned to his mom and said, “Puppy’s scared” to explain why he was comforting the dog.

Role playing, such as pretending to be a mommy, daddy, doctor, or store clerk becomes more frequent in the play of four-year-old children. Four-year-olds are also increasingly interested in playing with others. At four years of age, Avery enjoys playing house with her friends. They work together to decide who is going to be the mommy, the daddy, and the babies.

Sample Gosse, H., & Gotzke, C. (2007). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Interacting 37 – 60 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