Why the Best Teachers Talk to Themselves All Day Long – Podcast Episode 6
The Power of Self and Parallel Talk:
When I was a first-time mom, I was always reading interesting books and articles about child development, searching for cool videos (this was before the internet age, so I literally mean I had to search for good VHS tapes I could check out or purchase!) One of the videos I happened upon was on language development, and it showed a special language-rich Pre-K classroom for children with language delays. I watched speech therapists work with preschoolers, and I learned about the strategies they used to model and promote new language in these little ones. It was fascinating! This was where I was first introduced to the concept of “Parallel Talk.” Parallel Talk is when you observe what a child is doing, and you literally narrate the scene. The child is an actor, and you are a reporter. You do this in a very intentional, purposeful, and detailed way, talking about exactly what you see the child doing and how he is doing it.
In the video a speech therapist was playing with a little girl with limited speech, who was playing with Sesame Street figures in a house. As she played, the therapist narrated the action: “You’re putting Big Bird in the house. Go in, Big Bird. Now your taking him out of the house, and putting him in the car. Get in, Big Bird, let’s go for a ride. Oh – now he’s going up the ladder – up, up, up! Big Bird is going down the slide.” Although he was simply stating what it was he saw the child doing with Big Bird, because of how he was emphasizing certain words, it became apparent that the speech therapist was very intentionally helping the child understand the meaning of the words “in,” “out,” “up” and “down,” in context.
Next I saw another therapist working with two little sisters around the ages of 4 and 5, and they were mixing up a batch of chocolate chip cookies. As she described what they were making, the therapist said, “We have our cookie batter almost ready, but what else do we need? (showing a bag of chocolate chips)” “Kock-lit Kips!” said one of the little girls. “That’s right, we need our CHocolate CHips!” said the therapist. “I’m going to open up the CHocolate CHips. I’m giving Tierra some CHips, and I’m giving Tiandra some CHips to add. A cup of CHocolate CHips for you (handing it to Tierra), and one cup of CHocolate CHips for you (handing to Tiandra). I love Chocolate Chips! Yum!” This very thoughtful speech therapist was engaging in “Self Talk,” purposefully mapping words to her actions, and very intentionally (and repeatedly) emphasizing the sounds of the words that the girls had difficulty pronouncing. The purpose of Self and Parallel talk is to model very specific, descriptive language, in the context of what the teacher and the children are actually doing in the moment. These are two of the key strategies for Language Modeling. The more we model the actions and provide descriptive labels for the things children are working with, the greater the chances are that they will begin using these words themselves!
I have another beautiful example (if I do say so myself) of the power of Self and Parallel Talk. Not long ago I was visiting my daughter and son-in-law and my 2-1/2 year old Granddaughter, Terra, down in Texas. Terra is at that stage where she is beginning to talk up a storm. And conveniently, I just happen to know some key strategies for modeling language! So one night, I was giving Terra her bath, one of her most favorite activities and a time when she tends to talk nonstop. She happened to have 6 plastic cups that she started putting on the edge of the tub and putting water and toys in and out of. After observing and parallel talking a bit, “Oh, you dumped it all in there! And now you dumped it out again. Can you fill this one? Woop, now it’s empty!” (etc. etc.) – I decided to show her something. I said “Look, let me show you something. I’m going to make a Pyramid!” I stacked the cups 3 on the bottom, 2 in the middle, and 1 on top. “See? It’s a Pyramid!” She did the typical toddler response and knocked it down. “Oh no!” I said, “Now we have to build the Pyramid again!” She started stacking the cups. I guided her in how to balance the two in the middle and one on top. Then I said “Yay! You did it! You made a Pyramid!” “Yay!” and she knocked them down again. She did this over and over about ten times until she really got good at the balancing part. I must have said “Pyramid” about 20 times — although I never heard her say it herself.
The very next night, I was visiting daughter #2 for the evening, and daughter #1 messaged me a photo of Terra standing in the bathtub with a cup pyramid she had built. I asked my daughter what Terra had said while building it, and wouldn’t you know, my daughter told me Terra had said, “I’m making a PYRAMID!” Just. like. that. THAT is how new language is learned!! Mind blown!!!! That is the power of Self and Parallel Talk!
I used to feel self-conscious in the classroom, using Self and Parallel Talk alot. I sounded so stupid to myself. But once I discovered that Language Modeling video and I realized just how powerful these tools actually are in teaching new language to my preschoolers, I got over that fast. I wanted my kids to be SUPER SMART and I wanted everyone to wonder at where they learned all these big words! You know, in a large sense, knowing more words DOES equate to having more knowledge. It was around this time that I realized: EVERY WORD IS ALSO A CONCEPT. Let that sink in…………
The more words you can teach children, the more concepts they are introduced to. Then it’s up to us to make sure they actually understand the meanings. But the first step is learning the WORDS! Trust me, I’m not fooling myself into thinking that Terra really understands the great pyramids of Egypt. But she has a preliminary knowledge of what a pyramid looks like, and at her age I’m happy with that! Developmental experts estimate that 2, 3, and 4 year olds can literally learn 10 new words PER DAY! When they frequently and consistently HEAR new words, used in context, they begin USING the words.
Language is how people communicate. Without a way to communicate, children have to 100% rely on behaviors to communicate their needs, wants, emotions, and everything else. In the hearing world, we use speech, or verbal language, to communicate. But many many toddlers, as well as plenty of our preschoolers, are still lacking in verbal language –and this is especially true of our Head Start and other very low income populations. For children from disadvantaged homes as compared to middle and upper income homes, there is a huge learning gap that is evident as early as 9 months! This is because language development begins at birth. To learn language, children need to HEAR language, starting from day one. Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers literally need to be talked to, from sun up to sun down. this is one developmental area we need to do all we can to support. And there are so many things we can do every single hour of every single day to promote and facilitate new language development in our kiddos. SELF and PARALLEL TALK are two such strategies.