Expert Articles

Reciprocal Conversations: the What, the Why, the How

Author: Annie NG
Speech and Language Therapist

What impacts children’s language skills the most is not necessarily the amount of words or the length of sentences they are exposed to; rather, it is their participation in reciprocal conversations that makes the biggest difference. The more they participate in reciprocal conversations, the greater the impact on their language development. 

Many parents, myself included, want our children to develop good language skills, to socialize with others and to demonstrate appropriate social communication behaviour. These are all skills that parents and caregivers can teach at home by simply having reciprocal conversations with their children. Children don’t become good language users and communicators just by listening to others talk. They need to be able to use and practice language skills in functional contexts, e.g. being in conversation with others. 

A reciprocal conversation, or a back-and-forth conversation, involves multiple exchanges of asking and answering questions, and building on each other’s comments. There are many language and social communication skills children can learn from a reciprocal exchange. Here are some of the main ones:

  • How to initiate a conversation
  • How to involve someone else in an interaction
  • Know when it’s their turn to participate 
  • How to communicate effectively using verbal and nonverbal means
  • How to ask for clarification when they don’t understand something
  • How to repair miscommunicated messages
  • How to respond based on what has been shared 
  • How to keep the interaction going using different kinds of comments and questions

Another great thing about these reciprocal conversations is that they can happen anywhere and anytime — not just during play time. You and your child can chat away while getting groceries, commuting or folding laundry.

Here are some strategies to help you facilitate these back-and-forth conversations at home. These strategies surround two main principles. First, we want to make sure the interaction is enjoyable. Second, we want to create as many opportunities for your child to take as many turns as possible. 

Make yourself available. This means setting time aside to be intentional about having a series of back-and-forth exchanges with your child. This is especially important on busy days where you might not get a lot of time with your child.

Be ready to respond to your child’s initiation. Many children spontaneously initiate interactions with others. Some do so verbally, e.g. ‘Look at this!’, and some do so nonverbally, e.g. pointing at something and looking at you. Watch for these initiations, respond to your child and keep the back-and-forth flow going. 

Pause and give space for your child to respond. Pausing at the end of a sentence or a thought is a great way to invite your child to jump in and say something. You might want to pause a little longer than you would in a conversation with an adult before considering repeating or having another turn again. Sometimes children need more time to think about what has been said and to formulate a response. 

Avoid filling the conversation with instructions and yes/ no questions. These types of input are not the best in facilitating an interactive exchange as they often lead children to respond in a very limited way, e.g. using one-word responses or a simple head nod. Instead, try to talk about what you and your child are doing, wonder ‘out loud’, e.g. ‘Hmm I wonder why these two pieces don’t fit’, and ask questions that would genuinely interest your child, e.g. ‘Do you want to keep colouring or do something else?’. You can even ask questions you do not have answers to!

For some of us, it can be easy to fall into the trap of ‘testing’ our children when interacting with them. We might find ourselves asking questions or making comments to ‘test’ their knowledge, e.g. ‘What is this called?’, ‘I want five green cars’. To help children take as many conversational turns as possible, we need to avoid ‘testing’ them and focus more on making the interaction enjoyable. 

Minimize distractions in the environment. Some children are able to carry a conversation whilst doing something else. But some find it difficult to do so. For these children, it is best to shape the environment in a way that encourages them to engage in a back-and-forth exchange. This might mean turning the TV and the music off, or putting some toys away to reduce unnecessary distractions. 

If you have a baby or toddler, here are some additional tips. It’s never too early to incorporate reciprocal conversations into your child’s routine. 

Play turn-taking games. The reciprocity in a conversation can be demonstrated through play as well. Little children experience this back-and-forth rhythm by learning to take turns with you in play, e.g. taking turns to roll a ball or push a car around. 

Adapt your language to suit your child’s language ability. Using simple language helps to keep young children engaged as they find it easier to understand what we are saying. How you should adjust your language depends on the language ability of your child. But in general, avoid using lengthy sentences and limit the amount of unfamiliar vocabulary.  

Talk about the here and now. The little ones will have an easier time following the conversation when you talk about the immediate context, e.g. what is currently happening or what is in front of them. This way, they can easily connect with what you are talking about. 

Use pointing where possible. The use of pointing is a great gestural cue to support your child’s understanding throughout the conversation. This will minimize miscommunication and will help your child stay engaged. 

Try not to repeat yourself right when there is no response. Sometimes your child needs more time to process what you have just said. Constant repetition can be too overwhelming when a child is working hard at processing messages in their brain. 

It’s okay if there isn’t always a response from your little one. Your child is still figuring out what a reciprocal conversation is all about and what they are supposed to do. So you might find that they don’t always respond even when you have waited for them. When this happens, you can keep talking about the immediate context in a way that doesn’t impose any pressure for your child to respond back. Also, consider whether it is actually a good time for your child to engage in a back-and-forth exchange – perhaps he is not feeling too chatty at that moment, and it’s okay!

Take a look at your child’s day or week, and see where you can incorporate more opportunities for reciprocal conversations. Having a conversation with your child may seem like such a small thing, but it’s huge when it comes to helping them with their language development. 

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Reciprocal Conversations: the What, the Why, the How