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Miss Matters: How to Have a One-Sided Conversation with Toddlers

19 May 2014 by Miss Matters


Can you explain contingent responding, under the indicator of supporting language use, as it relates to the Toddler CLASS tool? I see it as responding to a child's cues in an appropriate way. For example, a child tries to fit a circular block in a triangular hole and looks to the caregiver with a confused look. The caregiver may say, "It won't go through, will it? I wonder if it will go through another opening?" Or, if a toddler holds up an empty cup the caregiver may say, "You're finished? Do you want more?"

Can you tell me if I am interpreting this correctly? Thank you.



You have done a wonderful job providing examples of toddler behavior and how a teacher can make a contingent verbal response to that behavior. Another way to describe contingent responding is that the teacher’s response is "contingent on" something the child says or does.

It is relatively easy for teachers of older, more verbal children to listen carefully to what they are saying and to respond with a question or comment that is relevant to the topic of conversation. Of course, this appears simple enough to do. However, when teachers are tasked with watching twenty busy two-year-olds, actively listening to what children say becomes a challenge.

Think how much more difficult it is for teachers of toddlers to actively listen when toddlers are not yet fluent verbal communicators. Toddlers may use one-word sentences or utter words too difficult to understand. In this case, the teacher must listen deeply, imagining what the child might be trying to communicate. This is done through watching a child’s body language, facial expression or eye gaze, or by interpreting his or her word approximations.

Children will often use gestures to comment or make a request, as you describe in your examples. In the first example, your child’s nonverbal communication may be either a comment that the block does not fit or may be a request for your help. Your contingent response covers both possibilities. In your second example, the toddler holding up an empty cup may mean, “Look, it’s all gone!” or “It’s empty and I’m still thirsty.” Again, you cover both bases in your response.

Notice how both responses are also examples of back-and-forth conversational exchange, with the teacher interpreting the child’s conversational contribution (gesture, body language, facial expression). It may sound like the teacher is the only one talking but the child is merely speaking without words. When teachers use contingent responding effectively, it is a great way to encourage children’s language development.

Thank you for sharing your examples to illustrate contingent responding. I hope Miss Matters has helped deepen your understanding of this language facilitation practice.

Happy coding!