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Preschoolers Talk in the Classroom and the Supermarket

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Preschoolers Talk in the Classroom and the Supermarket

My next example is based on the common observation that children appear to talk in a more sophisticated way and to accomplish more complex intellectual tasks in the course of spontaneous interactions than when they are being interrogated by adults.

One interpretation of such results is that the contents of spontaneous, everyday interactions are likely to be matters that the child knows and cares a good deal about, while adults are likely to ask children about matters that are either unfamiliar or uninteresting to them (Isaacs, 1930). This issue is of special interest when it comes to evaluating the psycholinguistic abilities of minority group children for purposes of academic placement and instruction. In a famous demonstration of situational variability in the sophistication of children's language use, Labov (1972) criticized the application of standardized tests of linguistic ability applied to poor Black children. Labov claimed that the failure of children who speak non-standard (Black) English to score well on standardized language competence tests arises from inadequacies of the testing, not inadequacies of the children. To demonstrate his point that sociolinguistic factors control speech, Labov arranged for a comparison of the language used by an eight-year-old boy, Leon, in three settings.

In the formal test setting, Leon is brought into a room where there is a large, friendly, white interviewer who puts a toy on the table in front of him and says "Tell me everything you can about this." There ensues a painful sequence of verbal prods from the interviewer and minimal verbal productions from the child, with pauses of up to 20 seconds between questions and monosyllabic answers. The standard interpretation of this behavior is that child has failed to acquire grammatical competence; Labov's interpretation was that the child was actively attempting to avoid saying anything in a situation where "anything he says can literally be held against him (p. 205-206)."

In a test of his assertion that appropriate changes in the social circumstances and content of the talk will reveal Leon's competence, Labov arranged for a Black interviewer, Clarence Robbins, who was raised in Harlem, to interview Leon at home. The topic this time was street fighting. Although the change in interviewer, setting and topic were designed to be more evocative, the results were similar to those obtained in the test situation: the adult asked questions and in those cases where Leon responded, he did so in one-word answers.

In the third situation, Robbins brought along a supply of potato chips and Leon's best friend, eight-year-old Gregory. He sat down of the floor with the boys and introduced taboo words and topics; cumulatively, these changes created a more informal, almost party-like situation in which the power relations between adult and children were changed.

The impact of these changes on Leon's speech was dramatic. Not only did he go beyond one-word replies to questions, but he actively competed for the floor, talking excitedly with both his friend and Robbins about street fighting among other things. On the basis of these observations, Labov concludes that Leon has no difficulty using the English language and displays a rich variety of grammatical forms typical of Black English vernacular.

Labov drew two major conclusions from these observations. First, he asserted that what applied to his test-like situation (derived from the Illinois Test of Psycholinguistic Abilities) applied to IQ and reading tests as well: they would underestimate such children's verbal abilities. Second, he insisted the social situation is the most important determinant of verbal behavior, and adults who want to assess children's capacities must enter into the right kind of social relation in order to find out what the child is capable of.

There is no doubt that Labov succeeded in weakening claims that poor, Black children are retarded with respect to their linguistic and intellectual development based standardized testing. However, the implication that formal one-to-one testing and the informal three-way conversation about taboo topics are equivalent or that Leon's poor performance in the one-on-one interaction resulted from his defensiveness were not well grounded. To sustain such conclusions, it would be necessary to show that in some formal sense, the task confronting Leon in the test-like and party-like situations are equivalent with respect to their structure, function, and cognitive demands. A number of investigators have pointed out that test situations present special difficulties for the person being tested even if they are interested in the topic, unafraid, and speak the same language as the tester (Blank, 1973; Cicourel et al., 1972; Mehan, 1979). These difficulties boil down to the fact that responding to test questions or to teachers' questions in a class is highly constrained; one knows that the questioner knows the answer to the question, which must be answered on the questioner's terms, which are not made explicit. Conversations among peers or among people of different statuses in other settings by contrast, are more likely to allow shared control of topic, the criteria for evaluating an acceptable reply, and so on.

The relative difficulty of responding to questions in test-like circumstances is supported by observations with very young children who were unable to repeat a sentence spoken by an adult even when they themselves had spoken that same sentence 10 minutes earlier (Slobin and Welch, 1973). Such failures to display already manifested competence suggest that spontaneous speech encodes an "intention to say such and such," whereas elicited speech requires the child to process and produce sentences in linguistic terms alone, robbing speech of its intentional and contextual supports (Bloom, Rocissano, and Hood (1976).

Twenty four children between 3yrs-2 months and 4 yrs-10 months of age were taken to the supermarket in pairs by the researcher who had spent several weeks in the classroom as a teachers' aide ( See Cole, Dore, Hall, & McNamee, 1978, for a more extensive description). The children rode from school to the supermarket in a shopping basket with a tape recorder placed in the little basket just in front of the steering bar. The children were allowed to handle merchandise but not to abuse it. Only one pair of children had to be restricted because their behavior ran counter to store regulations.

Initially we arranged for children to purchase something at the market to share with other children upon their return, but this seemed to cause a good deal of confusion upon return to the school, so we decided to allow them to purchase a piece of bubble gum instead. Few children questioned why they were taken to the supermarket; they simply got caught up in the excitement of riding from school to the supermarket and back in a shopping cart.

Upon their return, their regular teacher asked them about what they had seen and done at the market. This conversation was also recorded.

Trips to the supermarket lasted between 30-45 minutes. Discussions with the teacher upon return lasted about 10 minutes. As speech samples, we picked three-minutes sections from the middle of each conversation for comparative analysis.

In some instances we obtained dramatic confirmation of the phenomenon reported by Labov: children who spoke rarely and mostly in monosyllables in the classroom spoke more often and at greater length in the supermarket. One child who was relatively talkative in the supermarket was observed to say only 15 words for the rest of the morning at the preschool. Those 15 words were in response to 9 of the sixty-three questions directed at Tony; he was silent in response to the remaining fifty-four.

Our initial analyses were focused on such categories of behavior as the number of spontaneous utterances per minute,

the mean length of utterances, and number of grammatical structures children used in the two settings. In every case, the conversations in the supermarket yielded higher score than those in the classroom. (e.g., 5.8 vs. 2.4 utterances per minute, 6.9 vs 3.8 different grammatical structures and 3.4 vs. 2.9 words per utterance). The differences between settings were especially marked for the younger children.

While these results provide an interesting confirmation of Labov's pioneering work under more constrained and quantifiable conditions, our scoring scheme suffers from the same shortcomings as Labov's: we have not shown that the constraints on talk in the two settings are equivalent so that the children are, in effect, confronting the same task in the supermarket and the classroom. By the same token we have no analytic apparatus to identify how the constraints on talk differ in the two settings.

To overcome these shortcomings, and to provide a principled test of the influence of social context on the complexity of children's speech, my colleagues and I took advantage of the formalism provided by a theory of communicative acts developed by Dore (1977) which elaborated on prior work by Austin (1962; Searle, 197?). Dore's descriptive system categorized adult and child utterances into categories based on propositional content, grammatical structure, and their function in conversation. Major categories that proved helpful in comparing children's talk in school and a non-school setting are summarized in Table 8.2.


Table 8.2

Categories of Conversational Acts

Used in Supermarket Study

RQ: Requests (solicit information), "Is this an apple?"

RS: Responses (provide information directly complementing prior requests). Responses are subdivided into RSWH (responses to Wh questions, RSYN (responses to yes-no questions and Other RS (responses to all other kinds of questions)

DES: Descriptions and statements ( of events, properties, locations, facts, beliefs, attitudes, etc. ), " The cat climbed onto the table" or "You have share your toys with others"

ID: Identifications
Q: Questions
QUAL: Qualifications (supply unsolicited information in relation to a soliciting question), "I didn't do it."
A pair of examples, the first from the supermarket, the second from a conversation in the preschool upon return, give the flavor of how the conversational patterns were scored and categorized:

Child: Uh, do elephants eat, uh, do elephants eat spaghetti? (RQ)

Adult: Do elephants eat spaghetti? (RQ)No. (RS) You know what they eat?(RQ)

Child: Yeah. (RS) What? (RQ)

Adult: Peanuts (RS)

Child: An el, and spaghetti? (RQ)

Adult: No, they, elephants don't eat spaghetti. (RS)

Child: I saw an elephant in the zoo eat spaghetti and he ate a popcorn and some a dese. (DES)


Adult: Come here! (RQ)

I want to ask you something. (ST)

Sit down (RQ)

Let me ask you something. (RQ)

Where did you go? (RQ)

Child: Store (RS)

Adult: You went to where? (RQ)

Child: To da store (RS)

Table 8.3

Mean Length of Utterance Grouped According to

Conversational Act Category for Three Year Olds


Table 8.3 displays the results of grouping the younger

children's talk according to conversational acts. Such tabular presentations are a little unwieldy, but they reward careful examination. The first striking difference between the two settings is that there are many more turns at talking in the supermarket (282 vs. 161 total utterances in the three minute sample represent 23.5 vs. 13.4 utterances per child during the three minute sample). Second, when one looks at the relative frequency of the different kinds of conversational acts in the supermarket and the classroom, it is evident that in the classroom the children are most likely to be engaged in responding to questions from teachers. Children also occupy the "responding slot" in supermarket conversations, but they are far more likely to be initiators (as indicated by the relatively high frequency of questions, requests, identifications, and descriptions). Third, and most telling of all with respect to the issue of using linguistic formalisms for purposes of comparing behavior across settings, the mean length of utterance within categories of conversational acts are very similar: in fact, there are several cases where mean length of utterance for a given category of talk is greater in the classroom than the supermarket (although the numbers of cases are sufficiently small to make statistical treatment ineffective).

These results suggest that it is indeed productive to use the formalism provided by Dore's modification of speech act theory to categorize children's talk. In so far as the constraints on talk indexed by different speech acts are associated with particular cognitive demands, these data provide evidence of similarity in behavior in different settings because there are no differences associated with difficulty of engaging in particular tasks such as responding to questions or offering descriptions. Rather, the influence of social context is to change the relatively frequency of different speech acts, each of which produces utterances of characteristic length for the two social contexts compared in this study.

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