Conversation skills: what they are and why they’re important
Conversation skills are important for children’s development and wellbeing. That’s because being able to have conversations helps children make friends, be listened to, ask for what they need and develop strong relationships with others.
Conversation skills are about being able to talk and listen well. This involves:
- starting conversations – for example, with a greeting like ‘Hello’ or a question
- knowing how to get attention in the right way – for example, by saying ‘Excuse me’
- using eye contact
- taking turns talking and listening
- speaking politely
- knowing when to stop talking.
To develop good conversation skills, your child needs to learn words, simple sentences and turn-taking, as well as follow your family’s rules about how you speak to each other and to others.
Helping children develop conversation skills
Your child learns a lot about conversations from talking and listening with you. So you can help your child develop conversation skills just by stopping to talk with your child whenever you can.
You child also learns about conversations by watching your conversations with others. So you can help your child develop good conversation skills by talking to your partner, friends and children in the way you’d like your child to talk with others. For example:
- Smile, make eye contact and use friendly greetings – for example, say ‘Good morning’ to the family, ‘Welcome’ to visitors and ‘How are you?’ to neighbours.
- Talk with your partner in positive ways, and handle conflict constructively.
- Use body language and tone of voice to show interest and attention when you talk to others.
- If someone wants to talk with you and you’re using your phone, put it down. This way you can give the other person your full attention.
Learning how to talk with and listen to other people takes time and practice. Some children pick this up quickly, and others might need more practice, prompts, reminders and guidance. For example:
- Have practice conversations with your child where you take turns asking questions and listening to answers.
- Prompt your child – for example, by saying, ‘Please say thank you to Grandma for taking you to the park’.
- Use clear and gentle reminders when you need to – for example, ‘Rani, please look at me when you’re speaking to me’.
- Suggest how your child could begin a conversation about someone else’s interests – for example, ‘Uncle Zak just bought a new car. He’d like it if you asked him about his car today’.
- Guide your child by saying, ‘Sarah, if I’m speaking to someone you need to say “Excuse me”, and then wait until I’m ready to listen’.
- Suggest or brainstorm what your child can say when they have to meet someone new. For example, you might teach your child to say, ‘Hello. My name is Veronica. I have a dog at my house. Do you have a pet?’
- Praise children when they’re communicating well. This will make them want to keep doing it. For example, you could say, ‘I love the way you waited for me to finish speaking before you started talking’. Or ‘You did really well with your pleases and thank yous just now’.
You might like to make some rules about polite speaking and conversation. It’s important to talk with your child about the rules so that your child understands what’s expected. You can also use consequences if your child is talking back or speaking rudely.
Children learn best through play, so pretend play can be a fun way to help them develop and practise conversation skills. For example, ‘Let’s pretend that you’re the mummy talking on the telephone and I’m the little boy. What should I do if I want to talk to you?’ Or you and your child could use toys or puppets to have pretend conversations about funny, interesting or even silly things.
Interrupting usually happens when children can’t control their urge to talk. But unless it’s an emergency, it’s important to help your child learn to wait. Letting others finish what they’re saying or doing is part of positive communication and helps children get along with others.
The way you manage interrupting will depend on your child’s age and stage of development. For example, younger children and children with additional needs might find it hard to understand that they should say ‘Excuse me’ and wait for you to respond. Preschoolers might be able to cope only with a quick ‘Just a minute’ before you give them your attention. School-age children should be able to wait for longer.
These general tips for managing interruptions will help most children:
- Let your child know when it’s OK to interrupt immediately. For example, if something dangerous or urgent is happening, they should be allowed to interrupt.
- Teach your child to put their hand on your arm if they need to say something while you’re talking. Then you can put your other hand on top of theirs to let them know that you’ve understood.
When your child gets older and you know they can wait, you can try some or all of these ideas to manage interruptions:
- Remind your child of your family rule about interrupting. Then continue your conversation until your child says ‘Excuse me’ or uses the nonverbal cue.
- When your child says ‘Excuse me’, try to reward your child with your attention quickly. Your child will see that if they do the right thing, they get what they want.
- Praise your child when they say ‘Excuse me’ and wait for you to give them your attention. This encourages your child to keep speaking this way. For example, ‘You waited until I finished my call before you asked for help with your doll. Well done!’
- If you have an important call or activity that really can’t be interrupted, try distracting your child with some special toys or an interesting activity.
Dealing with talking back or backchat
Your child might talk back when you set limits, give instructions or give consequences. For example, they might use a rude tone of voice, argue or try to negotiate when it’s not appropriate.
You can manage talking back or backchat in a positive way and reduce the chances of it happening over time. If your child talks back to you, here are some strategies that might help:
- Respond calmly and remind your child of any family rules you have about speaking politely and treating each other respectfully.
- If your child keeps being rude, give a consequence for the rudeness. This could be anything from practising another way to speak, to losing a privilege like screen time.
- Avoid laughing or giving your child a lot of attention. If you do, you might accidentally reward your child for the backchat.
Things that affect your child’s conversation skills
There are a couple of things that might affect how children develop conversation skills:
- Self-regulation: this includes the ability to manage your behaviour and your reactions to things happening round you. It’s an important part of learning to talk and listen. Children develop self-regulation as they grow.
- Temperament: for example, a very social child might want to be involved in every conversation and have trouble listening. On the other hand, a child who is shy or slow to warm up might find it easier to listen but harder to respond.
There are some developmental and other issues that might affect talking and listening. Language delay is a delay in using sentences or knowing how to speak with others. Speech difficulties include lisping, stuttering or forming sounds. If your child is experiencing any of these issues, you might want to see a speech pathologist. You could also ask your child and family health nurse or GP for advice.