Turn Taking

Conversation is defined as an informal interchange of thoughts or information by spoken word; it is the oral communication between people (Kelman, 2004). In order for conversation to take place, turn taking skills must be present. During a conversation, two or more people take turns regularly and have the role of a speaker and a listener; this act incorporates turn taking skills. Turn taking skills that develop early in age are essential for later conversational skills. Taking turns, a phrase that typically has a juvenile connotation, is a theme that’s in our communication, work, and play interactions throughout life. Although turn taking is a skill that’s developed with age, however, our ability to take turns is innate in us as infants.

When an adult is speaking to a child, they tend to pause after each spoken word, as if giving the child ample time to respond in gesture, noise, or any way. By doing this, the adult is teaching the child their first turn taking pattern. When the child becomes older, an adult applies the same strategy that they once used towards the infant. The basic equation for turn taking skills consists of listening, responding by completing a turn, then waiting for your turn again after the other person (Kelman, 2004). Whether it’s a conscious act or not, adults set up models that teach children to follow the rules of interaction. By learning from example, the child has a higher rate at being successful in their turn taking skills.

Interestingly enough, evidence of communicative turn taking is seen even before the child begins to use words. Infants show an awareness of communication before they have the ability to speak. However, as the infant moves to toddler from pre-linguistic to linguistic, they develop a turn taking skill that’s more comparable to those of adult conversation (Black & Logan 1995).

In addition to interruptions, a young child may attempt to speak simultaneously with their speaker however, this decreases and a more at ease pattern begins to develop. By two and a half years, the desired conversational turn taking pattern between adult and child is smoother with significantly less interruption. Although understandably, some children at two and half may have difficulty turn taking in a conversation where the topic is either unfamiliar or of something that has happened too far in the past.

A crucial aspect of turn taking includes pause times. Pause time is one of the indications that turns are switching. Pause time is not perfected at age two; this is seen when an adult pauses about one second, the child will proceed to pause much longer. Although, by the age of three, the child begins to recognize the pause length and therefore adjust their timing to maintain a smoother conversational flow (Maroni & Pontecorvo 2008). A child heavily relies on the obvious indication of a longer pause resulting in when a speaker is finished.

By the time the child enters school, their turn taking skills have been significantly developed in the home and play areas. In interaction with adults, children tend to stay involved in conversations and appear to be good turn takers. However, in peer interactions, children are more likely to show a disruption of turn taking and temporarily lose some of their skill.

Since turn taking requires the understanding of a back and forth pattern between people, in can be taught in many activities. By using activities, the pattern becomes learned and makes it easier to be applied in conversation. Some examples of turn taking activities include rolling a ball back and forth, tickling, hugging, and playing peek-a-boo. When doing these activities, it’s important to narrate what’s happening. For example, “It’s my turn, now it’s your turn.” These skills are important to foster from the very beginning and will continue to improve and develop throughout the child’s every day life.

Lisamarie Ricigliano M.S. CF-SLP, TSSLD

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