Lack of conversational skills is more of a red flag than a roadblock. I’ve noticed a connection between a student’s conversational skills and their ability to process mental images. To engage in a conversation and provide feedback to your listener, you must draw upon memories, experiences and images in your mind. If you have a student who shows difficulty carrying on a conversation, take note and listen to them retell anything they’ve read to look for possible visualization challenges.
After-school tutorials were a requirement on my campus. I always began our tutoring sessions with a long conversation time because it’s a powerful way to build trust and relationships with my struggling students. That first year I quickly realized that my tutoring students all had trouble carrying on an effective conversation. I’d ask questions about what they did over the weekend, and they’d respond with things like “nothing.” Or, when asked about what they like to do they would often respond with “I don’t know.” I often had tutorial students who did not know simple things about their own families such as where their parents worked.
Unfortunately, for various reasons, many students do not spend time in regular conversation with their families, missing out on this type of discussion in their young formative years. Cornell professor, Gary Evans found that “the higher the social class of parents, the more likely they are to speak to their children in order to initiate and sustain conversation” (2004). In 2003, the “30-Million Word Gap” became a landmark study that showed that children from lower SES families heard 30 million fewer words than children in higher SES environments (Hart & Risley 2003). Others studies have come along after this one to discuss that it isn’t simply the volume of words that children hear, but rather the quality of the conversation (Sparks 2015).
For example, children of professionals are twice as likely to be exposed to “unique” words during conversation (Sparks 2015). Hart & Risley’s initial word-gap study has sparked many more studies that show that children in an “enriched language environment” often hear about twice as many words per day (Sparks 2015). Still another study by Gilkerson showed that preschoolers who scored in the top 10 percent of language tests had parents who had conversations that involved 18 more turns talking per hour than parents of children scoring in the bottom 80% (Gilkerson 2014). How well a child can converse can be connected with their academic performance.
Another concern I have about children’s conversational stimulation connects back with Smartphone use. Pediatrician and author, Jenny Radesky argues that mobile media use by parents often “replaces the amount of time spent engaging in direct human-human interaction” (2015). If parents are spending more time on their phones and less time talking with their children, it can be detrimental. Radesky and colleagues also discuss that mothers using mobile devices when dining with children have 20% fewer verbal interactions and 39% fewer nonverbal interactions (Radesky, Miller, Rosenblum, Appugliese, Kaciroti & Lumeng 2014).
I bring this up also to show that this is a societal issue that could affect children from any social class. Perhaps more educated parents use more sophisticated language with their children; however any parent can disengage and have fewer interactions with their children as a result of Smartphone use.
What do conversational skills have to do with visualizing?
Cognitive research suggests that there is a relationship between visual imagery and visual memory (Pearson, Naselaris, Holmess & Kosslyn 2015). Our memories are connected with our ability to visualize, and conversation is one of the first ways young children practice visualizing for memory.
My daughter is a young preschooler, and I often ask her what she did at school that day. She usually says “hmm” and then responds with things such as “I play blocks with Max.” or “We paint a turkey,” etc. That “hmm” before she responds shows me she is thinking, remembering, and visualizing her memories so she can tell me what happened. We have these conversations every night when we tell daddy what we did during the day, or we tell our grandmother what we saw at the zoo yesterday.
This goes on all the time in families who talk to their children regularly. It seems so basic, and it is. I don’t intentionally sit and think “okay what questions can I ask Caroline to help her practice visualizing?” I simply talk to her, but having conversations with her has huge benefits! Teaching my daughter to visualize her memories and then talk about those images activates her brain. Talking with children stirs their memories and thoughts and causes them to activate mental images in their brains.
If you are teaching a student who struggles to activate memories and engage in conversation, there could be a chance that they are also struggling to activate their visualization skills when reading.