As an infant classroom teacher, you know that talking to babies is important. For instance, you tell the infants in your care what they are looking at (“You see the new block basket on the shelf!”). You label objects (“You have the red ball!”). And you describe events that take place in the classroom (“The tray just fell off the table! That scared you.”). These examples represent Teacher talk, an indicator in the Infant CLASS tool. Why, then, is the dimension of Early Language Support so challenging?
Teacher talk (general talk in the classroom) is just one indicator in the dimension of Early Language Support in the Infant CLASS tool. Have you noticed that Teacher talk seems to go well in your classroom? You may also notice that the two remaining indicators, Communication support and Communication extension, are more challenging. If this is your experience, you're not alone.
Teacher talk feels natural and comfortable. As we care for infants, we habitually chatter. For example, when we get ready to change a baby’s diaper, we say, “Oh my goodness, you are pretty wet! Let’s grab a fresh diaper, and change you!” Or we may say to an infant in a bouncy seat, “Wow, look at how many toys are out. I think every toy we have in the classroom is on the floor! I better pick these up before someone trips and falls!” We talk like this quite a bit in infant classrooms.
Then there’s Communication support (talk directed at individual infants). We often talk “to” babies. We say things like, “Kayden, are you enjoying your pears?” Or sometimes, when a baby says “Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba,” we may say back to the baby, “Ba ba ba? Do you want your bottle?” Notice how I’ve slipped “sometimes” into this paragraph? Talking directly to an infant also feels natural. But we might feel more self-conscious about imitating a baby’s vocalizations back to them.
Finally, there’s Communication extension (teachers and infant having back and forth exchanges). In this indicator, the teacher gives the infants words to say, grabs on to any attempts at sounds an infant makes, and then engages in a back and forth exchange with the baby.
I think it feels less natural to extend conversations with an infant. Infants aren’t yet talking, at least not with words. Without words, it's challenging to know what to say to a baby. It’s easier to engage in an extended conversation with a toddler because they are starting to use words and phrases. It’s even easier to engage in a conversation with a chatty preschooler. But a baby? What am I supposed to do?
What’s the most successful way to converse with a baby? Think: “I’m doing the talking for both of us!” The adult is both the supporter and the interpreter of an adult-to-infant conversation. The teacher does this by talking to infants, pausing to watch the baby's reaction, and then interpreting what to say back. Ask yourself, "What might this baby say back to me?" For example:
T: Kayden, are you enjoying your pears?
T: (pauses to watch Kayden’s face while he takes a bite)
K: (takes a bite, and says "mmm")
T: Mmmm. That’s a big bite from your spoon. You like the pears; you think they are pretty tasty.
K: (takes another bite)
T: You are hungry today. Yesterday you didn’t feel like eating, but today you are making up for it!
K: (makes a sour face at the next bite)
T: (smiling) Did I remind you how you felt yesterday? You do remember!
Then, continue to watch and listen to Kayden. Keep up the conversation in a natural, back and forth fashion until Kayden signals he is ready to be done.
The above conversation is full of Communication support and extension. It’s also bonus Teacher talk, as the teacher labels objects, and describes events using complete and varied sentences. While filling in both sides of a conversation may feel a little funny at first, it gets easier over time. Try practicing short conversations throughout the day to increase your comfort level. Before you know it, you’ll be a Communication support and extension expert!
Across the nation, teachers learning about CLASS are asked to narrate their actions and sportscast their children’s experiences in order to support and encourage healthy language development. Hearing this, many teachers may wonder, “Will people think I’m crazy if I start talking to myself in the classroom?”
The answer is no. Self- and parallel talk are beneficial strategies for teachers to engage in because they strengthen language rich environments and enhance vocabulary development, all while supporting effective relationship building between teachers and children.
I’m often asked how teachers can improve the quality of their interactions around Instructional Support. That’s good! What’s not “good” is that we can’t just focus on one thing. We should consider how ALL the CLASS dimensions need to be in place in order to really provide effective interactions for Instructional Support.
So, it’s June and you have just wrapped up the year with your students. They have made tremendous progress over the course of the year. The routine of the day flows naturally, the expectations about what is and isn’t appropriate behavior is fairly clear to all of them (and to you), and you leave the school year feeling confident that they are ready for the new challenges that lie ahead. You go into the summer months looking forward to a much needed break, but also looking forward to your new group of students in the fall.