The Social World of Children Learning to Talk. – Review

The Social World of Children Learning to Talk. – Review – book reviews

William H. Brown

The Social World of Children Learning to Talk B. Hart & T. R. Risley, Baltimore: Brookes, 1999, 301 pp., paperback, $22,00.

Betty Hart and Todd Risley have been significant contributors to the child development literature for many years. During the 1960s and 1970s, they performed groundbreaking work that focused on interventions to improve young children’s social behavior (e.g., Hart, Reynolds, Baer, Brawley, & Harris, 1968) and language (e.g., Risley, Hart, & Doke, 1971; Risley & Wolf, 1967). Beginning in the 1960s, they developed and investigated incidental teaching, a systematic language intervention for young children at risk for developmental problems (e.g., Hart & Risley, 1968, 1975). Since their initial refinement of incidental teaching, its component procedures have guided a generation of language researchers who have demonstrated both its efficacy and generality for children with and without disabilities (see Hart, 1985; Kaiser, Yoder, & Keetz, 1992; Warren & Kaiser, 1988, for reviews).

In 1982, Hart and Risley implemented a short-term longitudinal study with the purpose of describing the environmental and linguistic contexts of a sample of very young children in 42 families. The importance of this work warrants a brief description of their investigation. The families who participated in the study represented three diverse demographic groups: (a) 13 families with a parent who was a professional; (b) 23 families with a working-class parent; and (c) 6 families who lived on public assistance. Hart and Risley (1999) further described their sample of children and families in terms of gender (23 girls and 19 boys), ethnicity (25 European Americans, 17 African Americans, 1 Hispanic American) and the number of siblings in the home during the course of the study. At the beginning of the study, children who were target participants were 6 months of age. During the course of the investigation, children and their families were systematically observed and audiotaped for 1 hour each month during routine, unstructured activities in their homes. Home observations continued until the children were 36 months of age. While observing in the children’s homes, research assistants recorded everything said by, to, and around each of the 42 young children. The resultant longitudinal database represented 1,300 hours of direct observation data on contextual information (e.g., type of activity, parent in same room), nonverbal behaviors (e.g., pointing, giving), and verbal behavior (e.g., words, types of utterances, pragmatic functions). Anyone who has ever collected direct observation data in naturalistic settings will appreciate the enormous challenges associated with gathering, analyzing, and interpreting a data set of the magnitude obtained by Hart and Risley (1999).

Following their initial data collection for 10 years with colleagues at the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies, Hart and Risley developed a computer database and procedures that allowed them to examine the environmental contexts and interactions of family members and their infants and toddlers. These data and their subsequent analysis have resulted in scholarly articles (e.g., Hart & Risley, 1989, 1992) and two books. In their first book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, Hart and Risley (1995) reported what they believed to be the most important discovery from the investigation. In Meaningful Differences, they presented well-organized and compelling information that revealed the enormous variability in the language exposure of children in different families. Specifically, after analysis of their observational data, they noted the extreme differences in language exposure for young children growing up in families with low socioeconomic status (SES), versus working-class families, versus more affluent professional families. The variability in exposure ranged from an average of 600 words per hour in the subsample of low-SES families to an average of 2,100 words per hour in the subsample of families with at least one professional. As Hart and Risley (1995) noted, these markedly different rates resulted in enormous imbalances in children’s exposure to language across time. Moreover, the differences in exposure were related to cognitive differences as indicated by an intelligence test at 3 years of age. Hart and Risley (1995) reported that the amount of parents’ talking to children was positively correlated with family SES. For individual families, however, the more the parents talked with infants and toddlers, the more rapidly their young children acquired new words and the higher their IQ scores at 3 years of age. Whereas Hart and Risley focused on exposure of children to language in Meaningful Differences, in their second book, The Social World of Children Learning to Talk, they concentrate on children’s practicing language with family members. In the remainder of this review, I evaluate the usefulness of Hart and Risley’s (1999) newest book for readers who are interested in early childhood special education.

In the initial chapter, “The Social Dance of American Life,” Hart and Risley note that the “talkativeness” (p. 5) of families influences young children’s acquisition of knowledge, particularly children’s vocabulary development and range of verbal expression, more than the actual words or constructions they use. The authors employ the metaphor of a “social dance” (p. 1) to describe the many and varied transactions that surrounded the ongoing development and acquisition of young children’s language and cognitive abilities. They end the chapter by delineating the primary purpose of the book, “This book describes the pattern of the children’s practice, its influence on the amount of language experience their parents provided, and the increasing extent to which the children were determining their own outcomes” (pp. 5-6).

In Chapter 2, “Observing Children and Families Talking,” Hart and Risley provide details of their observations of young children and their families. They discuss the importance of talking and its influences on early language development, the methods employed in their initial collection of observational data (e.g., sampling strategies; decisions on where, when, and how to collect observational data), and the establishment of a database to maintain and manipulate data for various analyses. They end the chapter by reiterating the importance of the conversational context for early language development (cf. MacDonald, 1985).

In Chapter 3, “A Social World,” Hart and Risley address basic patterns that appeared during the 30-month observational period. For example, they discuss “family talk” and patterns of parent-child interaction. To their surprise, they found that, during the 2 1/2 years of observation, young children, even very young babies, initiated more often than their parents (e.g., for 12- to 19-month-olds, 59% were child-initiated episodes). They were also amazed at how often parent-child interactions were simple exchanges of words or objects that failed to produce sustained interactions or conversations (i.e., about half of the time). Also in this chapter, the authors introduce the concept of “floorholding,” in which a speaker whose initiation is not responded to continues to try and interact with a nonresponsive listener by explaining, elaborating, or repeating language. Of interest, parents spent much of the babies’ early linguistic life “floorholding.” As children became more competent talkers during their second year of life, however, the infants rapidly increased their “floorholding.” At about 2 years of age, toddlers began to exceed their parents in the rate of floorholding, which continued to increase for children but decreased for adults. As Hart and Risley (1999) note, it appears that parents work hard initially to encourage their children’s interactions. As children become more competent communication partners, the toddlers begin to exhibit their new linguistic skills to promote and support interactions and brief conversations with more mature partners. Finally, in this chapter the authors introduce three distinctive periods that emerged from their data analyses. Specifically, the authors delineate becoming partners (i.e., about 11 to 19 months), staying and playing (i.e., about 20 to 28 months), and practicing (i.e., about 29 to 36 months) as three distinctive phases that emerged as young children were learning to talk.

In Chapter 4, “Developmental Change,” Hart and Risley report that the children they observed learned to talk in much the same manner that researchers have reported in the language development literature. The authors discuss children’s initial vocabularies and linguistic changes in the acquisition of words, phrases, and sentences, as well as the fluency and flexibility of children’s language that emerge across the three phases of becoming partners, staying and playing, and practicing. They note that all 42 children became fluent speakers using a variety of grammatical forms. They end this chapter by discussing the similarities and differences in vocabulary found within and across families.

In Chapters 5, 6, and 7, Hart and Risley describe the linguistic and social changes that occurred across the 2-year period in which the young children learned to talk. For example, when discussing becoming partners, they present information concerning the children’s use of nonwords (e.g., babbling, gibberish) and gestural and imitative behavior while “taking up talking” (p. 79). They also report how, with parental support, children become facile with the use of words during parent-child interactions in the second year of life. The authors define their second language period of staying and playing as characterized by young children employing identifiable words in at least half of their utterances. They note that parents frequently encourage children to talk about things and describe a parental role for children learning to talk.

We realized that the parent’s role was not that of a teacher, whose task is

to improve a learner’s skills, but that of a chaperon, whose partnership

serves to protect an immature speaker from straying too far from what the

social group accepts as spoken English. Even as parents focused on

arranging more frequent practice and encouraging their children to tell

about more varied experiences in more precise detail, the parents casually

personified the proprieties of conversation. They presented no strong

consequences or conditions during conversations so that immediate,

incidental aspects of activities could evoke continual variability in what

was said. They seemed to demonstrate effortlessly how an increasing variety

and sophistication of words and utterances remain governed by whatever

impromptu dialogue the social partners are constructing together. (p. 108)

Indeed, the authors report that the most frequent type of prompt to talk came in the form of questions about things. During the third language phase of practicing, Hart and Risley note that, as children became more competent talkers, parents decreased the average number of utterances “as though the parents had settled down to listen to what the children could do without support” (p. 121). Shortly after the parental decrease in talking, children matched the average number of their families’ utterances, and children frequently practiced a variety of linguistic forms and functions. Moreover, the authors report that the child initiated most of the educational episodes that were recorded. They provide an excellent example of an educational exchange with the following interaction between a mother and child:

A 33-month-old child initiated to her mother, “Uh-oh, my moccasin tied

out.” Her mother asked, “Came untied.” The child said, “No,” and the mother

said, “Yes, that’s untied.” The child said, “Oh, not tied.” The mother

said, “When it’s not tied, it’s untied.” (p. 128)

In Chapter 8, “The Range Among Well-Functioning Families,” Hart and Risley discuss the similarities and differences in parent-child interactions and language development across the becoming a partner, staying and playing, and practicing periods of development for the 42 families. They conclude their chapter by noting that, whereas in Meaningful Differences they had grouped their families by SES, they categorize the children by the extremes in the onset of talking (e.g., late talkers, early talkers) in Learning to Talk. The analysis based on the latter grouping reveals that the children who frequently employed different words at 3 years of age were children who had talked more and whose families had provided more varied language exposure before age 3. Indeed, the authors argue that the linkage between the two books is the social dance of families and the daily transactions resulting from the amount of parental talking (i.e., exposure) and the amount of children’s talking with social partners (i.e., practicing).

In Chapter 9, “Meaningful Differences,” Hart and Risley review the primary findings of their previous book and relate them with the results they present in Learning to Talk. They discuss how they have separated exposure (findings presented in Meaningful Differences) and practice (results described in Learning to Talk) and how the analyses of their observations have revealed a third dimension to early language development, “the social dance that is conversational interaction” (p. 179). They note that “Conversation exposed the child to what might be said in the language and at the same time prompted the child to practice selecting what could be said appropriately in the immediate circumstances” (p. 179). Moreover, they conclude that children’s practice enhances the effects of exposure and improves the influence of early linguistic experience on children’s language and cognitive achievements at 3 years of age.

In their final chapter, “Talking as a Social Dance,” Hart and Risley summarize their findings concerning becoming partners, staying and playing, and practicing. In describing their observations of children learning to talk, the authors again note that their findings replicated many of those previously reported in the language development literature. Nevertheless, they also discuss two additional facets of the parent-child interactions: (a) Parents do not appear to be deliberately encouraging language development per se; and (b) Children’s talking to parents is critical for their overall linguistic development (i.e., participation in the social dance is related to language development). The authors close their book with relatively short subsections on implications for parents, interventionists, and researchers.

In summary, Hart and Risley have written another extremely informative book on the language development of very young children. The 10 chapters (approximately 200 pages) are very enjoyable reading. For those readers who want more detailed developmental information or illustrations of developmental changes, the authors have provided elaborate appendices with 80 pages of supporting information, mostly in the form of tables and figures. For anyone interested in child development in general or language development in particular, I highly recommend reading Hart and Risley’s Learning to Talk. Interested readers should note that, although Meaningful Differences was also very interesting and informative, they may read Learning to Talk without reading Hart and Risley’s previous book. At the cost of about $22.00, I sincerely believe that Learning to Talk will be an excellent addition to any early childhood special educator’s professional library. I also recommend the book as an option for a supplemental text in graduate courses that focus on the development of infants and toddlers.


Hart, B. (1985). Naturalistic language training techniques. In S. F. Warren & A. K. Rogers-Warren (Eds.), Teaching functional language (pp. 63-88). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.

Hart, B. M., Reynolds, N. J., Baer, D. M., Brawley, E. R., & Harris, E R. (1968). Effects of contingent and noncontingent social reinforcement on the cooperative play of a preschool child. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 73-76.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1968). Establishing use of descriptive adjectives in the spontaneous speech of disadvantaged preschool children. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 109-120.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1975). Incidental teaching of language in preschool. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 8, 411-420.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1989). The longitudinal study of interactive systems. Education and Treatment of Children, 12, 347-358.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1992). American parenting of language-learning children: Persisting differences in family-child interactions observed in natural home environments. Developmental Psychology, 28, 1096-1105.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Brookes.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1999). The social world of children learning to talk. Baltimore: Brookes.

Kaiser, A. P., Yoder, P. J., & Keetz, A. (1992). Evaluating milieu teaching. In S. E Warren & J. Reichle (Eds.), Causes and effects in communication and language intervention (pp. 9-47). Baltimore: Brookes.

MacDonald, J. D. (1985). Language through conversation: A model for intervention with language-delayed persons. In S. E Warren & A. K. Rogers-Warren (Eds.), Teaching functional language (pp. 89-122). Austin, TX: PRO-ED.

Risley, T. R., Hart, B., & Doke, L. A. (1971). Operant language development: The outline of a therapeutic technology. In R. L. Schiefelbusch (Ed.), Language of the mentally retarded (pp. 107-123). Baltimore: University Park Press.

Risley, T. R., & Wolf, M. M. (1967). Establishing functional speech in echolalic children. Behavior Research and Therapy, 5, 73-88.

Warren, S. F., & Kaiser, A. P. (1988). Research in early language intervention. In S. L. Odom & M. B. Karnes (Eds.), Early intervention for infants and children with handicaps (pp. 89-108). Baltimore: Brookes.

William H. Brown University of South Carolina


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