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Many decades of research suggest children need to hear a lot of language to master their early language development. However, the way in which we speak to children matters, and the quality of our interactions are key.
With young children, it’s not just about using certain words, or the right amount of them. Language development in early childhood is also about teaching children the concept of a conversation, and how these interactions work.
When someone actively listens and responds appropriately to us, it helps to maintain the conversation, and bond over a shared experience. This back-and-forth is also known as contingency – a key strategy when interacting with young children.
In this story, we’ll explore what contingent interactions are, how they support little ones’ developing language, and how to implement them in your early education setting.
A contingent interaction occurs when we respond promptly and meaningfully to a child’s initiation or behavior. When a child speaks to us, and we respond when they are fully attentive toward us, this is contingency in its prime.
Contingent interactions are not about talking a lot when a child is not attentive to what you’re saying, or trying to redirect a child’s attention when they’re fixated on something else.
Instead, you should recognize a child’s attempts to communicate, accurately interpret them, and use this information to engage in an appropriate, responsive manner.
A lot of evidence has emerged from studies of mother-child pairs which suggests that contingency is key for children’s early language development. We'll look at that down below.
Children’s early language development is quite slow at first. After producing their first word around 12 months, they slowly begin to learn and use handfuls of additional words throughout their second year. Then, suddenly, they may go through a rapid vocabulary growth spurt around around 24 months. But every child is different, so developing these skills will vary greatly between children (which is totally normal!).
Researchers at New York University, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine conducted a study with 40 infants and their mothers, where they measured children’s language abilities, and their mother’s responsiveness during a 10-minute free play period during two home visits.
They found that children with more responsive mothers were found to achieve this vocabulary growth spurt sooner compared to children with less responsive mothers.
In short, responding to children's communication attempts helps them learn and use new words.
Not only can little ones pick up on new words when engaging in an interaction with a responsive parent or educator, but they can also learn how to combine words to form coherent utterances. In other words, they learn grammar.
Imagine you’re playing with a child, and they’re playing with some farm animals. The child puts the horse in the barn and says, “Horse inside”. Your contingent response could be, “The horse is inside the barn”.
By providing this additional information, and filling in the gaps of the child’s utterance, you allow them to learn how to put words together to communicate something in an appropriate manner. You’re building off their idea, and helping them understand a new way of expressing that idea.
One thing to note here is that we want to respond with warm, positive affect. Children should know what they said is correct, but there is another, more appropriate way of communicating it. It’s not about correcting, but about elaborating.
So how can you implement this strategy into your early education setting?
Catherine Snow, an educational psychologist and applied linguist from Harvard University, suggests that there are four ways in which you could respond contingently:
In sum, contingency is all about interpreting and promptly responding to our children across a variety of contexts and topics. As we know, little ones love to show and tell you many different things, and love to ask many questions so they can learn about the world and their environments, so it’s essential that we’re responsive to them.
It’s important to note that responding contingently takes practice, and will look different from child to child. However, an important takeaway is that we are making the time to be attentive to our children’s communication attempts so they know they’re being listened to, and so we can support their developing language abilities.
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.