Learning-Focused Dynamics of Toddler–Educator Conversations
In early childhood education, the first three years of life are broadly accepted as a foundational period for language development and cognitive growth. Research has shown that the quantity and quality of educators’ talk to young children predicts language and cognitive outcomes. The quality of educators’ language has been well researched in terms of language-supporting strategies such as asking questions and labelling. Yet, little is known about the features of educators’ input that promote toddlers’ learning, or how learning is shaped by the conversational contributions of toddlers. To understand the learning-focused dynamics of toddler–educator talk, naturally occurring conversations between toddlers and their educators were video-recorded and then analysed using a grounded theory approach. The nature of educators’ talk was further explored through a thematic analysis of interviews with the participating educators. The data were collected in four early childhood centres in New South Wales, Australia. The participants were 12 two-year old toddlers and 14 educators. Each focus toddler was filmed for five hours during their normal day at their respective centre. Educators then watched a few strategically selected excerpts from this video footage and participated in semi-structured focus group interviews where they shared their ideas about the learning value of these conversations. The findings show that toddler– educator conversations provide varied opportunities for toddlers to both demonstrate their existing knowledge and create new knowledge. These learning opportunities are reinforced by the dynamics of both educators’ and toddlers’ conversational contributions, which are determined by the extent to which a conversation’s topic is related to the participants’ immediate activity, conversational leadership and whether the conversation is oriented towards toddlers’ demonstrating their existing knowledge or creating new knowledge. Interviews with educators reveal their knowledge that language and learning are mutually supportive. Educators also strive to provide rich learning opportunities in conversations because toddlers’ learning is rewardingly apparent in these or future conversations. This study presents a theoretical explanatory model of the learning-focused dynamics of toddler–educator conversations, contributing to current understandings of how learning opportunities can be recognised and created. The findings have implications for developing effective pedagogies for supporting under-three-year-old children’s learning.