Shaping the power of talk

Language is a vital tool for learning as it enables children to build knowledge and extend their thinking. Associate Professor Sheild Degotardi will be presenting at the 2021 ECA National Conference. In this blog, Sheila gave us a little insight into her research and what else she will be exploring in her address.

Early Childhood Australia (ECA): In early childhood and in the media we frequently hear about the importance of reading to babies and young children. But your research has explored something that we seem less aware of: how talk itself during children’s very first years profoundly shapes their learning and growth. What happens when babies participate in and are exposed to talk and conversation that is different from what occurs when we read with them?

Associate Professor Sheila Degotardi: My research looks at different features of educators’ talk with infants on the basis that language-based interactions form a critical support for children’s development and learning. As children develop their language skills, they become progressively able to share their understandings and intentions with others and, through interactions, they gain insights into the ideas and thoughts of others. Language is therefore a vital tool for learning as it enables children to build knowledge and extend their thinking.

You are right in identifying shared book reading as a rich language-learning experience, but it is only one such experience. Interactions occur across the day, and contexts including play, mealtime, caregiving routines as well as book reading all provide valuable opportunities for educators and infants to have learning-rich interactions. Each context presents different opportunities to hear and use language, and the often unconscious choices that educators make when they talk to infants impact the language and learning potential of these interactions. It is this aspect that I am trying to shine a spotlight on in my research so that we gain a deeper understanding of the variety of ways that we can support the language and learning of very young children.

ECA: You’ve found that the number of words babies hear in their first two years is significant and can vary widely from child to child and setting to setting. In one of your studies very young children wore a digital recorder so that you could monitor the number of words they heard and type of interactions they were exposed to in their early learning setting. What did you find?

SD: We found that the infants in our study varied widely in the number of educator words that they heard across a 3-hour period. In fact there was a ten-fold difference between the infant who heard the least amount of words and the one who heard the most. This is important because infants need to hear words frequently if they are to develop proficient language skills. Hearing words socialises them into the sounds and patterns of their home language, and supports vocabulary development. However, it is not sufficient to focus on quantity alone. Our study found that infants who experiences lots of words were in centres whose educators demonstrated more responsive, reciprocal and sensitive interactions. It is this quality, and in particular, infants’ participation in conversational exchanges that is most important as infants are not just exposed to language but gain frequent opportunities use their developing communication skills to share meaning with others.

ECA: Do very young children influence each other’s language learning and can we foster child-to-child language development?

SD: There is some research that shows that infants can and do learn language from other children, most frequently from older siblings and peers. In my own experience, I have seen infants watching interactions that take place between educators and their peers – they are clearly interested in the social interactions of others from an early age. However, for children under two, research strongly suggests that language is learnt best when infants and more proficient language users (whether these be adults or older peers) interact in the context of a mutually interesting shared experience. The language is then directly meaningful to the infant and this scaffolds their learning much more effectively that overhearing language that is directed at other children or adults.

ECA: What are the implications of your research for early childhood educators and early learning providers who want to create opportunities and environments for babies that support language learning?

SD: Firstly, that there are numerous opportunities across the normal day to support children’s language learning through interactions, but it is up to educators to capitalise on these. Different contexts provide different language and learning opportunities, so interactions should occur across all of them. This doesn’t mean talking non-stop to infants! There are times when it is appropriate to interact and times when infants are deeply engaged in their own quiet explorations. Some infants, for a range of reasons, attract a lot of language interactions, while others attract very few, so a second implication is for educators to be perceptive of all infants in their room so that they can ensure that every child has some rich language experiences across the course of their normal day. And finally, there are strategies that can be used to increase the interactivity and the learning value of interactions. I will cover some of these in my keynote, so stay tuned!

ECA: Finally, what is the message you hope that the ECA Conference audience will take away from your keynote address?

SD: That talk matters! I hope to show how talk, when it occurs during authentic and meaningful interactions, can be a powerful tool for learning. If we harness that potential, our interactions with infants can help to create capable and life-long learners and thinkers.

Sheila Degotardi is presenting at the 2021 ECA National Conference, her topic is From birth to three: Exploring educators’ understandings of agency. View the program and secure your spot for the conference here.

ECA Recommends

The relationship worlds of infants and toddlers
By Sheila Degotardi and Emma Pearson

The Relationship Worlds of Infants and Toddlers explores the concept of relationships as a core element of early childhood education and care. Taking as its starting point that children from birth to three learn and develop in a network of relationships, it examines what these relationships look and feel like, how they can be fostered and why they are important for children, educators and families who are involved in early years settings. You can purchase your copy here from the ECA Shop.

Sheila Degotardi

Sheila Degotardi is a Professor of Early Childhood Education who specialises in infant-toddler curriculum, pedagogy and learning. Sheila is also the Director of Research, in the Macquarie School of Education.

2 thoughts on “Shaping the power of talk”

    Beryl Cappello says:

    Love listening you thank you. My question is what other factors influence the quality of sound heard by infants. Eg the noise level in the room. The number of adults talking to each other? What sort of information should we be sharing with families to shape their interaction with their infants?

    Hi Beryl.
    Our study on the quantity of educator talk heard by infants showed that group size and qualifications mattered. It also showed that infants themselves contributed (i.e. more vocalising infants experienced more educator talk), but we could not say what caused what (i.e. did more talk elicit more vocalisations, or did more vocalisations elicit more talk). Noise level is something we are currently looking at. More research is needed to unpack things!

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