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EI Research to Practice Brief #7 – Conversational Turn-Taking between 18-24 Months Really Matters

You may have seen that awesome clip in the news recently of the father having an animated conversation with his 18-month old son. (If not, click the link and it will make your day!) Not only is it completely adorable, but it’s also a perfect example of a concept called “conversational turn-taking.”

Turn-taking is one of those early, essential skills that develops in the context of caregiving relationships. We early interventionists are always watching to see if a child can engage with another person in turn-taking. We know that turn-taking is important for early cognitive, communication, and social-emotional development and that it starts with imitation. Imitation and (eventually) turn-taking happen naturally in the context of silly games, making animal sounds while looking at books, playing with toys, eating a meal, learning how to get dressed, watching TV together, etc. When it happens in the context of early conversation between a very young child and a caregiver, turn-taking can a critical building block for communication.

How critical? Let’s find out.

Source: Gilkerson, J. Richards, J. A., Warren, S. F., Oller, D. K., Russo, R., & Vohr, B. (2018). Language experience in the second year of life and language outcomes in late childhood. Pediatrics, 142(4). Retrieved from https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/142/4/e20174276.full.pdf

Research: What Do We Know?

In this study, Gilkerson and her colleagues examined the relationship between conversational turn-taking in 146 infants and toddlers and parents and the children’s later IQ, receptive, and expressive communication. In Phase I of the study, data was initially collected when these children were mostly between the ages of 2- to 36-months of age using a recording system that captured communication in the infant’s or toddler’s environment. This system then automatically counted conversational turns (between the parent and child), adult word count (both overheard and words directed to the child), and child vocabulary. Children were evaluated to determine their expressive and receptive language abilities, and parents completed an inventory to estimate the child’s vocabulary size. In Phase II, families in the first phase were invited to have their children (ages 9-13 years old) participate in follow-up cognitive and language assessments.

Data from Phases I and II were statistically analyzed to look for correlations. The strongest relationship was found between conversational turn-taking and adult word count occurring when children were between 18-24 months old; both were predictive of child outcomes 10 years later. However, when controlling for socio-economic status, the relationship between adult word count and child outcomes was much weaker.

Here’s the big take-away: Overall, conversational turn-taking that occurred with toddlers between 18-24 months of age and their parents showed the strongest relationship to later child outcomes, specifically related to IQ, vocabulary, and language skills at ages 9-13 years old. These findings suggest that how parents engage their 18-24 month old toddlers in turn-taking may be related to the child’s cognitive and communication development 10 years down the road. Wow.

Practice: How Can You Use What You Know

So what does this really mean? The quality of how a caregiver talks with (not to) a toddler in the 18-24 month age range may have a significant impact on that child’s later IQ, his ability to comprehend language, and his overall expressive and receptive language skills. This is probably not that surprising for us in EI, but when you think about it, this impact is amazing. Not only is the amount of words a child hears important, but the opportunities for the child to engage, back-and-forth, with an adult in a conversational manner are essential, especially while toddlers are developing their early abilities to talk.

Here are a few strategies to help you use what you now know:

Build parent responsiveness

Help parents recognize communication cues from infants and older toddlers who are still learning to talk. Point out the child’s attempts to communicate, whether by eye gaze, gesture, body movement, or sound. Model for parents how to respond and provide positive, specific feedback when the parent responds to the child’s communication (e.g., “Wow, when Taylor said “ka” you knew exactly what she wanted! When you said “cup” back to her, you gave her a great example of how the word sounds!”)

Build turn-taking skills with actions and sounds

Encourage parents to always pair sounds/words with actions when playing turn-taking games with their children. Rolling a ball back and forth or blowing soap bubbles could be paired with fun sounds or repetitive words like “ready, set, go!” or “your turn!” and “my turn!”

Encourage parents to have conversations with their infants and toddlers – often!

Model how this sounds and praise it when you see it happening between the parent and child. Assure them that even if they feel silly talking to a child who can’t “talk” yet, they are teaching their child about how words sound, what words mean, and how to use sounds and words to communicate with others. Conversational turn-taking also teaches the child what may be the most important lesson of all – that the child is valued and loved. Use video examples like the fantastic clip mentioned above to see these conversations in action!

My biggest take away from this article (and that amazing dad) is that it’s not always about the number of words a young child hears. What may be even more important is the quality of the interaction. Conversations matter – even and maybe especially with toddlers!

What are your favorite strategies to encourage conversational turn-taking between parents and their babies?

Share your ideas in the chat below!

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2 Comments to “EI Research to Practice Brief #7 – Conversational Turn-Taking between 18-24 Months Really Matters”

  1. This natural, beautiful rendition of serve & return during the video demonstrates the concept brilliantly. Thank you for also adding ACTIONS to your recommendations, as we now know this is vital to all learning. Just looks at the movement this toddler generates during his interaction with Dad.

    • Thanks Pam! Yes, actions are so important and so much fun to pair with simple words when turn-taking and learning to communicate. Describing actions outloud – as if narrating what the child is doing and what you are doing – comes naturally for some of us and for others, it takes time to develop the habit. I love that baby and Dad too! 🙂

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