Here’s the scene:
Dad, watching daughter’s eyes (yay!), sees her look at a passing dog.
Dad: “Is that a dog? Do you see the dog? Can you say dog? Dog. Dog-gie.”
Toddler: Silent. Possibly pondering why dad asked if she knew it was a dog when he was clearly so sure of himself. Or maybe wishing she could throw him a bone. (The dog, people, the dog.)
I will probably go to my grave able to hear my graduate school supervisor’s voice advising me to stop asking questions while providing language therapy with my first pediatric client. I think she even kept data to monitor my progress. So, I’ve been aware of this pattern for years and have noticed how everyone does this with children to some degree. Stop, listen and you’ll hear kids being asked ridiculous questions everywhere you go. Plus, it’s an incredibly hard habit to break. Yet from an normal interaction standpoint, it’s actually quite silly when you think about it. There’s a much more effective way to build language skills.
Most of us don’t form our knowledge base about a topic from questions. We learn a little bit, then ask questions. Essentially, we build a foundation from which we can ask questions, which take us to the higher levels of thinking. Young children use vocabulary as the cement. (I guess phonology is the sand and water?! Maybe we shouldn’t take this too far.)
The scene above could instead go like this:
Adult: “Oh, there’s a dog!” (Modeling the word and pausing, giving daughter time to process and speak.)
Toddler: “Dog.” (That’s the truth, right?! It doesn’t get super complicated very quickly.)
Adult: “What a sweet brown dog.” (Continues conversation and adds a new descriptor or two- scaffolding her language just a little bit.)
Toddler: “Want dog.”
Adult: “Do you want to pet the dog?” (Genuine question, very appropriate.)
Toddler: “Yup. Pet dog.”
Moving away from constant questioning to a more reciprocal interaction style is liberating. Instead of taking over their topic of interest, we are able to follow their lead and build on it. We are no longer putting kids on the spot, either. (Though there remain many moments when I am still guilty of this- and always feel regretful afterwards.) We are engaging with them at their level but allowing them time and space to comment on whatever interests them, not just to answer our questions.Conversations with toddlers are not always easy, but with this technique they get easier and can be incredibly fun, silly and enlightening. Since toddlers are still pruning their semantic network, the connections they’ll make between different words and ideas can be hilarious. If adults are in constant bombardment mode, babies don’t get as many chances to shine. And make us giggle! I remember one very bright little toddler insisting that crows were pigeons for a few months. Kids will come around through modeling.* All you have to do is work in corrections in a gentle, natural way.
Toddler: “Pigeon! Caw-caw, pigeon!”
Adult: “Wow, I see that black bird. What a noisy crow. Caw-caw, crow.”
Toddler: “Bye pigeon!”
Adult: “Bye birdie! Bye crow!”
Also, modeling language is a great way to mediate a scary or challenging situation for young kids. For example, we had a thunderstorm roll through Seattle this week, scaring my little guy. (We may get lots of rain, but thunderstorms are very unusual.) I used snuggle time and lots of soothing descriptions to help him get through the storm. Each time lightning struck I would quietly say part or all of something like this, “There’s lightning. Here comes the thunder. There’s the thunder. It’s loud. It’s grumbling.” Miles just sat on me, listening, taking it all in. Later in the day he kept saying, “Thunder turn on and then thunder turn off.” When Charlie mentioned lightning, Miles added “Thunder turn on and Lightning McQueen turn on.” (Lightning McQueen! How awesome is that?!) Rather than giving him an outright correction or bombarding him with questions, I could just model the appropriate language for him. “First lightning came and then we heard thunder. And then it happened again. Now it’s all done. The storm is over.” Modeling the language during a scary situation provided a way for him to talk about his fears later. By calmly providing the words (instead of questioning him), he could take it in at his pace and feel as safe as possible. I feel certain that just knowing the name of something can help demystify, reduce stigma and help us feel more comfortable with new situations.
So, even though I’ve known this stuff for years. I still ask the stupidest questions sometimes, particularly when I’m trying to connect and not feeling particularly witty or energetic. Like asking, “How old are you?” to a kid I’ve known since they were in-utero while we’re at their birthday party with enormous cut-out 5s everywhere. Such patient kids, putting up with all our silliness.
*There are kids with language disorders and language delays who will need therapy and more direct teaching styles to develop vocabulary. I am referring to a typically developing child.