Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 31, No. 4, Summer 2004 ( 2004)
Teacher–Child Conversation in the Preschool Classroom
Susan L. Massey1,2
This article explores conversations between preschool children and their teachers in the classroom
environment. Teachers have an opportunity to engage students in cognitively challenging conversations at critical times during the day: book reading, playtime, and mealtimes. The article provides
examples of the types of conversations preschool educators can model and facilitate in order to
further develop a child’s oral language and subsequent literacy skills during the school day.
KEY WORDS: preschoolers; oral language; conversation.
versation, such as taking turns and attending to the
conversational partner, but they also learn grammar and
vocabulary. According to Genishi, “Adults are the main
conversationalists, questioners, listeners, responders, and
sustainers of language development and growth in the
child-care center or classroom” (1988, p. 3). Opportunities abound for early childhood teachers to talk during
the course of their instructional day. Teachers talk when
greeting students, during circle time, during playtime,
during meal and snack times, during center time, and
during book reading time.
Much of teacher talk may not, however, engage
children in cognitively challenging conversation. Cognitively challenging conversation and the use of a wide
vocabulary by teachers have been correlated with children’s subsequent language and literacy development
(Dickinson & Smith, 1994). Cognitively challenging
conversation engages children in conversations that involve explanations, personal narrative, and pretend play
where children create and re-create events, analyze experiences, and share opinions and ideas (Smith & Dickinson, 1994). This moves the children’s language beyond the literal and the “here and now,” and encourages
them to talk about past and future events.
Several studies have suggested that cognitively
challenging talk is somew; hat infrequent in the early
childhood setting. Teachers devote considerable time to
facilitating children’s play, but the conversations are not
filled with rich, stimulating content. In some settings,
over half of teacher verbalizations center around providing children assistance in obtaining items, managing be-
A typical preschool classroom is a burst of activity
and noise. Children can be found painting, playing,
drawing, building, reading, eating, and most importantly,
conversing. Children converse with other children. Children converse with imaginary characters. Children
converse with adults. What is the quality of these conversations? How can these conversations promote oral
language development? What is the teacher’s role in directing and modeling conversation? Children who experience rich conversations with adults during their preschool years achieve greater academic success in later
years (Dickinson & Snow, 1987; Scarborough & Dobrich, 1994). This article explores teacher talk in the
preschool classroom and questions how teacher talk
might contribute to a child’s oral language development
and subsequent literacy skills. This article also offers
specific suggestions for classroom implementation.
HOW DO PRESCHOOL TEACHERS TALK?
Adults play a major role in the oral language acquisition of young children. Children learn how conversations work by observing and interacting with adults, who
are accomplished speakers of the language. Through
these interactions they learn the social aspects of con1
University of Virginia.
Correspondence should be directed to Susan L. Massey, 3507 Marlboro Court, Charlottesville, VA 22901; e-mail: email@example.com
1082-3301/04/0600-0227/0 2004 Human Sciences Press, Inc.
havior, supporting children in peer relationships, praising children for appropriate behavior, and providing
instructions (Dickinson, DeTemple, Hirschler, & Smith,
1992; Dickinson & Smith, 1991; Kontos, 1999). Children have few opportunities to elaborate on teachers’
questions and statements; therefore, they do not share
explanations or ideas, which are key elements of cognitively challenging conversation.
Similar patterns have been observed in studies of
classroom book reading, although book reading provides
an excellent context for cognitively challenging talk.
When book reading occurs in preschool classrooms, the
majority of teacher talk deals with organization of the
reading task, simple feedback, and naming activities
(Dickinson, McCabe, & Anastasopoulos, 2002). Teachers tend to act as stage managers by providing direction
to students, but do not always get into deeper levels of
conversation and abstract thinking that could be experienced by making predictions, discussing vocabulary, analyzing the plot, or delving into character motivations.
A CHALLENGE FOR TEACHERS:
The quality and amount of teacher talk seem to be
key in properly developing children’s oral language
skills. When thinking about teacher–child conversations,
it is important to keep in mind that these conversations
can vary significantly in the level of cognitive complexity. There are four levels of abstract language that can
be incorporated into teacher–child conversations (Blank,
Rose, & Berlin, 1978; van Kleeck, Gillam, Hamiton, &
McGrath, 1997). Level I, matching perception, is the
lowest level of complexity; it focuses on the concrete
and involves labeling and locating objects or characters.
For example, an adult may point to an object and ask,
“What is this?” or command a child to “Find the dog in
the illustration.” Level II, selective analysis/integration
of perception, focuses on describing and recalling. Examples of questions and commands at this level include
having children fill in the missing words of a sentence,
” or asking,
such as “But the caterpillar was
“What ingredients did we use to make our snack this
morning?” Level III, reordering or inferring about perception, deals with summarizing, defining, comparing
and contrasting, and providing judgments. After a storybook reading, an adult may say, “Max was upset that he
was sent to his room. How do you think he felt when he
found food waiting for him later? Why did he feel that
way?” Level IV, reasoning about perception, involves
predictions, problem solving, and concept explanation.
For example, “How do you think the mice will attempt
to escape from the snake? Do you think it will work?
What else can they do?” Another example is “Explain
how the machine you built works.” Children need success with concrete information such as labeling, describing, and recalling (Levels I and II) before they can be
challenged to apply the information and vocabulary to
higher level thinking skills such as noting similarities
and differences, predicting, and explaining (Levels III
and IV). Approximately 70% of the discourse preschool
teachers engage in should be targeted to the lower concrete levels—to promote this cognitive foundation—
while 30% should involve higher level thinking skills to
promote learning (Blank et al., 1978).
Early childhood teachers should engage children in
various levels of cognitively challenging talk during the
day, focusing on a balance between low levels of complexity and higher levels of complexity. It is common to
see many conversations in the preschool classroom that
focus on lower levels of cognitive complexity. To increase the amount of cognitively complex conversations
in which children are engaged regularly, teachers can
utilize three key preschool contexts: book reading time,
playtime, and meal and/or snack time. The following
provides suggestions for each.
Teacher–Child Interaction During Book Reading
Teachers have various methods of presenting books
to children. While some take on a dramatic approach
using props and varying voices to present a piece of
literature, others read the book and ask questions about
the illustrations. Discussion and questions occur before,
during, and/or after the reading. Other teachers may simply read the words on the pages. Regardless of the approach, teachers should be aware of several concepts
that can promote cognitively challenging conversation in
their daily book readings. First and foremost, teachers
must make time for book reading in their daily schedule.
A minimum of 45 minutes (divided into three sessions)
of read-aloud time per day is recommended for preschool classrooms (Dickinson & Tabors, 2001). Children should be divided into groups of 8–10 during book
sharing for optimal discussion opportunities. Being exposed to the language and concepts within diverse storybooks is, of itself, a way to provide children with cognitive challenges relating to the four levels of abstract
language previously described.
Second, teachers should be aware of the kinds of
talk promoted during book reading. Teacher talk during
book reading may be well suited to the development of
language skills necessary for children to succeed in
school (Dickinson & Tabors, 2001). Dickinson et al.
(2002) suggest that during book reading, teachers should
“engage in discussions that link stories to children’s experiences, analyze the meanings of words, probe characters’ motivations, and examine the reasons why one
event followed another” (p. 12). For example, a teacher
may comment during book reading, “Peter planted a
flower garden in this story. What kinds of flowers did
we plant in our flower pots at school?”
Immediate and nonimmediate talk during book
reading benefit a child’s oral language development
(Dickinson & Tabors, 2001). Immediate talk focuses on
the here and now. Immediate talk is tied to illustrations
and involves labeling and defining. “And there are how
many monkeys left? Let’s count them.” Nonimmediate
talk uses illustrations as a springboard for discussions
of personal experiences, making predictions, or drawing
inferences. “This woman in the illustration is carrying a
large bag. What will she put in the bag?” More complex,
elaborate language characteristic of nonimmediate talk
is found when teachers read, reread, and discuss books
during book reading.
Third, oral language skills can be fostered during
book reading by incorporating dialogic reading. The
goal of dialogic reading is to involve children as active
participants in book reading interactions (Wasik, Dobbins, & Herrmann, 2001). The adult’s role is to help the
child become the storyteller by prompting the child to
talk about the book, evaluating the child’s response, expanding the response by rephrasing and adding information, and then repeating the sequence to check for understanding (Richgels, 2001). To fulfill this role, adults can
provide plenty of who, what, when, where, and why
questions in their conversations. Through this dialogic
reading approach, children combine language use and
comprehension, necessary literacy skills.
Teacher–Child Interaction During Playtime
Playtime is another part of the preschool day when
teachers verbally interact with children. Children typically are in smaller groups or centers during playtime.
Young children are more interactive in small rather than
large group settings (McCabe et al., 1996). Teachers
tend to act as magnets to preschool children. Children
enjoy sharing their building creations, artistic creations,
and pretend play conversations accompanying each
event; therefore, the adult’s primary role is to be available to children during playtime. It is important for the
adult to be stationary during playtime: teachers are two
to three times more likely to engage in cognitively challenging conversation with children when they are stationed in one location rather than circulating around the
classroom during playtime (Dickinson, 1994). Interacting with children during playtime provides teachers the
opportunity to model language use, initiate conversation, and facilitate pretend talk.
Pretend talk is prevalent during playtime activities
and can be defined as talk that occurs during the development and enactment of fantasy-play episodes (Smith
& Dickinson, 1994). Pretend talk can be predictive of
strong language and literacy development (Dickinson &
Tabors, 2002). Teachers can model and contribute to
pretend play by providing props that can encourage conversation. In a kitchen play area, for example, teachers
can provide illustrated restaurant menus, a telephone,
paper, and pencil to encourage conversation that may
occur in a restaurant. During playtime, the adult can pretend to be the customer and discuss menu items. For
example, the adult may say, “I would like to order an
ice cream sundae. What ice cream flavors and toppings
may I choose?” Teachers can also support students by
narrating and describing play, asking projective and
open-ended questions that elaborate on the play theme,
and introducing knowledge about the world into children’s pretend events (Dickinson & Tabors, 2001). For
example, as part of a farm theme, teachers can narrate
and describe a farmer’s tasks while children play with
farm props. Children can respond to cognitively challenging questions such as “Why does the farmer need to
gather the eggs?” and “What might he or she do with
the eggs?” Picking up cues from the children, the
teacher can then introduce information to extend their
farm-related vocabulary. Part of the playtime discussion
may relate to the literature used in the classroom as part
of the theme. For example, a teacher may comment,
“Oh, I see a caterpillar. What did we learn will happen
to this caterpillar in the book we read this morning?” To
do this effectively, preschool teachers must be actively
involved with the children during playtime each day,
eliciting talk from the children.
Teacher–Child Interaction During
Mealtimes or Snack Times
A third important time of day for developing oral
language skills is during mealtimes and/or snack times.
Mealtime might be overlooked as a powerful context
for cognitively challenging conversation. As in playtime,
having a stationary adult during mealtimes is an impor-
Table I. Examples of Teacher Discourse to Facilitate Conversation
Where did you put the ballerina
What kind of fruit did you bring
today? It is called a plum.
Describe how you built this
What ingredients did we use to
make our snack this morning?
Do you see the bear? It is in the
But the caterpillar was
Max was upset that he was sent
to his room. How do you
think he felt when he found
food waiting for him? Why?
A scale helps us weigh objects.
What can we weigh using this
Some fruits can be used in different ways. How can we use
apples? (eat raw, make pie, applesauce, juice)
How do you think the mice will
escape from the snake?
Will and Sam both want to ride
the scooter. How can they
solve the problem so that they
both are treated fairly?
Raisins are dried grapes. What
must happen to grapes in order to turn them into raisins?
(explain if necessary)
Blank, Rose, & Berlin, 1978; van Kleeck, Gillam, Hamilton, & McGrath, 1997
tant element in teacher–child conversations. Children
spend more time talking during mealtimes when an adult
is seated at their table, compared to students who have
no adult present; therefore, a family-style mealtime setting with a 1:5 adult–child ratio is recommended (Dickinson & Tabors, 2001). Vocabulary enhancement, narrative talk, and links to literature represent typical patterns
of language use during mealtimes.
Vocabulary can be enhanced when the preschool
teacher uses rare vocabulary words and develops linguistic concepts (e.g., associations between word categories). For example, a teacher may remark that milk is
a dairy product, in which dairy is a rare word. Through
explaining and questioning, this conversation can extend
to a conversation about where dairy products originate,
examples of other dairy products, the process by which
milk is transformed to cheese, and how milk helps a
person’s body. Narrative talk can be encouraged when
teachers ask children to share such personal experiences
such as “What did you do last night?” or “How did you
get to New York? What types of transportation, or vehicles, did you use?” Teachers can also make reference to
literature activities in the classroom to practice vocabulary, such as “What did you like about the story we read
this morning? What would you do if you found a dinosaur in a cave?” When facilitating mealtime conversation, it is also important for teachers to allow children
to control some of the conversational topics (Dickinson,
1994). As children introduce topics, teachers can contribute to the conversation by interjecting vocabulary, restating, and extending conversation. Mealtime also provides an excellent opportunity for children to engage in
conversation with one another, further developing their
expressive language skills. Table I provides additional
illustrations of teacher discourse that can be used to facilitate conversation during the preschool day.
As preschool teachers assess their current conversational interactions with children and make plans to include quality conversations throughout the school day,
they must keep in mind the magnitude of the importance
of conversation to children and their subsequent literacy
skills. Classroom environment is less predictive of later
language and literacy than the nature of the teacher–
child relationship and the kinds of conversations found
in the classroom (Dickinson & Tabors, 2002). To converse effectively, teachers need to make themselves
available to children and consciously plan for such interactions in the daily schedule. Since the most fruitful
times of day to promote oral language skills seem to be
book reading, playtime, and mealtimes, it might be best
to start with one of those times. For example, a teacher
could tape-record interactions during book reading, analyze the kinds of talk used, and then think about how
the language interaction could be improved to include
meaningful context. The meaningful oral language skills
relevant to literacy include the development of narrative
ability, use of pretend talk, and vocabulary use (Dickinson, McCabe, & Sprague, 2003). An old proverb says,
“living is what we do while waiting for something to
happen.” In a like manner, research suggests that the
conversational encounters between teachers and students
are planned educational events and are key to student
acquisition of oral language skills. Future research should
address the outcomes of using these conversations intentionally to enhance student literacy skills.
The author would like to thank Laura M. Justice
from the University of Virginia for her assistance in the
editing of this manuscript.
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