Narration vs. Conversation with Young Children
Dr. Kristi Smith, D.Ed., M.Ed., CFE   •   January 23, 2023

Communication and dialogue with young children are vital in their development. Children learn from observing the world around them with all of their senses and auditory learning is especially important. Research has shown that the more words a children hear in their first five years of their lives correlates with reading success. A study in the 90’s, called the “30 Million Word Gap,” provided the concluding that the first three years of a child’s life are critical in language development and long-term school success. A more recent study by Harvard and MIT assessed preschool children’s brains while they listened to stories. The conclusion was fascinating because it showed that young children that were engaged in frequent conversations with adults had different and more complex brain patterns.

Everyday conversations with young children are rich in learning opportunities as they encounter new situations daily. This even includes infants! Talking while interacting with young children not only helps to build brain connections, but it is a great source of social and emotional connections. So, talk often with the young children that are in your lives. The goal of these conversations should not be to simply answer a question or dictate the next steps but to encourage curiosity and deepen children’s thinking skills as they learn about the world.

Not all conversations encourage curiosity and help children to think. To make the most of each discussion, adults should reflect on the way they approach having discussions with children. Are you a narrator or a conversationalist? Narrators tell children how to think or act while conversationalists encourage children to think. Narration has its place in helping children to follow directions. But, conversations help children to think and apply knowledge.

Parents who use narration as their primary way to dialogue with their children are those who are instructing them on what and how to do something.

  • “Grab a fork for your food.”
  • “It is time to put on our coat and leave the house.”
  • “You are hungry, so let’s go eat.”
  • “Sister is sad, so go give her a hug to make her feel better.”

While there is a proper place and purpose for giving instructions and needing young children to follow them, this type of dialogue serves the purpose telling children what they should do. The intended outcome will probably happen as they comply, but no real thinking or deeper discussion really takes place with these types of instructions.

Parents who are conversationalists are those who are more open-ended questions to probe children’s thinking into having them problem solve a solution to the current situation.

  • “Now we have our food. Do we need anything else to be able to eat before we sit down?”
  • “We are about to leave the house. Is there anything else we need to grab or put on?”
  • “I think we are hungry. What should we do to fix that?”
  • “Sister is sad. What could we do to make her feel better?”

Instead of commentary of what is happening in a situation and how to deal with it, true conversation engages children into the discussions and provides an opportunity for them to think through options themselves. By asking children questions versus giving them expectation, adults will be able to identify how children view the situation, what routines/habits they have internalized so far, and new areas to address/reinforce. Asking open-ended questions are important in having deep conversations that extend learning. Open-ended questions are questions that are not answered with “yes” or “no.” Instead of asking a child if they like playing on the playground, ask “Why do your like playing on the playground.” Using words like how, where, what, and why are great conversation starters!

Narration and conversation both have a purpose but being having intentional conversations with great open-ended questions will help children develop creative thinking and problem-solving skills. Conversations with young children can be very entertaining and give a peek into how they view their world. Starting the habit of conversing with your young child will also lay a foundation for rich conversation throughout their life.

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