188 Fostering Communication in Young Children

Based on research by Matthews, Danielle, Lieven, E., & Tomasello, M. and written by Mara Rowcliffe, BS

How can we best help children learn to communicate effectively: By letting the child ask and guessing what they want? Or by insisting they specify what they want and giving them specific feedback?

Psychologists assessed children ages 2-4, asking them to select stickers that matched images in a storybook. The stickers were unreachable so that the child had to ask for them. Initially, the children only pointed or used ambiguous identifiers to indicate which sticker they wanted. When the experimenter was in the “teacher role” and insisted the child use their words to specifically name and describe actions (e.g., the clown jumping) before getting the sticker, the children were more likely to learn to uniquely describe the sticker.

However, when the child was in the “teacher” role, and the experimenter modeled being a vague identifier, and the child had to request them to be more specific so they knew which correct sticker to give, the child did not show as much improvement in their verbal specificity.

Teach young children to specifically refer to something they want using descriptive words before meeting their requests. Play games that allow your child to be the primary communicator!

Matthews, D., Lieven, E., & Tomasello, M. (2007). How toddlers and preschoolers learn to uniquely identify referents for others: A training study. Child Development, 78(6), 1744-1759.

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