Learning out loud; talking to themselves helps children integrate language with thought

Private speech: learning out loud; talking to themselves helps children integrate language with thought

Laura E. Berk

Private Speech: Learning Out Loud

Young children frequently talk aloud to themselves as they go about their activities at play and at school. Sometimes the words are repetitive and playful:

“Put the mushroom on your head, put the mushroom in your pocket, put the mushroom on your nose.’

At other times the words are more like thinking out loud:

“Where’s another green piece? Here’s one. It doesn’t fit in.’

These are just two types of utterances that psychologists call “private speech.’ Depending on the situation, it makes up anywhere from 20 percent to 60 percent of the language used by preschool and elementary school children.

Psychologists began to study the phenomenon 60 years ago, using their findings to assess competing theories about children’s learning and cognitive development. As early as the 1920s and 1930s, major psychological theorists from three countries offered different explanations of what private speech is and why children use it.

Behaviorist John Watson of the United States viewed it simply as inappropriate verbal behavior that gradually ends as parents and teachers pressure children to stop muttering and talking out loud.

Jean Piaget of Switzerland saw private speech as “egocentric speech,’ a sign of the preschool child’s self-centeredness and cognitive immaturity. Piaget believed that such speech serves no social purpose and is replaced by ordinary speech as the child matures.

Lev Semenovich Wygotsky of Russia believed that private speech is social communication with the self and plays an important role in helping children integrate language with thought and learn to control their actions. Private speech should increase during the preschool and early school years as children use it to master their behavior and then decline as they internalize it as silent verbal thought.

During the late 1960s Lawrence Kohlberg and his colleagues at the University of Chicago examined the conflicting theories in a series of studies on private speech. They observed nearly 150 4- to 10-year-old middle-class children during daily classroom activities and while the children used stickers to make designs. What Kohlberg found gave strong support to Vygotsky’s theory. The amount of private speech increased at first and then gradually decreased with age. All the children followed this same pattern, but the brighter ones’ use of private speech peaked earlier, while they were still 4; for children of average intelligence the peak came between 5 and 7. Private speech largely disappeared among all the children by age 9.

Also, the most sociable and popular children used private speech the most, a finding in line with Vygotsky’s belief that such speech originates in and is stimulated by early social experience. This contradicted expectations that private speech would be more common among the least socially and intellectually advanced children, either because they are more egocentric (Piagetian theory) or because they are less responsive to social expectations (Watson’s behaviorist theory).

Finally, Kohlberg found that the kinds of private speech children used changed in a consistent age-related pattern. The youngest children used simple, self-stimulating private speech such as playful repetition of words and sounds. Slightly older children engaged in self-guiding speech that related to what they were doing, such as describing their activities as they played, asking themselves questions as they did schoolwork and sounding out words while reading. The private speech of the oldest children was abbreviated and barely audible. They moved their lips and tongues and muttered to themselves, an outward sign of inner speech.

Kohlberg’s research sparked a number of other studies in the 1970s, most of which reported findings consistent with his results and Vygotsky’s ideas. In 1979, psychologist Gail Zivin edited The Development of Self-Regulation Through Private Speech, a book that summarized the state of knowledge on children’s self-directed language. As the title suggests, the book emphasized the role that private speech plays in helping children bring their behavior under the control of internal thought.

I was intrigued with Vygotsky’s idea that private speech plays an important role in children’s cognitive development and also concerned that without better understanding of why children used such speech so frequently, teachers and parents might discourage them from using it. In 1980, I initiated a series of three studies at Illinois State University.

Working with graduate student Ruth Garvin, I planned a more conclusive comparison of Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories than had been done previously. I expanded the private speech categories Kohlberg had used to include the Piagetian idea of egocentric communication (see chart, “Varieties of Private Speech’). Piaget looked at private speech as unsuccessful communication that fails because children do not adapt their remarks to the perspective of a listener. It seemed to us that if such egocentric communication is frequent among young children, then Piaget’s theory should be given renewed credibility. We also wondered if the developmental sequence and social origins of private speech identified by Kohlberg were universal. Would we find them in children culturally different from the middle-class youngsters he had studied?

We worked with 36 5- to 10-year-old Appalachian children at a mission school in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Softly dictating into a tape recorder, we described their speech throughout the school day, in the classroom, on the playground and in the halls and lunchroom.

Garvin and I found that the kind of egocentric communication Piaget had described made up less than 1 percent of the children’s language. When they intended to communicate with others, children’s speech was almost always socially adaptive and clearly understandable to the listener. We also confirmed Vygotsky’s and Kohlberg’s observations that private speech was grounded in early social communication. At the youngest age we studied, 5 years, the children who talked to others the most also talked to themselves the most.

The Appalachian children’s private speech followed the same developmental pattern Kohlberg had reported, but the rate of development was much slower, especially for boys. When they were 10, nearly one-fourth of the children’s language still consisted of audible private speech. Kohlberg’s middle-class children seldom used it by that age.

When we looked at anthropological studies of Appalachian families, we found them portrayed as verbally restricted. Unlike middle-class parents, who have extensive dialogues with their children, Appalachian parents rely more on gestures than words, especially when boys and men communicate. The statement, “Talk is women’s work,’ is common and boys are frequently told to keep still. If the development of private speech is facilitated by social speech, as Vygotsky believed, the early language environment of Appalachian children might account for the slow development we observed.

Finally, we discovered that talking to themselves increased dramatically when children were asked to solve difficult problems and teachers remained at a distance and did not inhibit such speech. This further supported Vygotsky’s idea that children use private speech to facilitate their thinking and guide their behavior.

In the Appalachian study we worked with school-age children. In a second study, I searched for evidence that Piaget’s theory of egocentric communication might explain the private speech of younger children. After collecting samples of the spontaneous speech of 93 3- to 5-year-old children in a variety of nursery school and day-care centers in lower- and middle-class areas of a small Midwestern city, I found practically no egocentric communication, even among the youngest.

I also confirmed what previous researchers had shown, that the most socially advanced preschool children talked to themselves the most, and that such speech was more frequent when children played together in large groups rather than alone, with one child or with an adult. Piaget expected that private speech would decline when children were with their peers, whom he thought would be unlikely to accept egocentric language. Instead, my findings supported Vygotsky’s notion that even among very young children, private speech is stimulated and encouraged by social experience.

In a third study, I examined another basic aspect of Vygotsky’s theory, the idea that private speech helps children control their actions and improves learning. Although private speech increases when children work on difficult tasks, the reason might be that their frustration produces stress, anxiety and a consequent loss of verbal self-control. To rule out this explanation, I needed evidence that talking aloud helps children channel their behavior constructively and increases their success in solving problems.

I observed 75 first- and third-graders at a Midwestern school while they worked independently at their desks on math assignments. Such assignments maximize use of private speech, since children are likely to have difficulty solving at least some of the problems and must work matters out on their own without teacher guidance and assistance. We categorized the children’s private speech using a system that reflected Kohlberg’s developmental sequence described earlier.

The children’s use of private speech was extremely high, occurring 60 percent of the time we observed them. Also, they followed Kohlberg’s age-related pattern of moving from self-stimulating and externalized task-relevant private speech in the first grade to less audible private utterances by the third grade. Bright children developed faster, using more mature, inaudible forms of speech in the first grade than their average classmates did and moving toward complete internalization of speech earlier in the third grade.

We found that how well children did on their daily math assignments and on math achievement tests was related to private speech, but the relationship depended on their intellectual maturity. For example, among bright first-graders, those who used more internalized private speech (muttering) scored higher on tests than those who still talked aloud to themselves frequently. But among average first-graders, much of whose private speech was still audible, the amount of such audible task-relevant speech was the best predictor of success. By third grade, the average children had matured to the point that how much internalized private speech they used was strongly related to how well they did in math. But for bright third-graders, private speech was no longer a guide to performance, since their most effective approach was completely internal speech, which cannot be observed.

I also found that children who used less mature forms of private speech than would be expected, given their age and IQ, usually performed poorly on tests. For example, bright first-graders and average third-graders who talked to themselves a lot didn’t do as well as those who used less audible private speech. Since children generally employ more audible private speech when tasks are harder for them, teachers might use such speech as a sign of trouble. When children who usually internalize their private speech in solving problems start speaking out loud, they may need special help with that particular task.

Finally, this third study supported Vygotsky’s belief that private speech helps children learn to bring action under the control of thought. My observers and I found that children’s private speech was related to how they sat at their desks while working on problems. First-graders who used a great deal of self-stimulating private speech that didn’t relate to the task at hand often squirmed around in their seats, chewed and tapped their pencils and played with their arms and legs. They also had trouble paying attention to the task at hand.

On the other hand, first-graders who ordinarily used audible, task-relevant speech also relief on more task-related motor behavior, such as counting on fingers, using a pencil to follow a line or read a word and using objects to count in arithmetic problems. Finally, children whose private speech was largely internalized were highly attentive to the task and sat more quietly. The development of internalized private speech apparently goes hand in hand with the ability to inhibit extraneous motor behavior and focus attention.

Vygotsky believed that as children work on new tasks that push the limits of their current mental ability, they depend on instructions from adults or other, more skilled children to help them understand and master the activities. Then they take the language of the instructions, make it part of their own private speech and use this speech to organize their independent efforts in the same way.

My research shows that to help this process along, children need learning environments that permit them to be verbally active while solving problems and completing tasks. When they reach elementary school, children are expected to sustain attention for long periods of time, and the school day is devoted to mastering skills of increasing difficulty. One way children cope successfully with these demands is through greater use of self-guiding private speech. Talking aloud or muttering should not be interpreted as evidence of insufficient self-control or misbehavior.

Children who are less mature or have learning problems may need more adult guidance and may profit from special arrangements in their classrooms, such as study corners, where they can talk aloud more freely. Requiring such children to be quiet is likely to be counterproductive, because it suppresses forms of private speech that are crucial for learning.

Play experiences are also important in helping children develop their language and problem-solving abilities. Internalized verbal thinking is facilitated by the give-and-take that occurs as children cooperate to build a house with blocks, paint a mural or role-play a family activity.

Private speech is an important means through which children organize, understand and gain control over their behavior. Observations of private speech provide a rich source of information about how children’s thinking develops, why some of them have learning problems and how to intervene to help children develop as far as possible.


COPYRIGHT 1986 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group