One of the most powerful educa- tional tools available to students and teachers lies hidden in plain sight, in every classroom—conversation. No matter what age the students are, or
what the topic of study is, children acquire a vast
range of information and understanding through
even the most casual exchanges. And most
children begin their formal schooling adept at the
fundamentals of conversation, ready to build on
what they already know.
By the time children are 2 years old, nearly all
of them can hold at least a rudimentary conversation. Whether verbally adroit or struggling their
way into language, the youngest conversationalists
usually need a great deal of support from their
dialogic partner. And they often get such support
because parents intuitively provide various kinds
of scaffolding, helping their children expand and
improve their dialogic skills.
A toddler says, “My balloon,” and her father
responds, “Yes, you had that cool balloon. What
happened to it?” The toddler replies, “Bye bye,”
and the father says, “You said ‘Bye bye,’ didn’t you?
Because you let go, didn’t you? Oh well.”
Parents as Language Guides
In this example, the father embeds his child’s
two-word starter in several more complex
sentences. This elaboration leads his daughter to
add her own detail: She said “Bye bye” because the
balloon got away. The father’s response adds useful
information about what makes a good description
(put your story in the past tense, provide details,
offer some evaluation, and add some dramatic
action). By the end of this brief exchange, they
have reminisced about a shared experience, and
the little girl has acquired some new conversa-
Researchers who have recorded children in their
homes have discovered that most parents are
natural language guides. These parents provide
all kinds of help without any specific pedagogical
motive; they simply want to talk, exchanging ideas
and sharing experiences with someone they care
about. Although casual, such collaborations are
invaluable to children. Children who grow up in
families with more talk fare much better in school
than those who grow up in language-poor environments. (Hart & Risley, 1995; Wells, 1986).
In other words, conversations at home provide a
strong foundation for learning.
That’s because conversations are a fertile
Informal conversations can lead to rich learning—
breeding ground for an essential and powerful
if we make time to pay attention to children’s questions.