Whether you’re doing formal teaching in a classroom, or taking part in the learning that is done around the kitchen table, the way you talk when you teach young children can make a big difference.   In fact, predictors of child language and cognition abilities are not only indicated by how much a child is spoken to, but also the types of conversations they have. 

From the beginning, it’s important for me to say, that I don’t intend to vilify any one type of communication.  Each one has its purpose.  My only desire is to point out the different types, and their uses, so that you can be more intentional — and thereby more effective —  as you teach young children.  In truth, you will likely use each type of communication throughout the day, and even within one teaching opportunity. 


Directions tend to be focused primarily on task completion.  “Hang your coat here.”  “Color this one red.”  “Write an ‘s’ there.”  Similar to directions for assembling a bike, everyone who follows those directions should end up with the same outcome, at least the same observable outcome.  In the case of the bike, each person should end up with a bike (unless you’re like me, then you end up with random pieces scattered about and trade it all in for a half  gallon of ice cream).  You may come away with a greater understanding about bikes, or you may have just gone on autopilot as you followed each step.  Directions are helpful in accomplishing observable action.  But when teaching, it is rarely enough to stop there.  Teaching is about more than just correctly filled out worksheets and properly made projects.   Following directions is an act of obedience, not necessarily a display of understanding.


Instruction begins to go beyond directions.  Now you begin to teach why, to explain concepts, and to build knowledge as a foundation for the actions you direct.  Instruction’s Achille’s heel is that it is often only one-way communication.  “This is two.”  “It snows in the winter.”  “The caterpillar turns into a butterfly.”  In and of itself, instruction is not an interactive method of teacher talk.  And as we well know, children learn best through experience.  That includes experiencing an active role in the conversation.


Discussion begins to incorporate the child in that important active role, inviting him to construct knowledge and to attempt to answer the why’s for himself.  It is a dynamic method of teaching that utilizes teaching through questions and building connections.  “What do you think would happen if….?”  “I noticed….Why do you think that is?”  The answers are not always right, but the action of seeking the answer does much to initiate an analysis of what is known and to build connections between old and new information, not to mention the support it gives to developing logic and language skills.  In short, discussion drives active learning.

As I said in the beginning, you will likely use all three types of communication as you interact with the young children that you love and teach, and I don’t intend to say that you shouldn’t use one or the other.  But I will say that discussion is one type that most children could use more of. 

  In fact, predictors of child language and cognition abilities are not only indicated by how much a child is spoken to, but also the types of conversations they have.   Children who are primarily spoken to in directives  (“do this, go here, write that“) show less favorable outcomes than those who are invited into discussions, and challenged to think and to contribute. 

How do you talk when you teach?  What do you discover as you make an effort to invite children to take an active role in thoughtful discussion?

Top photo by Sigurd Decroos.



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