Children’s peer talk in an early childhood centre as a vehicle for learning language
Children’s peer talk has been shown to offer a supportive context for the development of vocabulary and oral language genres such as storytelling and argumentation (for example, Atkins-Burnett et al., 2017; Nicolopoulou et al., 2014; Zadunaisky Ehrlich & Blum-Kulka, 2010). In early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings in Australia, when children turn three years old their opportunities for interacting with peers unsupported by educators increase as they typically move into rooms with lower educator to child ratios. While previous research has focused on older children’s peer talk, little is known about the nature of three-year-old children’s spontaneous, naturally-occurring conversations with their peers in ECEC settings and their potential to promote language learning. Employing systemic functional linguistics (SFL) (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004), a theory of language as a key social resource for making meaning and learning, this study examined the spontaneous talk of three-year-old children with similar-aged peers that occurred without guidance from an educator in an early childhood setting. Data were gathered through audio-visual recordings of eight focus children (aged between 3 years and 3 months and 3 years and 9 months), involved in everyday activities in an ECEC centre in regional New South Wales, Australia. Episodes of peer talk from these recordings were transcribed verbatim and analysed according to how children used language to represent experience (through process types) and interact with others (through grammatical mood and modality). Beyond the frequency of children’s process type and mood selections, the analysis revealed four main semantic patterns, or registers, of language use in the children’s conversations. The findings show that language plays a central role in three-year-old children’s ability to engage in play and construe different experiences in interaction with their peers. The children’s interactions were also found to be dynamic, with fluid changes in register. This study suggests that peer talk offers opportunities for using and learning language that differ from and therefore need to be intentionally complemented by those associated with educator-child talk.