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How to promote good dinnertime conversation?

An important part of language arts is the ability to speak and listen. Not enough instructional time is devoted to the art of conversation. For many students (and adults too) these are skills that need to be practiced. There are many different ways to work on this, but I’m going to focus on dinnertime conversation.

Many studies have been done recently about the benefit of having regular family dinners. In addition to boosting language, family dinners have been proven to help combat childhood obesity and low self-esteem. Students who eat dinner regularly with their families have also been found to have higher grade point averages. I remember very distinctly dinnertime conversations with my children when they were school aged. When my husband and I would ask them what they did in school that day, the answer was always, “Nothing.” It was frustrating to say the least. I didn’t realize at the time that my children needed real instruction on how to engage in conversations.

Image Courtesy: Apolonia for Freedigitalphotos.net

Image Courtesy: Apolonia for Freedigitalphotos.net

This type of instruction can start at an early age. Even before your child is talking, she is taking everything in. Hearing real conversation both with her and in the same room as her (as opposed to just baby talk) will boost her language aptitude. When talking to your baby, use interesting words and ask questions (even though you won’t get an answer back.) When asking questions, allow a pause after you’ve asked your question, so your child gets used to the flow of conversation.

Once your child is talking, you can start engaging in short conversations. In the beginning, these will probably mostly consist of you asking either yes-or-no questions or questions with easy and quick answers. At this stage, it’s less important what you’re asking and more important that the child gets practice with the back-and-forth nature of conversations.

Once your child is about two years old, you can start pushing the conversation a bit further. An easy way to do this is to start using follow-up questions. For example, if you ask your child, “What did you see at the park?” and he says, “A dog,’ try to ask some further questions such as “What did the dog look like?” or “What was the dog doing?” This will encourage further elaboration and details which will eventually lead to more in-depth conversations.

All of these questions you’ll be asking your child will serve as a great model for him to start asking questions of you. At first, expect that he’ll need prompting. A simple prompt such as, “What is a question you could ask me about my day at work?” is a good starting off point. You might find that your child gets into the habit asking the same question every day for awhile. That’s okay. Repetition, especially at an early age, is a really important way to internalize new ideas. Once your child is starting to ask you questions, you can help them learn to ask follow up questions.

Take the following conversation as an example,

Child: “What did you do at work today, Mommy?”

Mommy: “I had to fix a broken printer.”

[silence]

Mommy: “What could you ask me about the printer?”

Child: “What was wrong with your printer?”

Mommy: “Good question. The printer had run out of ink so I had to put some more in.”

Eventually your child won’t need these prompts but instead will start to ask follow up questions on his own. Of course you don’t need to limit your dinnertime conversations to just rehashing what happened in the day. Talk about current events, future plans, childhood memories, or specific interests of your child. Make sure you model good conversational behavior by listening carefully, asking thoughtful questions, and waiting your turn to speak.

Most of all, act interested in what your child has to say and model good conversational behavior. Soon enough, you’ll be having lively dinner conversations that will well prepare your child for the future.

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