Today’s standard is: Listens and speaks for specific purposes. This kindergarten standard is taken from Fairfax County Public Schools. Fairfax County is located just outside Washington, DC in northern VA. The standard has 24 very important language arts benchmarks that align with it. The benchmark in the spotlight today is: listen and speak in informal conversations with peers and adults.
I’m not quite sure why Fairfax County made the effort to label the conversations “informal,” since I don’t see very many kindergardeners interested in “formal” conversation, but I think it is important to keep in mind that conversations in the early years are casual, about topics that young children would be interested in, and take place with familiar people. However, “informal” does not mean that the rules of conversation are ignored or that the rules can be broken by any of the participants in the conversation. With this in mind, I’ll move forward by describing below what an “informal conversation” looks like for infants and toddlers and how skills can be built for later school success.
The following list shows the rules of conversation that should not be broken as well as activities/experiences that can help a child learn to use the rules of conversation. A child’s ability to follow and use these rules of conversation from birth to 3 will lead to school readiness for the 21st classroom, which emphasizes collaboration and communication skills, recognizes diversity and a global perspective, and rewards engagement. To be sure, it’s never too early to begin encouraging the development of conversational ability in children.
1) A conversation has a back-and-forth flow. Activities: roll/toss a ball back and forth, pass an object back and forth, zoom a car back and forth across the floor or table, take turns feeding each other crackers, take turns while playing with toys, use the words “Your turn/My turn” with a child as you engage in “back and forth” play
2) A conversation consists of words. Activities: build a wide vocabulary daily by labeling objects and people, talking about how things move or work, talking about who, what, where, why and how, etc., use a variety of sentence structures daily (e.g., active/passive, simple, compound, complex, questions), use a variety of language daily to describe, define, discuss, categorize, compare, contrast, clarify, compromise, conclude, explain.
3) A conversation frequently involves telling stories. Activities: read a variety of stories about different people and places, especially people and places that are outside the experience of the child (e.g., if the child lives in a city, read books about farm life), tell stories to the child about when he or someone he knows was little, encourage the child to re-tell a story that you just read or told him.
4) A conversation involves sharing information. Activities: tell the child about your favorite food, ice cream flavor, activity, etc., encourage an older child to talk about his “favorites,” when a younger child makes a sound, immediately make a sound “back” to him, tell the child what you are doing or what you are going to do next, talk about how things are the same and how they are different.
5) A conversation has a beginning, middle and an end. Activities: talk about what happens at the beginning, middle and end of a story, talk about what you’re going to do first, next and last during a cooking activity, use “time” words that express order or sequence (e.g., before, when , after, then, while) throughout the day, use “when-then” discipline (e.g., When you pick up your toys, we can go to the park.).
6) A conversation does not consist of words alone, but also includes eye contact, gestures, body movements, facial expressions as well as tone of voice. Activities: use animated facial expressions when telling a story, change your voice for different characters in a story, look at the child in the eyes when you speak to him, smile at the child when he is looking at you, use gestures (e.g., pointing, waving hands, showing how “big” or “small” something is, etc.) when you speak
7) A conversation involves staying on the same topic. Activities: name 5-10 animals, vehicles, foods, etc. with a younger child, encourage an older child to name 5-10 category members, Name/encourage child to name parts of objects (e.g., parts of a tree, animal, etc.), use the phrase “Let’s talk about …,” describe a person the child knows well (e.g., hair color, eye color, job/occupation, clothes, his/her house, etc.)
8) A conversation can require adjustment and repair when a “breakdown” occurs. Activities: explain that you cannot understand him when he uses his “whining” voice, encourage the child to use his “good voice” so that you can understand him, use phrases such as “I’m sorry I don’t understand you” and “Can you try saying it another way?” when you don’t understand what he is trying to tell you (even an infant will “understand” when you say “I’m sorry I don’t know what you’re telling me” if it is said in a caring, soothing tone of voice), use language such as “You can’t have ____, but you can have ____,” talk about being flexible with the child (e.g., Oh, this store is closed now. We’ll have to come back in a little bit.)
9) A conversation requires perspective-taking and an ability to put oneself in the other’s shoes. Use pronouns that encourage understanding of perspective-taking (e.g., you, I/me, your, my, yours, mine, we, they, our/ours, their/theirs), encourage child to talk about what he sees from “up high” in your arms or from down on the ground, play “pretend” by being people who are very familiar (e.g., what it would be like to be mommy), somewhat familiar (e.g., the mailman, the neighbor, etc.) or unfamiliar (e.g., someone from another country, someone from a different neighborhood, etc.), talk about how the child’s behavior makes someone else feel (e.g., That made Suzy feel sad when you took her toy.)