Could the way we talk to children help them remember their science lessons?

Little scientistBy Christian Jarrett

When a parent asks their child plenty of “who?”, “what?”, “when?”, “where?”, “why?” questions, encourages them to go into detail and includes open-ended questions, psychologists call this an elaborative style. Past research has shown that children with parents like this tend to remember more experiences from their lives (the opposite parental style is to ask fewer questions in general, and to ask questions that only need a short, basic response). More specific studies have found that parents’ elaborative chat can also help their children remember museum visits.

A new study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology is the first to apply this line of research to young children’s memories of a recent science lesson. The findings provide tentative evidence that conversing with a child in an elaborative way could help them remember more about their lesson.

Michelle Leichtman and her colleagues at the University of New Hampshire, USA, recruited the mothers or fathers of 40 children aged four to six from two schools, one in an upper middle-class area, the other lower middle-class. A scientist visited the children’s schools and gave an engaging, scripted lesson with props about the science of light. That evening, the researchers asked the parents to chat with their child about the lesson in whatever way they found natural, and to record the chat. Six days later, the researchers interviewed each child about the science lesson.

There was an indirect link between parents’ use of an elaborative conversational style and how much their child remembered of the science lesson six days later. That is, the more elaborative the parents’ questioning, the more details the children tended to recall the evening of the lesson. In turn, children who provided more detail when chatting to their parents also tended to remember more of the lesson (including new details they hadn’t mentioned previously) when chatting to a researcher about the lesson six days later. This was true for children from both schools and regardless of the parents’ own educational background.

There was only one direct link between parents’ conversational style and children’s later recall in the researcher interview, and that was the amount of descriptive words that the parents used (such as “Was the flashlight blue?”).

This research is very preliminary and needs replication. It’s correlational nature means we can’t know if parents are influencing children or if children are influencing parents. It might be both, and certainly, given the wider related research literature, it’s plausible that parents’ conversational style is having an influence. Leichtman and her colleagues highlighted several possible ways parents’ elaborative conversational style might have a benefit, including not only through encouraging greater recall, discussion and ways to connect ideas, but also at a motivational level, “impart[ing] to children a sense that the topic and details are worthy of their attention.”

Talking after school: Parents’ conversational styles and children’s memory for a science lesson

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest


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