3 Tips for Building Positive Teacher-Child Talk

Written by
MarcoPolo Learning
November 10, 2023

The conversations that flow between teachers and children throughout the day have a tremendous impact on the overall development of the child. How a teacher communicates and uses language in the classroom can be an important part of classroom management, meeting diverse learning needs, and adding instructional value to the learning experience. How does this affect young learners? When children engage in high-quality conversation, it provides them with more opportunities to develop language and vocabulary with which to express their ideas. They understand their value as a member of the classroom community and that their contributions are important. Lastly, the teacher gains insight into the child’s world and thinking, and can respond accordingly to enrich the interactions. 

Let’s look at some tips, examples, and benefits of building high-quality, positive interactions in your classroom. 

Ask Open-Ended Questions

What are open-ended questions? 

Teachers ask questions that may have more than one answer and encourage children to elaborate on their responses.

What are the benefits of asking children open-ended questions?

An open-ended question invites an open-ended response, allowing the child to form ideas and express their thoughts. It promotes higher-order thinking, which builds on creativity, critical thinking, analyzing, and drawing conclusions –all of which are important for a child’s cognitive development. When a teacher asks a child in the block area, “What do you think might happen if you use these blocks on the bottom or top of your structure?” the child must use problem solving skills to think about their design, test it out, and communicate his/her ideas and findings. 

Remember to gently scaffold for children who may not have developed expressive language yet, for dual language learners, or children who perhaps do not have much experience in answering open-ended questions. (Strasser, 2018)*  Ask them to first describe or recall before moving on to more complex questions. You can also simply point out an observation or your own curiosities to draw their attention into the conversation. 

What do open-ended questions sound like in the classroom? 

Take any read-aloud, current study topic, conversation around the snack table, or play narrative in a choice time area and use these question prompts to engage children in positive, meaningful interactions with you and with their peers. 

“What do you notice about _____?”

“Tell us about ________.” 

“Why do you think ____ is important?”

“How does _______ make you feel?”

“How is this similar or different to ________?”

“What do you think might happen if _______? Why?”

“Why do you think ________?”

Teacher Tip: Copy and paste these on notecards / binder-ring or jot them in a visible place to have them at your fingertips in the classroom! 

Give specific, high-quality feedback

What is specific feedback? 

It's, well, specific! Think about a gift you recently gave to someone special. They open and say, “Oh, that’s great–thanks!” or they open it and say, “Wow, you know how much I love gardening; it’s so thoughtful of you to give me these lavender seeds and pretty gloves.” Which response is going to give you more feedback on the gift you chose? 

What are the benefits of giving specific feedback to children?

When a teacher provides a child with specific, high-quality feedback, they make the learning process more visible to the child. By using language that reinforces a child’s learning experience, the teacher is responding to the child’s strengths and can benefit his/her cognitive, social, and emotional development. 

What would it look like in the classroom?

Look around your classroom at the work your children are doing – whether it’s art, a pretend restaurant they’ve set up, a block structure, or sand castles. Describe what you see and provide specific, high-quality feedback. Praise and support children’s efforts and their persistence as well, to help foster a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006).

Look at the texture of the paint as you swirl it across the paper. How interesting!”

I noticed you shared the bin of toy kitchen food with your classmate by putting it between the two of you. Great thinking — now you both can use the ingredients to set up your restaurant!”

“Your two trucks are moving so fast across the rug! I wonder how you did that?”

“You are working so hard carrying those heavy buckets of sand. Look how strong you are!”

Wait, Listen, Respond

What is wait time?

Wait time is the time between the teacher’s question and the child’s response. It is also the time between the child’s answer and the teacher’s response. 

What are the benefits of waiting, listening, and then responding? 

Mary Budd Rowe (1987)  conducted pivotal research on wait time, and this is one of the big findings: when children were given at least 3 seconds of silence before responding, and teachers waited at least 3 seconds before responding to a child, positive outcomes, attitudes, and behaviors were noted with both teachers and children. Children have more time to process a question and think about their answer in greater depth. This also provides more time for diverse learners to process and think. When teachers wait to respond to a child’s answer, it gives him/her more time to consider the response as well as time for other children to join the conversation. 

What would it look like in the classroom?

You can ask an open-ended question and then pause for a few moments. If there is no response, you can repeat the question or rephrase it to provide clarity. This gives children time to both process the question and formulate a response. For example, a child responds to the question…instead of immediately acknowledging the child, the teacher is silent for a few seconds. This allows the teacher to consider a thoughtful response, and also allows time for other children to contribute to the discussion. 

Choose one of these tips and try it out in your classroom this week! Notice how children respond when you ask open-ended questions, give specific feedback, and include wait time in your response to children. By integrating these practices into your daily interactions with your children, you are offering them more opportunities for rich engagement, building self-confidence, and expression of their ideas. 

References:

Strasser, J. (2018) Conversations with Children! Questions that Spark Conversations and Deepen Understanding. Teaching Young Children. 11 (4) https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/tyc/apr2018/conversations-with-children

Dweck, C., PhD (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success: How we can Learn to Fulfill our Potential. (2016 edition) Random House.