When you see people conversing in the park or at the school gates, it seems an easy
way of making contact and passing
time. But good conversation is a complex skill, involving speech, body language and
writes Dr Nicola Davies
Babies have a natural ability to acquire language skills from birth, but they still
need help from adults to develop the art of conversation. It takes time to become
a competent conversation-maker, and parents and teachers can encourage and facilitate
In the first three months, babies can respond to the sound of human voices by turning
their gaze towards the speaker and attempting to imitate what they hear. They can
recognise the voices of parents, and distinguish them from other voices. Not only
do they react differently when they hear sounds in their non-native language, but
they also respond to alterations in the tone and volume of voices.
A dramatic growth in language development occurs towards the end of the first 12
months. Although most children can only utter a few sounds by this age, they can
understand much more about communication than you might think. Most 12-month olds
are at the point where they can use body language and facial expressions to communicate
feelings, and can read these non-verbal cues in others too.
Between the age of one and two, vocabulary grows apace and children learn to understand
and speak many words clearly. By four to five, they are able to listen to longer
stories and can retell most of what they hear with relative accuracy.
Some children are natural conversationalists. In a group of strangers, highly verbal
children will quickly establish connections through talk. Most children, however,
have to practice conversation. Children who are fluent conversationalists usually
come from a stimulating home environment where they model parents and older siblings
who are good communicators. But it isn’t always the case: some children are genetically
wired to excel at communicating from an early age regardless of a stimulating home
Girls tend to make better conversationalists than boys: even as babies, girls make
more eye contact with others and are better at detecting emotional cues. Girls also
use gestures at an earlier age, such as pointing or waving hands and arms. Most girls
start to speak by their first birthday, compared with 13 to 14 months for
boys, and tend to talk for longer during the toddler years. They also generally know
more words than boys by about 16 months. This gender gap usually levels off by 30
Talking and listening
One challenge adults face when teaching children the basics of
conversation etiquette is getting the message across that listening is just as important
as talking. Children are naturally narcissistic and this extends to their conversations.
But through modelling, children can learn that good conversationalists tend to do
• Make eye contact.
• Don’t interrupt.
• Don’t fidget or get distracted.
• Allow for pauses.
• Make positive comments.
• Smile and nod.
Children learn much more effectively when they see and hear adults and older siblings
engaged in ‘good’ conversation than when they are simply told about it.
Mum Johanna White (see our case study, right) says: ‘When hearing either of my boys
saying something which isn’t quite right, I repeat what they should have said. I
avoid being critical – I just let them hear the right way of putting it across. Austin
always gets “he” and “she” wrong, so if he says, “When we see Sarah, where will he
be?” I’ll say “Where will she be?”’
From an early age, children need to learn that having conversations with peers, parents,
teachers and others, are not all the same thing. By the age of six or seven, most
children know there are differences in the way they speak to adults as opposed to
peers. But they may need to be taught some conversation etiquette, such as that slang
words aren’t appropriate when
speaking to teachers.
Children quickly develop an awareness that people don’t always say what they mean.
For instance, your child’s friend might say, ‘I want to play with you’ whilst turning
her back. Your child will intuitively know she doesn’t really want to play through
her body language. Adults can sharpen a child’s ability to read and respond appropriately
to body language with these simple exercises:
• Show your child pictures, depicting at least two people. Based on
body language, ask them to talk about what the people might be
saying, thinking or feeling.
• The same exercise can be done by turning off the TV sound and
asking your child to observe the body language of the actors
before discussing what they could be saying or feeling.
When doing these exercises, ask your child specific questions, such as: Are the speakers
making eye contact? What emotions are they showing? Are they standing close together
or moving away from one another? Activities like these can be turned into fun, education
‘He was a whirling dervish of frustration’
Johanna White describes how she helped her son Austin, who has autism,
to overcome his early language difficulties
‘Austin was diagnosed with autism when he was two-and-a-half. Up to this point he
was a whirling dervish of frustration as he had no words – his spoken language communication
was zero. This was extremely upsetting as it made me feel that I couldn’t meet his
needs. I read everything I could get my hands on – the Picture
Exchange Communication System (PECS) was something that I kept coming across. These
are picture cards that help children and parents convey messages to each other. I
ordered a huge consignment from eBay and started to make my own visual cards. I used
the cards as a way of helping Austin to express his needs, as
well as to try and explain where we were going, what we were
doing and so on. This helped to avoid huge melt downs when he had no understanding
of what to expect.’
The role of teachers
Pre-schoolers love talking about the events and characters in storybooks their teachers
read to them. Re-reading the same stories can enhance their language and verbal skills.
memory and allows children to anticipate phrases and words they’ve heard before.
Teachers who adopt an interactive reading style, where children can comment or ask
questions, encourage children’s conversational abilities. Another useful language
development tool for the classroom is the play area – by changing it often and introducing
new props, children are encouraged to learn and use the appropriate language employed
in different social environments.
How parents can help
Teaching children to become good at conversation requires time, energy and patience.
Most importantly, let your child guide your approach. ‘I took language and communication
very much for granted until my boy came along to teach me so much more,’ says Johanna.
Try these simple steps:
• Keep talking – use simple sentences, but don’t stop talking to your child.
• Use concrete words – words that point to objects in the immediate environment such
as ‘tree’ or ‘dog’ – as well as introducing abstract ones, such as ‘remember’ or
• Speak slowly – go at a pace that matches your child’s understanding and level of
• Allow your child to speak – refrain from speaking on their behalf
when it’s not necessary.
• Read out loud – share illustrated storybooks with your child often, and say the
words out loud so they can keep track of the proper pronunciation.
When it’s hard
Sometimes, communication can seem really hard and you may feel
you’re facing an uphill struggle. Some children have difficulty in learning to speak
clearly or understand the meanings of words and gestures, and if this is the case,
they may need professional help.
If you think your child may be having problems, check out the
• Did your child walk, sit or stand at the appropriate age? Delays
in speech development might be part of a broader developmental
• Does your child primarily use gestures to communicate? They
might have hearing or speech difficulties.
• Does your child get plenty of opportunity to be around peers?
It could be that they need more stimulation.
Practice tip: The next time your child
interrupts you, stop the conversation
immediately. Tell her to wait until you
have finished. Proceed with what you
were saying, and then praise your child or waiting without jumping in.
Be firm but gentle, and remember you will probably have to repeat this many times.