Dr. Daniela O'Neill - Small Talk With Big Outcomes for Children

By engaging in conversations from birth onwards with children, parents and caregivers can foster skills that are foundational to positive social interactions with others, learning to read, engaging in complex forms of thinking, and to children’s ability to thrive in today’s more interactive and creative learning and classroom environments. But what kinds of conversations, about what kinds of things, can impact such outcomes and why? Via examples from everyday activities such as shopping for groceries, sharing a book or riding the bus, Daniela O’Neill will try to “connect the dots” and show how it is that parents’ and caregivers’ “small” talk in such situations can have big outcomes for children.

Daniela O’Neill is a Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Waterloo where she founded and directs the UW Centre for Child Studies. Her major research interests include children’s communicative development and its assessment during the toddler and preschool years, children’s understanding and production of stories and its relation to more complex thinking, and parent-toddler conversation during toy play and book sharing. She is also the developer of the Language Use Inventory, a standardized parent-questionnaire designed to help speech-language professionals identify delays or impairment in children’s early social communication. Her research has been funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and a Premier’s Research Excellence Award.

Transcript of Dr. O'Neill’s Lecture

Dr. Fred Palmer: Dr. O'Neill came to us first from Stanford University, PhD and then she did her post doc at MRC in England. She's been at Waterloo for, how long?

Dr. O'Neill: Twenty years.

Dr. Fred Palmer: Twenty years now. Okay. Twenty years. She's also, obviously, interested in language and development. She's the developer of the Language Use Inventory, which is a test used to determine the state of language development, and identify problems. She's the Director of the University of Waterloo's Center for Child Studies and is, like Helen, an internationally known child development and language expert. Dr. O'Neill, please.

Dr. O'Neill: Thank you. I think I'm going to be up here.

I may, actually, find that easiest.

We'll see what works out well here. I'm so glad there are some new moms in this [audience]. You'll see why when you see a very embarrassing video, at least for me, you can relate to. Thank you so much for the invitation to come. This has been just a wonderful day and a half already and I'm so pleased to be here.

Babies are born to communicate and socially interact with people right from birth. From the first minutes after birth, it's been shown that babies already show a preference to listen to their mother's voice and to familiar melodies of stories that were read to them before they were even born. In probably one of the most remarkable studies ever done with infants, they were only eight minutes old, without ever having seen their own face and having spent only a few minutes in the world, babies will already imitate another person's mouth movements as you can see this little newborn girl doing.

Even just these few examples suggest that babies are coming into the world built to attend to language and other people. They prefer to attend to those most likely to be talking to them, they're already paying attention to longer melodies of sound, and they are able to extract information from others' mouth movements in order to make similar movements with their own mouth. Indeed, these imitations could even be thought of as babies' first responses to something another person is showing them, similar to what will happen in conversation in the months and years to come and the pace will not slow down. Every month and every year and particularly quickly up until age four and five years, babies will be adding to their communicative repertoire, especially when these abilities are fostered and scaffolded by adults and the child has a benefit of a language rich environment around him or her.

Just as an example here, here is how one child's talk progressed, it's described by Steven Pinker in his book "The Language Instinct", and how this child's language progressed in less than a year. At age two, this child is using only typical two-word utterances: big drum, play checkers. Six months later, this child is saying, "Where mommy keep her pocketbook?" Six months later, just shy of three years, "Can I put my head in the mailbox so the mailman can know where I are and put me in the mailbox?"

Babies learn to communicate from hearing language, overhearing language, and, most importantly, participating in communicative interactions. In order to segment the steady stream of speech coming at them, babies are designed with very powerful abilities to extract patterns of sounds in the speech string. They are figuring out where the boundaries of words are, where a word starts and where a new one begins and ends.

When we, as adults, hear English, all of the words sound very distinct but this is actually an illusion, of sorts. It's our brain already able to identify, easily, words in a stream of speech that actually has no pauses between words. This is why, when you hear a sentence in another language that you don't know, you often can't even tell where the words are in that sentence. Babies are actually exquisite statisticians who can analyze such sounds coming in, their data, so to speak, provided by adults around them to begin to find those words and attach meaning to them. Babies crave social interaction with others and as anyone who has interacted with a baby knows, it is very difficult to talk to a baby in a normal, adult voice. Hi, little one. Did you have a good nap? Does not come out sounding like this. It comes out sounding like hi, little one. Did you have a good nap?

Our voices go up, we slow down, we use shorter sentences, we put more stress on certain words, and we exaggerate our facial expressions. You don't have to think about doing this. You're going to just do it. Researchers are still figuring out exactly what the key features of caregiver or infant directed speech, as it's called, are. Which features are universal and what it all means in terms of helping a baby figure out where the words are in all this gobbledygook of language and sounds coming at them. Talk with these kinds of features is certainly what babies have been show to prefer to listen to over boring, adult, monotone talk. In a sense, they recognize it as talk meant for them.

Babies can also show us that they can engage in conversations and learning about what conversations are. Think for a moment about what constitutes a conversation between two people. A really important feature is the fact that each person takes a turn contributing something. Otherwise, it's just a monologue, what I'm doing at the moment. It may come as a surprise but even with babies only a few months old, more than a monologue is possible. Babies, even when they are only babbling sounds, are actually pretty good at taking turns in a conversation. Here comes the embarrassing video. In this video you'll see such a conversation between myself and my daughter around the Christmas holidays, when she was about three months old. You'll notice that, as the parent, you can talk about pretty much anything, especially when you're tired!

[video starts]

Dr. O'Neill: Good morning, little sweetie. Hi. Did you have a nice morning with Daddy? Did you have a nice morning with Daddy? Yeah. You slept a little longer, didn't you? Yeah. Yeah. Did you watch the snow come down? Yeah? Did Daddy turn on the Christmas lights?

[baby sound]

Dr. O'Neill: Did you like them? Did you like them?

[baby sound]

Dr. O'Neill: Yeah? You did?

[baby sound]

Dr. O'Neill: They were really, really nice? Huh?

[baby sound]

Dr. O'Neill: Yeah?

[baby sound]

[video ends]

Dr. O'Neill: This synchrony has been described, most notably by Daniel Stern, as a conversational dance and likened to the choreographed steps of dance partners. A dance that can also hint at what is not captured when language is heard and experienced only on a TV or a tablet. The enjoyment of both parties in this dance can serve as a clear reminder of how important adults are to young babies and how important adult’s communication to young babies is.

What I'm sure that struck you while watching this video and some of you might have even thought was silly, is that what I'm treating as conversational turns are clearly not always sounds and behaviors that are being produced intentionally by my daughter. This is a feature of such early conversations: grunts, burps, head movements, anything the baby does, is pretty much treated as a conversational contribution. But this is a really important feature to note because researchers have found that when adults treat more of these actions like this as intentional communications then the baby's language grows faster. It's really more about faking it until it becomes a real conversation and giving the baby the benefit of the doubt because babies can simply not keep up their verbal end yet. Treating them as though they can from early on helps babies to actually be able to move into contributions with intentional sounds, babbles, and words sooner. Treating babies as conversational partners from the start will lay a strong foundation for lots more important kinds of talk and conversation to come.

The importance of continuing the conversations and what it means, in particular, for children's vocabulary growth is dramatically evident in the findings of a very influential study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley. This study is often talked about in the news as demonstrating a vocabulary gap or a word gap among some children, especially those children who may be coming from more disadvantaged homes where their exposure to language is less frequent and rich than it is for other children. In this study, the researchers recorded the talk that was in the homes of 42 children of a variety of income and demographic backgrounds. The study started when children were eight to nine months old. They continued over two-and-a-half years until the children were three. They were interested in discovering whether there were differences in home language environments that would account and influence children's vocabulary growth.

What they didn't anticipate was how big that difference would be between some of the families and how much some parents talked. In some homes, children were getting three times more experience with language and interaction as in other homes. Here you can see, and I just took this out of their results, at 11 to 18 months, when the children were 11 to 18 months, the number of parent utterances to the child per hour ranged enormously from 56 per hour in one family at the lowest end to 793 per hour at a family in the highest end. Even when children were older and talking more, the range was similar: 34 to 783 utterances per hour. Over the entire span, the average was about 341 utterances. Hart and Risley also discovered that families showed remarkable consistency over time.

When they looked at the number of words per hour addressed to a child and then extrapolated beyond their data that ended at age three to age four, their results suggested that the children at the higher end had heard 30 million more words by the time they were four than children falling at the lowest levels of exposure. Now, note this doesn't mean 30 million different words. English doesn't have 30 million different words. It meant a total of 30 million words of all kinds. Not surprisingly, the trajectories of children's vocabulary growth and use were tightly linked to these differences in language exposure. The more parents talked to their children, the faster children's vocabularies grew and the larger the gap grew between children at the low and the high ends of language exposure.

As a result of these striking differences that clearly have implications for children's readiness to enter school, the word gap and the vocabulary gap have gained national attention and you see this with the Too Small To Fail campaign with the Clinton Foundation and Rhode Island's Providence Talks.

Going back to Hart and Risley's study. Beyond just looking at words, they were very interested in the conversational interactions that children were experiencing. What features, for example, added quality to these interactions? Did this make a difference to children's later outcomes? When they were transcribing all this talk, which is just a monumental feat, they had five initial impressions of what parents did that added quality to their talk: parents just talked, they told kids about things, they tried to be nice, they gave children choices, and they listened.

When they went further on in their analyses to measure these things more specifically they looked, for example, [at]: [Table presented]

  • when they just talked: how many different words were used?
  • telling children about things: what kind of language were they using that refers to relations between things and events?
  • they tried to be nice: they looked at the proportion of feedback that was positive to negative
  • they gave children choices: how often is a child being asked rather than told what to do?
  • they listened: There they looked at parents' responses to child initiated talk rather than parent initiated talk.

While all parents did these things, the vast differences in the amount of talk meant that the frequency with which children experienced these quality features differed dramatically. For example, some children heard approval statements like ‘right’ and ‘good’ and ‘I love you’ five times more often than other children.

Indeed, more than 30 times an hour while other children heard prohibitions like ‘stop’, ‘don't’, ‘shutup’, ‘bad’ seven times more often than other children. Importantly, when Hart and Risley examined what accounted for differences at age three - with respect to children's score on an IQ test, their vocabulary growth, their vocabulary use, and even on to age nine, measures of language - it was knowing how much parents' talk incorporated these five quality features that was more important in explaining the differences in children's outcomes than knowing the family's socioeconomic status. This study showed, also, how important what [an] adult models is for children and how fast children come to model what they have observed. By age three, children were talking and using different words at a rate very similar to the averages of their parents.

Given the large differences in the amount of talk between families, this means that some three-year-olds were using more different words than the parents of other three-year-olds. Now, the focus in Hart and Risley's study with respect to children's outcomes was vocabulary growth but as they themselves point out in their study, parents' talk changed dramatically and incorporated much more of these quality features when it went beyond the talk that was simply needed to care for children and to include talk about things such as feelings, plans, present activities, and past events. With such descriptions, we're right back at conversations. It may seem odd to say, at first, but vocabulary is much more than knowing words. As other researchers have pointed out, a word gap is a knowledge gap.

Learning words and learning to use words in conversation with others draws on many kinds of knowledge that children must also acquire, knowledge that could be described at cognitive, social, social cognitive. Words are not learned in isolation. Words are learned as part of conversations that are happening between children and other people around them. Children are learning the conventional way words are used around them and important to them. Adults and others are providing, without really thinking about it, many cues to how to use a word that children are figuring out. In conversation, children are learning about the context in which words are used: related words, related settings for words, and so on. They're doing the same thing for phrases and sentences. Consider, for example, a little word that I've actually studied, written a whole paper on: ‘maybe’.

‘Maybe’. Learning the word ‘maybe’ is learning much more than just a word. Like the acquisition of many words, its meaning changes and gets more sophisticated over time. When you have a full understanding of ‘maybe’ you know you can use it to talk about things that objects might do: ‘maybe it will fall’, ‘maybe this piece goes here’. Things people might do: ‘maybe he'll drop it’. Events that might happen: ‘maybe there's something in here’, ‘maybe it'll be sunny tomorrow’. ‘Maybe’ encompasses a notion of uncertainty and is related to and on a continuum with words like ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’. In English, it's related to words that we talk about to talk about the future, which also encompasses, in its very nature, uncertainty, unlike, for example, talking about the past. Children start to use ‘maybe’ at age two but it will be a few years before they use it in all of these ways and with all of these understandings.

As my daughter once said to me when she was around three or four, I can't remember, when I would say ‘Maybe…’, "Mommy, when you say ‘maybe’ like that, you actually mean ‘no’." It was totally true. It was just an easier way to say ‘no’.

When we are talking about developments and how children come to use language appropriately and effectively, for many different functions and different settings, these developments are actually called children's acquisition of the pragmatics of language. Pragmatics captures that knowing a language is more than just learning the vocabulary and learning to put the words together in a sense according to the grammar of the language. You have to also know how to use your words in sentences, in different contexts, for different purposes, effectively. Often, pragmatic aspects of language require you to understand and take into account the perspective of others: what someone else is thinking, feeling, wanting.

I think children's pragmatic language development actually really hits to the core of what many parents care about when thinking about the happiness or unhappiness of their children. Parents readily recognize how painful it is to see a child struggling to communicate, struggling to play successfully with peers and make friends, struggling to learn and keep up in school. These painful realities and outcomes are very well known to parents of children with language impairments. Indeed, several recent large and international longitudinal studies have demonstrated that children's pragmatic communication is related to very important longer term outcomes. Children with stronger pragmatic skills go on to have more positive social interactions, fewer emotional, behavioral and conduct problems, better self-regulation. Friendships are related to this, more positive attitudes to school, and even more positive ratings of the quality of their life.

There is much that remains for researchers to know about exactly what aspects of children's language environments contribute to relations to longer outcomes like this but on some aspects there are consensus. For the rest of this talk I'd like to focus on ways of talking in everyday activities that really appear to lay some of the foundations for these outcomes. Now, just a little bit biased here but, as I consider different every day settings, I'm going to highlight the sharing of picture books with young infants and children, partly because we study narrative in my lab but also because I am an absolute huge fan of picture books. I bought them long before I had kids. Their artwork alone is staggeringly beautiful and many picture book authors are artists in their own right. The words, the poetry, it's like a beautiful song or melody and in sharing picture books with a child you can open up a world of learning way beyond your expectations for something so small.

Let's begin with reading comprehension. Once children have mastered the decoding stage, comprehension becomes the issue. For some children, this marks a stage, around Grade 3 or 3rd Grade, I think, here [in the USA], where they may fall significantly behind their peers. In longer stretches of talk or text such as stories, our comprehension has to extend from single utterances over many utterances. It also may go back and forth in time. Moreover, the events, the people, the ideas, the concepts are much more abstract, decontextualized. We have to be very active and engaged listeners.

Less research has been devoted to reading comprehension in the earlier stage but we know that vocabulary and world knowledge impact comprehension of longer stretches, allowing a child to more easily make connections between what they're reading or hearing about and their own experiences and integrate this new knowledge into preexisting knowledge. Now, in our research in the lab, we've shown that parents spontaneously provide important word and world knowledge when sharing early board books with infant and toddlers, how we studied the toddlers. Even wordless books that could be considered just books for fun or not even real reading. The beauty of wordless books is that they can actually be read in any home language.

For example, in a study that I conducted with a graduate student we compared mom's talk when reading a largely wordless storybook about animals and comparing it to reading a more flash card vocabulary book. We created these by adapting two commercially available books, "Don't Wake Up the Bear" and "Good Night, Gorilla". "Good Night, Gorilla", one of my all time favorites. For this study, we made six page versions so all this data will only come from six tiny pages. We called it "Animals in the Woods" and "Animals in the Zoo". What we wanted to do was create, from these books, a storybook version, which was basically just like the original. We Photoshopped out the pictures, the animals, to turn it into a flashcardy, more vocabulary type book. Then in our study, each mom read each type of book with her toddler.

They were free to do it however they wanted: standing, sitting, we didn't care, backwards, forwards, whatever. We were interested in seeing what kind of information mom might provide about the six animals that were in each and if the type of book would matter, especially since the vocabulary flashcard book is often marketed as much more educational than, say, a wordless storybook. The answer was clear. Mom provided important information and facts and did so equally with both types of book. One type of information, for example, that mom provided, and this was always in addition to the story in the storybook version, is information that told children about kinds of animals in general. Not just what was going on with the specific animals in the story.

Instead of just talking about the bear sleeping, or the giraffe being let out of the cage, or the squirrel being in the tree, moms told children that bears hibernate, giraffes have long necks, squirrels like to climb trees. Hearing this type of talk about categories of animals, also knows as generic talk, leads to really robust learning about the world for children. We haven't gone on to study this in detail yet but I think such generic talk may actually be easier in storybooks because they, the pictures, and the story can remind parents of things that they can tell the child about such as bears hibernating in winter. In the same study, we looked at other ways that parents incorporated complex decontextualized talk when sharing these books with their toddlers. Here, interestingly, the type of book did matter. When mom was reading the storybook version, it turned out her talk was more complex than when she read the flashcard version.

What did this more complex talk look like? Here is an example. With here, we see the storybook version: “And he's sleepy, this man. His eyes are closed in all the pictures. He's walking up to this door and all the animals are following him. Do you think they're going to go to bed with him? Do you think they're going to cuddle with him? He'll be surprised in the morning. No?” Whereas when they're reading the one where we, is just more like a vocabulary book: “Here they all are. Look at them all. Can you show me the elephant? The child points to the elephant. Where's the giraffe? The child points to the giraffe. Which one is the hyena? He looks like a dog.” There's a generic right there, too. When reading the storybook, moms talked more about different kinds of mental states, so ‘sleepy’, ‘waking’, ‘thinking’ there. They also used more verb tenses going into the past and into the future as well.

Both of these ways of talking will become more and more important as children come to listen and try to understand longer stretches of talk and text where different personal and temporal viewpoints will be critical to a full understanding. Now, I want to make sure [its clear] both of these kinds of talk that moms engaged in are important for children to hear but what we had really wanted to do in this study was highlight that these simple wordless storybooks are not just for fun and that they really do provide and allow a parent to engage in more complex talk that children are going to benefit from hearing and in participating in conversations about.

Turning to think about children's developing social interaction skills, children's understanding of their own and others' minds and perspectives plays a really important role in contributing to successful interactions. This social cognitive and social emotional understanding is growing rapidly from toddlerhood onwards and the conversations that children are engaged in and the language they hear fosters and helps develop these understandings. One really tricky thing about the mind and mental states and perspectives is that they're not visible. For children to come to know about them they need to hear others talk about them. Children need to hear talk about feelings, emotions, desires, thoughts, perceptual experiences to come to understand them. Just as Hart and Risley found that children's talk looked like their parents talk, many studies have found that children's talk about the mind is related to the frequency of which parents talk about the mind. A child who talks about feeling sad, being happy, frustrated, what others like, don't like or who, what they think or know, has parents who are talking about these things.

Hart and Risley described, for example, that parents who said ‘move’ and ‘shutup’ had children who said the same. Parents who explained, “You're going to have to play by yourself, okay, because I'm trying to make lunch and I'm going to have to get the baby up”, had children who explained at length as well. You can see, I went to the original study, you can see some examples here from Hart and Risley's studies of how parents incorporate talk about feelings and thoughts and wants in every day activities with their children. [Examples on slides followed]

Diapering Kendra at nine months: “Going to take you just about as long as it takes me to get you changed to figure out which one of those keys you want to put in your mouth.” There's that little ‘figure out’.

Sorting pears with Andrea who is 10 months: “I wish some of these pears were good enough for me to keep but I don't think any of them are. You like pears, don't you?”

All this talk about mental perspectives.

Larry, who is running his car on the coffee table: “I don't know, Larry. I don't want that on that one. That's going to scratch my table. That has to go on the rug.”

Eating yogurt with Corinne: “You don't think you'll spill it?”

Here, Mont hates having his hair washed and mom just - there's mental states everywhere: “I have to wash your hair in a minute. You don't like it. Maybe this will work better, sitting him up. Every time I lay you down you cry. Let's just try and see if I can do it now. I don't know if I can or not. Maybe I'll keep you from crying so much. I know it. You don't like to have your hair washed, do you?”

Given the importance of socioemotional competence and self-regulation to children's ability and interaction with others, I'll focus for a moment on the toddler years to emphasize how important hearing adults talk about certain mental states such as emotions and feelings is. When a child experiences such talk then one of the first understandings to appear in children's talk is talk about likes and wants. This is from a study by Karen Bartsch and Henry Wellman. They wrote a book called "Children Talk About The Mind". With continued experience, you'll see new developments marking a newly emerging ability to recognize that your own desires and wants may be different than someone else. The next thing you sort of see children doing is, here: [From examples on slides]

Abe: “I don't like shaving cream.” He recognized that Daddy does.

Ross: “This is kind of scary” but Dad says, "Oh, I like it." Ross says, "I don't like it."

This may be a baby step, this understanding different perspectives, but it's a very important on the journey to social competence. Two-year-olds are really interested in people and things and events around them. Judy Dunn carried out wonderful work going in children's homes, looking at the beginnings of social understanding at this time period and found, for example, that one of the most frequent questions two-year-olds asked was where somebody was. Two-year-olds are also keenly interested in how things typically are and should be. It's not uncommon that a two-year-old will notice and comment on and be even upset with toys and objects that may be broken or somehow different than normal. This keen awareness of standards also applies to behavior.

This can be misinterpreted by adults as a child deliberately doing something they're not supposed to. You just told them not to go for that remote and they're going for it and, worse, they're smiling. Trying to deliberately mislead mom or dad – “I didn't eat that cookie,” and the cookie is pretty much everywhere. What these situations are, though, are reflections of a desire to understand what the acceptable standards are. Beginning to anticipate that response of mom or dad and see if they're right or not and the beginnings of notions of accountability and responsibility. This type of experimenting that they're doing with us, with rules, actually is an advance in their understanding of social rules and behavior.

In dealing with such situations, Dunn's conversational analyses revealed that from 14 to 36 months, moms gradually increased the frequency with which they referred to social rules, to acceptable behavior, to the feelings of others, and to the consequences of children's actions. This increased, for example, for reasons from 33% of the time at 18 months to over half the time when the children were three years old. With this, of course, came parallel changes in the child's own ability to use social rules and feelings to justify actions and points of view. Now, we all know that every now and again a toddler's desire or want is going to come up against a parent's conflicting desire and you're usually friendly, cooperative toddler dissolves into something that looks like this. Often, the reason why they're upset seems pretty small, trivial or totally mysterious.

Nevertheless, from the child's point of view, it's important. Restoring calm, however, requires a young child to have the kind of language and understanding of emotions and self-regulation of these emotions that's not yet possible for a two- or three-year-old child. They need the help of adults around them. In terms of their understanding of emotions, two year olds are at the beginning stages and they may not have many or any words yet to label their emotions. Emotions are actually pretty tricky and complex concepts. At times, even as adults, we may have difficulty saying how we're feeling and we have the words. Add to this that while children are upset, children may be experiencing other things that they don't understand either. They're gulping for air. Their body is shaking. The end result can actually be quite frightening and scary. They don't know how to calm their bodies down. Telling [them] to just stop or be quiet doesn't work.

It doesn't work for adults either, really. In such cases, it's important for adults to listen and try and take the child's point of view and acknowledge these strong feelings and emotions and give them names and help the child to understand where they came from. For example, by explaining, "You're feeling frustrated because the wheels on your car came off." "That was a loud sound, wasn't it? It scared you." "You're angry because this is a toy you're playing with and you don't want to give it to your friend," which is what sharing really is. It's giving something up. "I can understand you're upset. You would really like this cereal. It's yummy and I like it but we can't afford it." Over time, these words will become the words that children can use to explain their own feelings and I mean a lot of times. By demonstrating empathy we are also building the capacity for empathy in children.

Children also need to hear solutions from adults to help them find a way to move forward in an adaptive way. When an adult uses their words, first to make the child feel calmer and secure and then to talk about possible ways to repair this situation and whatever has gone wrong and find an alternative solution, this provides the child with the language that, bit by bit, they can use to build a foundation upon which to eventually be able to do this by themselves. I want to leave on a happy note for toddlers because we actually know from research that toddlers are spontaneously helpful and cooperative. It's good to remember that. For example, asking a child to help you find a new cereal that you both might be able to get, trying to redirect a child's attention and focus them in a way can be a good solution.

This was observed by Hart and Risley as well, who talked about parents as having a bigger bag of tricks that they could call on for anticipating, distracting, redirecting, and persuading children. They give an example of a mom who had a junk drawer of utensils next to the sink that the child could play with so she could deal with the hot water and the knives and everything. They importantly note that this kept the child and her talking and it kept mom from saying no. Doing these kinds of things is not spoiling a child, is not giving in. It's recognizing the unique developmental stage that toddlers and young children are at, their cognitive and linguistic limitations in such situations, and providing them with the understanding and scaffolding they need to eventually achieve greater socioemotional competence, empathic, and self-regulation skills.

This last part of the talk, I'm going to turn back to conversations and more complex forms of perspective taking, abstract and scientific thinking that are likely to play an ever greater role as children encounter the new types of learning environments in today's classrooms. Again, as we saw for other forms of complex thinking, the foundations happen early in conversation. In today's classrooms, sitting in rows and paying attention and being silent is no longer the norm. Often, children's desks are in groups. The groups are changed throughout the year. Students have to work collaboratively. They have to discuss different ideas, different strategies, how to organize information, how their work will be communicated. Even when working on their own, knowing the right answer isn't enough. You need to be able to say how you got that answer. You have to show your thinking. You have to show the step you took. You have to explain your answer.

This is even in things like math. As early as preschool, children's natural curiosity about the world and drive to experiment is encouraged by teachers as a way to introduce them to scientific thinking. Including asking questions, making predictions, talking about observations, and communicating their results. With respect to the new common core standards, the need for complex language has been pointed out by speech language pathologists such as Janet Dodd as young as kindergarten. Children are expected to express their thoughts, feelings, and ideas clearly. To seek and answer questions in order to ask for information, get help, clarify something. That's a lot of expect. That's a lot that children are going to have to do. It so happens that around four years of age, most children experience quite a watershed in their understanding of their own and other's minds.

That is, around four years of age, children come to understand that our knowledge and our beliefs are dependent on what we experience. As a result, not only can likes and wants differ, so can beliefs and what you're thinking, even if the reality is otherwise. For example, a four-year-old can understand that someone who put a cookie in a jar would go back and look for it later if, even if, unknown to them, someone else ate it in the meantime. A four-year-old can understand that we're going to behave according to how we think the world is, not necessarily how it actually is. This is quite an achievement. There have been, literally, about 200 plus studies on this shift around four years of age. We know this because most three-year-olds can't do this yet. They can't reason this way yet. To a three-year-old, everyone acts the way the three-year-old knows the world to be.

During this time, from three to four years of age, children come to this much more fuller understanding of knowledge and where it comes from, concepts also of the past, the future. They have a much fuller understanding of themselves and time. This means that you can engage in much richer talk about plans and predictions and hypotheses. Here we can see, again [Examples on slides], from “Children Talk about the Mind”, now you'll start to hear children questioning you. “How you do know that's a duck?” It's because they're wondering about these sources of knowledge. “Is the swimming pool open? How do you know?” Very reasonable question.

Here, “You, this is not your game. It's my game. You don't know what it is.” In other words, you can't know. It's in my head. “I holded my eyes because I scared myself. I thought the castle was a giant's castle.” They're going back now. They can go back into the past and see that prior belief that they had. Mom: “Why would you put that glue in your mouth?” [Child:] “I thought it was good.” Here, even more complexly, “Did you see the clouds?” Mom: “That was smoke left over from the fireworks.” [Child:] “You thought that but I thought they was clouds.” You're seeing the going to the past, seeing what they thought and comparing it to what mom thought.

I'll just quickly say, these complex ways of thinking and talking will relate to children's later abilities to thrive in these more communicatively and cognitively challenging learning environments in ways that researchers are just uncovering. Just in a two-sentence summary, we found, for example, that children's ability to talk about different perspective of characters in this wordless book was related, and that was, at three and four years of age, was related two years later to how they did on a mathematical achievement test. That was over and above general language abilities. It may be the same ability that's allowing children to think flexibly and shift perspectives is helping them in other problems.

These new developments in children's understanding appearing around the age of four are, again, dependent on children's participation in communicative interactions with other in which these complex types of thinking are being talked about: making plans, discussing ideas and viewpoints, making connections between events and things. How can one build these more complex talks into every day moments? I'm at the end now and I can only give a few examples here but I'm hoping that the pictures that I show you may spur on other ideas for fostering such talk. The pictures are all from on of my absolute favorite picture book authors and artist, Barbara Reid.

Here, Zoe: Where is Zoe going? Where do you think Zoe is going? What made you think that? What have they brought along? What do we bring when we go to the park?

She looks like she's looking at a pigeon. I hope she doesn't trip. They're on the bus. Where do you think they might be going? Where do we go on the bus? Does it look like our bus?

This boy is, these are all made with Plasticine. Aren't they unbelievable? This boy has got his eyes closed. Why do you think he's got his eyes closed? The one in the middle. Do you think that's his sister? Where do you think they're going? Is somebody in a hurry? Did somebody forget something? Look, she has a whistle. How come you think she's got a whistle?

Do you go to the grocery store with Daddy? What are they buying? Does it look like what we buy? Do you like Cheerios? She's helping Daddy. Do you help Daddy, too? Do you like riding in the cart? I wonder if they have a list. What else did they buy? Where do you think these people are? Do you think they've noticed the mice? Who is waiting for the subway train? The mice seem pretty excited about that piece of paper. What do you think they're going to do with it? How come the picture is all blurry? That looks like a fun party. Doesn't it? Do you like spinning around? What does it make you feel like?

The text there says, "Some trees are sun umbrellas." It looks like a hot day. Doesn't it? How come they're all under the tree? That doggy is getting a ride just like that baby. It'll be nice when the summer comes and it's not so cold anymore, won't it? Coming from up North, Canada, that's for sure. This picture actually makes me feel warmer. Finally, oh, oh. No, no, no. Hold on. Oh, it was the best picture, too.

[Technical difficulties, slideshow is restored]

Sorry. It says a tree can be a high-rise home sweet home. Do you think it's morning? Who all is getting breakfast? Would you like worms for breakfast? See, there's a robin feeding its babies. There's a lot of different homes here, aren't there? Can you find them all?

I thank you for your invitation to talk with you today and I hope that you leave inspired from these examples and eager to share in more small moments of listening and talking to children that will ultimately contribute in a myriad of ways to the ability of children, families, and communities to thrive. Thank you.

Moderator: Now here's a question from one of the overflow rooms says strong phonics program recommendation.

Dr. O'Neill: I'm sorry?

Moderator: Strong phonics program recommendation. I guess whether you recommend a phonics program.

Dr. O'Neill: Oh that would be, that's outside of my area, of my area of expertise. Reading decoding is not a my area, but maybe you can take that.

Dr. Perkins: Balanced approach, okay? We do not want our children to depend on sounding it out, because then they are barking out print all of the time. Da Da Da Da and they never really learn the word okay? So it needs to be balanced.

Moderator: And it says for teachers particularly.

Dr. Perkins: Oh for teachers to learn?

Moderator: No, strong phonics programs for teachers, a recommendation for teachers.

Dr. Perkins: I'm not recommending.

Moderator: You're not?

Dr. Perkins: Sorry.

Woman 3: I'm just curious about sign language, you know they start doing that at a young age.

Dr. O'Neill: You mean baby signs?

Woman 3: Yeah.

Dr. O'Neill: Okay I'll confess I used baby signs. Why? Why? Because my daughter was actually not a super early talker. She doesn't stop now, but at that time she glaumed onto them. She liked them. We did more and then I made up some. We didn't have a huge repertoire, but there was one in particular. We have a peaked roof on our house and so I made this [hands in inverted-V gesture] as the 'home' gesture. Boy was that helpful when we were in the mall and she's breaking down and I was just "What?" You know she was not really talking yet and you're thinking, is she hungry? Is she tired? What? And she would go like that [home gesture] and we're like, "Ah, you want to go home." And you know that feeling as a parent you're like, "Yes! I solved it. I know what you want."

Because when in those early stages you know, and at least that's what the research suggests, is it takes more energy to do those gestures. So once they have the words, they fall out, because it's easier to just say, "I want to go home," than to go to all this trouble. But in terms of … yeah, that's what I would say. Use baby signs, if the baby likes them use them. If they don't, don't press it. Make them up. Don't start teaching ASL. They don't need grammar. They're going to, you know they can get very … you know it can sound like it has to be very sophisticated, but yeah.

Moderator: You have a question?

Man: Is there a preference for talking about emotions and feelings over other kinds of behaviors?

Dr. O'Neill: I don't think so. I think that what we want to give children is just a really big repertoire for talking about the mind. And one thing that really struck me when we were doing the study, my student Cristina Atance and I - she's now a professor at the University of Ottawa, was we realized there's all of these words for thinking about things and what's the difference even with supposing, wondering, hypothesizing, dreaming, imagining?

Now these are all words that we use and they have subtle, at times differences, but pinning down exactly, you have to go to the dictionary. But I think that just the more that we can talk to children about these states that are invisible, the more it will benefit them. Now, obviously a two-year-old, you still want to expose them to the language. They're not going to be talking to you about what others know. Thinking will be the first thing to come in, and even something like "know" may be used right in the beginning to mean more like, "I don't know," and that could mean, "I forgot. I don't know where it is or I forgot it." The meanings change over time as they get more sophisticated. But certainly, with toddlers it's going to be important that they have that emotion language, because they're really in the throes of that and it really helps, so they can express themselves. Exactly.

Woman 4: Hi.

Dr. O'Neill: Hi.

Woman 4: I think with a lot of teachers who teach kindergarten, first grade, second grade and clearly we want to try to prevent the language gap, but the reality is that we are working with a lot of kids who are a product of that language gap and that news that was shared about that gap expanding during elementary years is pretty scary. So what are some of the best practices around supporting kids who are school age already, but have those language gaps?

Dr. O'Neill: That are already in elementary school?

Woman 4: Yes.

Dr. O'Neill: Well, I don't think the answer would change from the younger children is reading and talking and … reading to them and talking. Lots of reading and writing.

Dr. Perkins: Reading and writing are reciprocal. So even in kindergarten if the sentence or if it's two sentences, three sentences in a paragraph let them practice and practice and create their own books. They love to create their own books then they're the author and practice and practice and practice. And I hear, I see people shaking their heads. Does anybody, I don't want you to think I'm "anti-phonicater" or anything like that. I believe in phonics, but I just believe that we have at points over taught it and then kids are relying on it and not relying on, "Oh, I know the word." So there is a balanced approach, I see you shaking your head. But I don't recommend a phonics program per se, but I bet there's one that people use that would work. I believe you teach phonics within the context of the stories that they are reading and not teach it separately, so that they know that it all works together.

They need to know the letters, they need to know their letters, they need to know the sounds that the letters. Letters don't make sounds okay? What sound does that letter make? Letters don't make sounds. See we're already teaching it wrong. Right? When we say, "What sound does that letter make?" Letters don't make sounds, but letters represent sounds. So, we want them to understand that the letters represent these sounds and know all that, within the context of a story and not separately. That make sense? But if anybody knows a phonics program that's good? Sandy? I know.

Woman 5: I have a quick question. When it comes to oral language development, I know that their social environment does make a huge impact. What have you found or have you found any differences between home schooling, traditional schooling or going to a daycare facility versus going to a home daycare just being at home with mom one on one as far as children learning more vocabulary and having different interactions with people?

Dr. Perkins: You want me to answer that?

Dr. O'Neill: One big thing is going to be the language environment. So that's something that in each case you would want to investigate. So, if the TV's on in the background and there are other signs that children aren't being talked to then that's not necessarily going to be the best place. But how many adults are there? And what they're getting the children engaged in? It wouldn't necessarily be that one is better than the other, one option. It's really about what's happening in that place and are the children being talked with? Are they being played with? Other questions like that. And I think you can find a lot of information online just about visiting places and what to look for and quality indicators and so those are good things maybe to take with you, so you don't forget about something, but as you're looking at places and the types of questions that you can ask. Because those are big decisions.

Dr. Perkins: I think that it's exactly what you said. Ditto what she said, but when you think about Vygotsky's theory and social and how children interact and learn from each other. They learn so much more than being in just a social environment. There's so much more than just playing and talking and having fun together. They also learn how to play together, how to share, how to work together, how to collaborate. So there's so much more to that and not to mention the vocabulary that they learn. The bad vocabulary and the good vocabulary. It's just a given. But what I know that a lot of people that home school, they have their children involved in other activities. Thank you. Like dance, basketball, some type of other activity where the children do have the opportunity to socially interact with others, because there's so much more than just learning language when they socially interact with each other.

Dr. O'Neill: That's very true.

Woman 6: I'm curious about your opinion about when they do start to read and the different programs I guess that involving singing and that. What do you think about that?

Dr. O'Neill: Sorry, first of all coming from Canada I don't know all the different programs here as well. I study stories so the reading, the decoding stage is not what I know about, but maybe you can help with.

Dr. Perkins: Singing is great. How many times have you sung the alphabet song to that baby and the baby's not even here?

Woman 6: Oh, I have a 17 month old.

Dr. Perkins: Rhythm is absolutely awesome and so yes I sing and I can't sing. My husband says I don't even sound good in the shower, but kids don't know that and so I sing all the time they don't care. And so yes, singing is great because of the flow of the rhythm of it.

Dr. O'Neill: Well, I mean music does have properties that are similar to language. So again, you're extracting out patterns of sound and really anything can become a lullaby. I know with my daughter, I did not know any lullabies, I realized. But I had this little Sandra Boynton Goodnight book. Okay I once in the dark at night realized that I had said or read that at least 3,000 times, because it became the lullaby. She didn't go to sleep easily. It became a thing I repeated over and over and over. If we we're in the car and she would start to get fussy - it wasn't hard to memorize, because it's just a really short little book - it became the thing I said in the car to calm her back down again. So in fact the very first time that she really laughed was when I changed the prosody once and I sped up during a part of it and she just looked at me like and just started giggling and it was great. But you know there I didn't really know any lullabies and so I've ended up singing some, you know, pretty odd songs. Bit of songs, whatever I knew, to try and get her to sleep. Yeah, but it's language. I just figured, it's all language.

Dr. Perkins: Yeah.

Dr. O'Neill: And that Goodnight book became something … like there's a part where they are in the bath, in the tub scrub, scrub, scrub. It's eight years later, I can still remember it. So I would repeat those little bits, when we were in the bath time because in making those connections, researchers call them text to life, they're really important. Taking what's in the book and applying it to the child's life. So you can use the books in that way too and the stories.