Engaging Young Learners in Meaningful Conversations

Something to Talk About

How many times have you heard people advise new parents to talk, talk, talk to their infants? While this does have some benefits, it may not be as beneficial as researchers once believed. More recent studies* have shown it to be far more important to engage in meaningful two-way conversations with children – and even infants – in order to promote future language skills.

What is two-way communication?

Two-way, or back and forth, conversations with toddlers and other young learners involves both listening and responding. By listening carefully to what children have to say, parents and teachers not only learn more about a child’s interests, but also about how they think. To encourage meaningful conversations with early childhood learners, it’s important not to rush interactions. Give them time to respond, collect their thoughts and find their words. And, when children are speaking, nonverbal responses, such as head nods, won’t interrupt their train of thought but will serve to let them know you’re engaged and interested.

Non-verbal communication

It is important to note that two-way conversation may mean both verbal and non-verbal communication. Infants, for example, may smile or coo at their caregiver and in response, the caregiver may encourage further conversation by reacting and/or repeating the action that initially promoted the baby to engage. Or, when an older baby notices a dog approaching and points, their parent may respond accordingly, “That’s right! There’s a dog! What does a dog say?” Such interactions, though non-verbal in nature, serve as conversations for this age group.

Ways to Promote Meaningful Conversation

When parenting or working with young children, there are many things you can do to encourage meaningful conversation. Whether you’re at home or in the classroom, such interactions are not only important for children, but also for adults as they try to understand the child’s needs, wants and thoughts.

Keep reading for some simple tricks to promote meaningful conversation with your little one!

  • Get down to the child’s level – by doing this, you physical demonstrate to the child you’re talking to that you’re interested and engaged and that you want to be involved in the conversation.
  • Skip the yes/no questions and move on to open-ended questions that naturally have more substance. Rather than asking your child if they had fun at preschool, ask them what they did at preschool. Instead of providing a simple yes/no answer, they’ll be encouraged to tell you about an activity or project they did that day – this, in turn, will lead to further conversation.
  • Use non-verbal responses and facial cues to let your child or student know you’re actively listening. Instead of interrupting with words, simple head nods or a gentle smile can indicate you’re involved in what they’re saying. As an added bonus, this simultaneously teaches young children to interpret social and non-verbal cues from others.
  • Plan around a child’s interests in order to spark conversation – this can be particularly helpful for children who may be more hesitant to engage in conversation. If a particularly shy child has shown an interest in animals, for example, plan a lesson around their favorite animal or plan a family trip to the zoo – as their excitement grows, so will their willingness to chat it up!
  • Encourage play-based learning at school and at home – by allowing children time to be creative and role play, they’ll automatically engage in conversation with you and others. If you’re playing restaurant, for example, they’ll need to ask you where you’d like to sit, and what you’d like to eat, for example.
  • Take time to specifically share other points of view. If your child is upset because they wanted to play with a particular toy, for example, explain to them how the other child may feel if the toy is suddenly taken. Not only does this teach empathy, but also it will likely encourage your child to have a conversation and share his/her feelings on the matter as well.
  • Take a break! Remember to wait after you say something to give your child or student a moment to respond. Interrupting or directing them will likely make forget what they were going to say and may lead them in another direction. Take the time to hear what they were going to say and then, when you’re sure they’re done, respond accordingly.



*University of California – Los Angeles. “Conversing Helps Language Development More Than Reading Alone.” ScienceDaily 17 July 2009.

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