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Talking less equals talking more

By Susan Colmar - posted Thursday, 14 September 2006

For the young child, the failure to make typically observed progress in learning their first language is likely to curtail the child’s capacity to communicate effectively, as well as having a major negative effect on other areas of development and learning.

It has been estimated that up to 40 per cent of preschool children have some language delay or difficulty, although more conservative estimates would be 10 per cent with a significant difficulty and about 20 per cent showing some delay in the early years. There is clear evidence that early language delays have a significant impact on later language and communication skills, literacy skills, and behaviour, and are linked to a range of psychopathologies.

Therefore, it is important to implement successful early language intervention programs.


I recently developed and researched such a program. Importantly the “therapists” were the children’s own mothers and the interventions put the young child with language delays in charge of the conversation, with mothers in a new role as listeners and facilitators of quality interactions.

The training context was book reading, which is often used in home and early childhood settings by parents and teachers, often implicitly for language facilitation, particularly for enhancing vocabulary, or when developing early reading skills.

Significant and large changes in expressive, receptive and overall language were achieved in children with language delays when their mothers were trained and then implemented a set of simple strategies over a four-month period. My research confirmed that when adults speak less and listen more, children are able to speak more. Further, this change in the pattern of interaction leads to quite startling improvements in the quality of child language.

There are four key elements to the training program:

  1. the intervention technique of pausing to allow the child an opportunity to talk first, that is, to initiate the topic of interest to them;
  2. the technique of asking the child to say more on the topic s/he has initiated, using an open question or request for elaboration, as occurred in the original format of the first milieu language intervention technique of incidental teaching;
  3. children’s picture books as the stimulus for language teaching and learning; and
  4. the encouraging of parents to use the same key strategies of pausing and conversation building in everyday settings as often as they are able.

Individualised notes were provided to each mother, emphasising the importance of pausing so the child could comment first on every page of the book, rather than the adult reading the book, as typically occurs. Then the adult was asked to develop a conversation with the child using open questioning, such that the child was encouraged to understand and say something a little more complex than their original comment.


In simple terms, if the child says“truck” as an initiating comment, the adult might ask what colour it is, with the child saying “red truck” being a possible outcome. In developing a short turn taking conversation with her child, the mother demonstrates that they are really interested in the child’s choice of topic.

The intervention strategies ensure that the child chooses what they want to talk about, and consequently are motivated and attentive, and their “control” of the conversational topic is established.

Generally adults initiate and dominate conversations with young children with language delays. Unfortunately the consequence of this is effectively to prevent the child from having opportunities to communicate and so to use and learn language. When trained to pause, listen and interact as a facilitator, mothers allow opportunities for child initiations and child-led conversations. The success of the present program would suggest that certain assumptions about the need for directive teaching for young children with delays are not justified.

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About the Author

Dr Susan Colmar is Program Coordinator for School Counselling at The University of Sydney.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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