Children’s Conversational Openings Strategies In A Pre-K Classroom
Young children acquire a variety of social and linguistic skills from birth to age five. These linguistic skills will help them make friends and do well academically when they begin kindergarten. As a Pre-K teacher, part of my job is to observe and assess children’s social and linguistic skills. Currently, at work I use an assessment system called Teaching Strategies Gold (Heroman, Burts, Berke, Bickart, & Tabors, 2010) which is recommended by The Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care (EEC). The assessment system consists of tools to help teachers observe children’s development in 36 different areas and then place a child on a developmental continuum in each of those areas. In the realm of language development, children are assessed using TSG in their ability to 1. Comprehend language 2. Follow directions 3. Use an expanded and expressive vocabulary 4. Speak clearly 5. Use conventional grammar 6. Tell about another time or place 7. Engage in conversations 8. Use the social rules of language. For their social development, TSG has categories for assessment in children’s ability to 1. Form relationships with adults 2. Respond to emotional cues 3. Interact with peers 4. Make friends (Heroman et al., 2010) Within each of these aforementioned categories is a developmental continuum scale where children are rated to be on a range or 1-8, 1-10, or 1-12 depending on the measure with each level corresponding to examples of observed behavior which would indicate a child has reached that developmental level on the continuum. Level 1 considered the lowest performance and level 8 or 12 is considered the highest.
Separate from the TSG assessment system, in 2015, Massachusetts department of Early Education and Care released Kindergarten Social and Emotional Learning Standards. In those standards, there are two that relate to a child’s ability to engage in conversations: “Standard SEL7: The child will demonstrate the ability to communicate with others in a variety of ways. Standard SEL8: The child will engage socially, and build relationships with other children and with adults “ (Care, 2015). These standards were designed less as a formal assessment tool and more to help support early childhood educators in their work (9).
I am a Greek American male Pre-K teacher who spent 15 years of teaching experience all at the same non-profit early childhood education program. Currently, I am pursing a Ph.D. in Educational Studies at Lesley University. The TSG assessment system and The Massachusetts Kindergarten Social and Emotional Learning Standards both help me as a teacher in my assessment of the children in my classroom. However, there are some aspects of a child’s language and social development that are important that are not currently reflected in and The Massachusetts Kindergarten Social and Emotional Learning Standards or TSG assessment system. One such area is conversational openings. Engaging in conversations is an important part of making friends, socializing, and being academically successful in school. Moreover, one cannot engage in a conversation without the conversation beginning. Here is where we find the importance of conversational openings which are strategies a person uses to begin a conversation. The strategies people are most familiar with are greetings such as “hello” or “good morning”, but those are not the only strategies. Moreover, the greater context of the conversational opening such as the location, cultures of the participants, and the power dynamics between the people when a conversation is beginning can also impact the nature of a conversational opening (Wardhaugh & Fuller, 2015).
In this report, I will provide data collected on the types of strategies young children are using to open conversations with other children in a Pre-K classroom. Then, using a grounded theory approach (Bryant & Charmaz, 2008) I’ll describe how the data was organized, the different conversational opening strategies children are using to start conversations with their fellow classmates into different categories. Finally, in this paper I will make recommendations of possible standards and assessment continuums that could be added to TSG or and The Massachusetts Kindergarten Social and Emotional Learning Standards to help teachers understand and assess their student’s ability to open a conversation.
The data for this study was collected in a year-round Pre-K classroom at a non-profit early education center in a Massachusetts city in July of 2018 for an Sociolinguistics Independent Study course at Lesley University. The classroom has 21 enrolled students with 15 fulltime students and six part time students. In any given day, the maximum number of children in the classroom is 18. None of the children in the classroom are diagnosed with delays related to their linguistic and social ability. In addition, none of the children are classified as English Language Learners. On the other hand, many of the children are bilingual and first-generation immigrants with Spanish, Mandarin, Khmer (Cambodian), Italian, French, and Norwegian spoken at home. Two children in the classroom qualify for vouchers to pay for tuition from the state but the vast majority of students are of families from higher socioeconomic background with many having parents that either work in government or a local hospital.
There are three teachers who work in the classroom; the teachers have staggered shift times to cover the 8am-6pm full day program. Children arrive to the classroom from 8:00am-9:30am in the morning at different times to accommodate parent work schedules. In that time slot, children can either engage in indoor or outdoor free play. It was in this 8:00am-9:30am time slot when children first arrive when I observed children’s conversational opening strategies when they first arrived at school. In all, 16 different conversational openings were observed/recorded by iPad/note taking over the course of two weeks during the center’s summer program. Data was taken related to both verbal and non-verbal conversational openings which the children engaged in. Since it was the summer program, the children in the classroom had all known each other for nearly a full calendar year when the observations were made. It should be noted that due to the fact I working as a teacher while collecting the data, conversational openings were only recorded during times when it was convenient and practical for me to do so. This means that most conversational openings that took place in the classroom during the time when the data was collected were not systematically recorded in any way. In addition, there were occasions when I attempted to record a conversational opening, but the data ended up not being useable for a variety of reasons including when children realized they were being observed , cases when an adult was the one who initiated the conversational opening between children, and cases when the audio quality of the recording was lacking . In these cases, the data was deleted and not used for the study.
After the data was recorded, I created transcripts of the conversational opening interactions. I transcribed both what the children said along with other aspects relevant to their interaction such as body movements and items the children may have been holding and or playing with during the interaction. Moreover, I also made notes related to the data based on his prior knowledge from working with the children and knowledge related to the context of the situation. For instance, when a child walked into and yelled “Chase is on the case!” and another child replied “Rubble is on the double” I noted that these were catch phrases from “Paw Patrol” a popular children’s T.V. program.
I then coded the data using a grounded theory “open coding” approach. (Bryant & Charmaz, 2008) In this approach I attempted to look for every possible pattern and category related to the data. I then referred to their central question of “What strategies do children use to open conversations?” and whittled down the codes based on which ones seemed most relevant to that question.
Many of the researcher’s initial codes were determined to be dead ends and or not relevant enough to the central question. I started to organize the data based around the race and genders of the children engaged in the conversation. Coding by race and/or gender of the participants was decided to not be relevant enough to the specific question of strategies children were using. However, I concede that a different researcher may have justifiably concluded that gender dynamics of the conversational openings are related to strategy. In the latter case, I decided not to include the two observed instances where an adult facilitated the conversational opening as part of their data set. Secondly, I considered coding data based on whether the child opened the conversation on their own or if they had adult support. I wanted to focus on the central question of what conversational opening strategies children use; therefore, I deleted data where an adult was guiding the conversation for the sake of this analysis.
The logistics and the uneven quality of the data also led to two other potential codes not being used. These were the distance between the children when the conversational openings took place and the total time of the conversation once it was initiated. I did not believe his data would allow him to give an accurate account of how far the children were from each other in inches, centimeters, or any other distance measure and that trying to put the distances into categories such as close, medium distance, and far way was too subjective of a practice. There is a possibility that physical distance is part of a conversational opening strategy that young children employ but in this case the data was not refined enough, nor did I make an initial effort to collect specific data related to distance when collecting the data. Regarding the total time of conversation, in some data examples I was able to record entire conversations. Due to the researcher’s duel role as a classroom teacher, in other cases he had to stop recording the conversation while it was still going in order to attend to other matters.
The first three codes created and described below gave what I determined to be useful background data related to the question of what strategies children use to open conversations but did not constitute strategies unto themselves. The last two codes discussed were analyzed concurrently to determine what strategies were used and which of those strategies were successful.
The first code used to break down the conversational openings into two broad categories was about who initiated the conversation: an approaching child, or an established child. An established child is a child who is already in the classroom or a specific activity area such as block area, art area, or dramatic play area, and the approaching child is the child entering the classroom and or activity area for the first time. Table 1 shows the number of instances of each in the data.
In a clear majority of cases, 13 out of 16 instances, the approaching child was the one who initiated the conversation. I noted that the children often approached children who they had already established a friendship with. In one case, a child walked in and appeared to scan the room before asking the teacher if their friend was there yet. When the child heard their friend was not in class yet, they went over and played at the Lego table alone. When their friend walked into the classroom this child, now established, called to their friend saying, “come look at this” and showed them the ship they had been building with Legos. In this specific case it could be argued that the child had an idea to approach a friend to talk when they first came in but were not able to act on it. In a different circumstance with the friend already being present, this could have been another case of an approaching child initiating the conversation. The dominance of the approaching child starting the conversation could be looked at as a strategy of conversational opening. Research has long found that children ages four and five often engage in cooperative play (Berk 2004) Cooperative play does not necessarily need to include conversations but finding a child to talk and play with could be a concurrent goal for four and five-year-old children when they first enter a classroom or play area. Thus, it is possible children are coming into a classroom or play space with a conversational opening strategy in mind to find someone to play with.
The second code related to the number of children present when the conversational opening took place. In the data, there were three distinct types of group size situations when conversational openings took place: 1. An individual child talking to an individual child. 2. An individual child and a group of children. 3. A group of children and a group of children. As the Table 2 below illustrates
In 15 of the 16 observed instances, an individual child approached another child or a group of children to when attempting to open a conversation. The only example of this outlier instance was of a group approaching a group when a group of three boys approached a group of three girls outside on a playground asking them if they wanted to play “beast” which is a game the children had been playing recently where one or more children pretend to be a beast while other children run away. In some cases, an individual child approached a group but signaled out one group member by saying their name. This could possibly be coded as either an individual-individual or individual-group instance but I choose to code it is individual to individual since saying the other child’s name indicates the communication was intended for that specific child. Given that nearly all the conversational openings were initiated by an individual child, I believes that this leads credence to the idea that conversational openings are an individually based social language skill.
The third code was breaking the opening interactions into three categories that were observed in the data: 1. Verbal openings 2. Non-verbal openings 3. Verbal+ Non-verbal openings
Examples of non-verbal openings included physical contact, showing a child an object usually a toy, and waving. Table 3 shows the number of instances of each.
Most of the children used either verbal openings or verbal plus non-verbal openings. In the two cases where only non-verbal openings occurred a child ran up to another child and gave them a hug. In one case, the child being hugged responded “your back!” and in the other case the child responded with laughter and saying the hugging child’s name. In these cases, I believed that it was the hugging action that was the opening of the conversation not the other child’s verbal response.
The fourth code was related if the conversational opening resulted in a successful conversation. In Teaching Strategies Gold, the Pre-K benchmark standard is a conversation that has at least three or more exchanges between the participants (Heroman et al., 2010). The researcher, drawing upon their experience as an early educator, added a second criterion for if a conversation was successful and the conversation resulted in positive exchanges where name calling, insults, or overt aggression were not part of the conversation. I added this metric because there was one instance of a conversation opening with a child teasing another child which led to a quick back and forth exchange of negative comments. It was the researcher’s belief that this interaction should not be looked at as successful.
Finally, a fifth code was used to categories the variety of conversational opening strategies found in the data. In all, seven different categories were observed. 1. Traditional Greeting Openings (hi, hello, good morning) 2. Traditional, question opening (what’s going on? how’s it going?) 3. Object Opening (When the child bases the conversational opening around an object usually a toy of some kind) 4. Jump into Conversation Opening (When a child opens a conversation with another child or group and starts talking about something without a traditional greeting or question first. For example, from the data, a child walked in and began talking to another child about their subway ride without prompting) 5. Attention Getter (In this strategy, a child does something that draws attention from other children which a reaction). 6. Proximity Strategy (The child stands near or plays near) In some cases, children used more than one strategy concurrently. Other categories were initially considered by the researcher, but I decided they fell into the above established categories or did not pertain to the research question. One such category was the avoidance strategy. In this case, children were observed seemingly trying to avoid interacting with the peers such as going to sit in the quiet area alone and look at books. However, I determined that this behavior did not actually constitute a conversational opening strategy though it may be something that educators would want to monitor and make note of to determine if a child was actively using strategies to avoid social situations. Table 4 shows how often each strategy was successful.
As can be seen from the chart above, the first three strategies were the most used and most successful and that in each case of an object opening strategy the child used an additional strategy. There were cases where a child used an initial strategy and was unsuccessful and then followed that up with using another strategy that was a success. Examples of this include a boy who was skipping by other children and yelling quotes from movies in a way that I believed he was trying to get attention or a response from another child. When no response was given, the boy then approached another child and showed them a jewel they brought from home which started a conversation based around what the two boys had in each other’s pockets.
When children used a traditional greeting, the most common form was saying either “hey” or “hi” followed by an individual child’s name. In the cases when a child opened with a question, two of the questions related to toys and games with one child asking, “hey, what are you doing?” while looking at two other children building with blocks and another child asking two children who were building a puzzle “what’s going on guys?”.
In the two instances, when children jumped into starting a conversation without a greeting or having an object/toy be part of the conversation starter, one did so with a positive opening statement and the other with a negative. The positive exchange started when a boy walked up to a friend in class proclaimed “I got to ride the purple train today” to which the other child replied “that’s my favorite train” which then became a longer conversation about trains. In the negative example of a child jumping into a conversation, a child walked up to another on the playground and said “you’re a cheater!” to which the other child replied in an angry tone of voice “I am not a cheater, you’re a cheater” This was a continuation of a dispute from that was happening earlier in the week that the teachers believed had been resolved about the rules of soccer. In this conversation again, the two children were not able to resolve the dispute without the assistance of a teacher. This is an example of a conversation that went on for more than three exchanges but was not coded as a successful conversation because it including name calling and an inability to resolve the dispute without adult support.
When using the proximity strategy, one child stood near a group of three other children who were talking in the sandbox. The child in the determination of I appeared to be listening to the other children’s talk and appeared to make eye contact with a member of the sandbox group. Even after eye contact was made, the child using the proximity strategy did not use an additional conversational opening strategy. Eventually, this child went and played at another part of the sandbox but would periodically look at the group of three children playing. In the case of the child who successfully used the proximity strategy, the child started playing near another child with blocks. At one point, they took a block and placed it between the two structures that the children were building. When this happened, the second child said “yeah like a bridge” to which the original child took a car and drove over the block bridge while making car engine noises. In this successful case, I looked at the playing near the other child and the placement of the block as a combination of both the proximity strategy and the object strategy to open a conversation.
Overall, the children who used either traditional greetings and or an object to start a conversation appeared to be the most successful. In many cases the children strategies based around an object appeared to be based around past experiences. Having been around the children all year, I knew that many of the toy objects they used to jump start conversations were toys that those children had both played and conversed with each other prior to when they were used as conversational openings. Adult social groups such as work colleagues, street gangs, military members have distinctive types conversations, identities, and activities associated with those groups (Gee). The fact that toys and conversational opening routines based around them were observed in this study suggests that the children in this pre-k class have already formed a social group with conversational norms associated with conversational openings.
This study was small in scale done over the course of two weeks in one classroom. In addition to the small scale many aspects of that classroom may limit how generalizable the study could be. While many children in the classroom were bilingual, none of the children were considered English Language Learners (ELL). Moreover, there were no children in the classroom who were identified as having any Individualized Education Programs (IEP) related to language or communication. Further study is needed in classrooms with one or more children who are ELLs or that has children who are on an IEPs related to language and communication is needed to get a fuller understanding of conversational opening techniques in today’s common classrooms.
This study was also conducted when the students had known each other for nearly a year and in some cases had known each since they were infants. Children who did not already have long term relationships may have not be able to use some of the conversational opening strategies observed in the data especially the strategies that were observed that seemed to be based on established routines. Additionally, I had a background knowledge of knowing the children for a year as well. This allowed Ito make notes about the context of conservations and conversational opening strategies that others who did not have any background knowledge of the children may have missed. There is also a potential for bias both in the collection of and the analysis of the data by because of my prior relationship with the children.
The research presented here is not presented to be conclusive but as a potential catalyst for additional research and discussions involving Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care and publishers of Teaching Strategies Gold to consider adding conservational openings as a category under language and or social development to be observed and assessed by early educators. To help facilitate those discussions, I have created a rating scale in the style of Teaching Strategies Gold related to conversational opening strategies based off the data in this research project which you can see in table 5.
Having strategies to open conversations could help young children socialize, make friends, and engage in conversations with peers. This is a skill that could be observed and assessed by early childhood educators to determine what skills a child currently has and to help educators plan curriculum to help children improve this skill. The Conversational Openings Developmental Continuum in Table 5 was my attempt based on my small-scale research project to create a rating scale in the style of Teaching Strategies Gold that would help teachers observe and assess young children’s conversational opening skills in early childhood settings. It is my hope that others will either build on this research and recommendation and or potentially test out the continuum in Table 5 to determine if it is potentially useful for early childhood educators.
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Care, T. M. D. o. E. E. a. (2015). Massachusetts Standards For Preschool and Kindergarten: Social and Emotional Learning, and Approaches To Play and Learning Retrieved from http://www.doe.mass.edu/kindergarten/SEL-APL-Standards.pdf
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