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Topic maintenance in social conversation: what children need to learn and evidence this can be taught

Abbot-Smith, Kirsten, Dockrell, Julie, Sturrock, Alexandra, Matthews, Danielle, Wilson, Charlotte (2023) Topic maintenance in social conversation: what children need to learn and evidence this can be taught. First Language, 43 (6). pp. 614-642. ISSN 0142-7237. E-ISSN 1740-2344. (doi:10.1177/01427237231172652) (KAR id:100849)

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Individual differences in children’s social communication have been shown to mediate the relationship between poor vocabulary or grammar and behavioural difficulties. Moreover, there is increasing evidence that social communication skills predict difficulties with peers over and above vocabulary and grammar scores. The essential social communicative skills needed to maintain positive peer relationships revolve around conversation. Children with weaker conversation skills are less likely to make and maintain friendships. While helping all children to participate actively in collaborative conversations is part of school curricula, evidence-based training on how to achieve this is rarely provided for teachers. In this review we first provide an overview of the key components of conversation skills and the cognitive abilities required to maintain them. We then present a narrative review of randomised controlled trials and experimental studies that either trained child conversation skills or included conversation skills in both training and outcome measures. Most of the studies focussed on training conversational ability in autistic children. The general finding was that verbally-fluent autistic children improve following conversation training on blind-assessed reciprocal conversational ability. Only two studies were found that trained conversation skills in typically developing children with adequate controls and outcome measures which directly assessed conversational proficiency. Both studies focussed on typically-developing children who, at baseline, were in the weaker third of the mainstream classroom. Importantly, training not only improved the conversational ability of these children, it also improved their rates of lunchtime interaction with peers and their peer popularity ratings. We argue that there is considerable potential for supporting conversation skills in the classroom as a universal or Tier 1 intervention. Future research should explore whether conversation skills training would benefit the whole classroom.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1177/01427237231172652
Uncontrolled keywords: conversation; pragmatics; children; classrooms; intervention; social interaction; peer acceptance; topic; contingency; verbosity; null responses; Tier 1
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology > BF41 Psychology and philosophy
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Psychology
Funders: University of Kent (
Depositing User: Kirsten Abbot-Smith
Date Deposited: 12 Apr 2023 08:55 UTC
Last Modified: 24 Apr 2024 15:30 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Abbot-Smith, Kirsten.

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