Why Children talk to themselves

Why Children talk to themselves
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Article 11
Why Children Talk
to Themselves
Although children are often rebuked for talking to themselves out loud,
doing so helps them control their behavior and master new skills
by Laura E. Berk
A
s any parent, teacher, sitter
or casual observer will notice,
young children talk to
themselves-sometimes as much or
even more than they talk to other
people. Depending on the situation,
this private speech (as modem psychologists
call the behavior) can account
for 20 to 60 percent of the
remarks a child younger than 10
years makes. Many parents and educators
misinterpret this chatter as a
sign of disobedience, inattentiveness
LAURAE. BERKis currently a professor
of psychology and Outstanding
University Researcher at Illinois
State University. She received her
B.A.in psychology from the University
of California, Berkeley,and her
M.A. and PhD. in educational psychology
from the University of Chicago.
Berk has been a visiting scholar
at Cornell Universit:y, at the University
of California, LosAngeles,and at
Stanford University, and her research
has been funded by the U.s. Officeof
Education and the National Institute
of Child Health and Human Development.
She is co-editor of Private
Speech: From Social Interaction to SelfRegulation
and author of two widely
distributed textbooks, Child Development
and Infants, Children, and Adolescents.
She has also written numerous
journal articles.
or even mental instability. In fact,
private speech is an essential part of
cognitive development for all children.
Recognition of this fact should
strongly influence how both normal
children and children who have
trouble learning are taught.
Although private speech has presumably
been around as long as language
itself, the political climate in
Russia in the 1930s, and the authority
of a great Western cognitive theorist,
prevented psychologists and
educators from understanding its
significance until only very recently.
In Russia more than six decades ago,
Lev S. Vygotsky. a prominent psychologist,
first documented the importance
of private speech. But at that
time, the Stalinist regime systematically
persecuted many intellectuals,
and purges at universities and research
institutes were common.
In fear, Soviet psychologists
turned on one another. Some declared
Vygotsky a renegade, and
several of his colleagues and students
split from his circle. According
to the recollections of one of Vygotsky’s
students, the Communist party
scheduled a critical” discussion” in
which Vygotsky’s ideas would be
the major target. But in 1934, before
Vygotsky could replicate and extend
his preliminary studies or defend his
position to the party, he died of tuberculosis.
Two years later the Communist
party banned his published
work.
In addition to not knowing about
Vygotsky, Western psychologists and
educators were convinced by the
eminent Swiss theorist Jean Piaget
that private speech plays no positive
role in normal cognitive development.
In the 1920s, even before Vygotsky
began his inquiries, Piaget
had completed a series of seminal
studies in which he carefully recorded
the verbalizations of three- to
seven-year-olds at the J. J. Rousseau
Institute of the University of Geneva.
Besides social remarks, Piaget
identified three additional types of
utterances that were not easily understood
or clearly addressed to a
listener: the children repeated syllables
and sounds playfully, gave soliloquies
and delivered what Piaget
called collective monologues.
Piaget labeled these three types of
speech egocentric, expressing his view
that they sprang only from immature
minds. Young children, he reasoned,
engage in egocentric speech because
they have difficulty imagining another’s
perspective. Much of their talk
then is talk for themselves and serves
little communicative function. Instead
it merely accompanies, supplements
or reinforces motor activity or takes
the form of non sequiturs: one child’s
verbaIization stimulates speech in another,
but the partner is expected nei-
54 From Scientific American, November 1994, pp. 78-83. CI 1994 by laura E. Berk. Reprinted by permission.
Varieties of Private Speech
Egocentric Communication Remarks directed to another that make no sense
David says to Mark, who is sining next to him on
irom the listener’s nPrsnPrtive.
the rut’ ~lt broke” without exolainino what or when.
fantasy Play A child role-plays and talks to objects or creates Jay snaps, -Out of my way!” to a chair after he
sound effects for them. bumos inlo it.
Emotional Release Comments nol directed 10 a lislener Ihat ex.press
Rachel is sitting at her desk with an anxious look on
feelings, or those that seem to be attempts to review her face, repeating to herself, -My mom’s sick, my
feelin;;s about nast events or thouphts. mom’s sick .•
Self.Direction A child describes the task at hand and gives Carla. while doing a page in her math book says out
himself or herself directions out loud. loud. “Six”. Then. counting on her fingers. she
continues. “Seven, eight, nine, to. It’s 10, ii’s 1O.
The answer is 10.
Reading Aloud A child read written material aloud or sounds USher-lock Holm-lock, Sherlock Holme,” Tommy
out words.
reads. leaving off the final “s” in his second, more
successful attemnt.
Inaudible Muttering Utterances so quiet that an observer cannot Angela mumbles inaudibly to herself as she works on
undersland them. a math problem.
ther to listen nor understand. Piaget
believed private speech gradually
disappears as children become capable
of real social interaction.
Although several preschool teachers
and administrators openly questioned
Piaget’s ideas, he had the last
word until Vygotsky’s work reached
the West in the 1960s. Three years
after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953,
Nikita S. Khrushchev criticized
Stalin’s “rule by terror” and announced
in its place a policy that
encouraged greater intellectual freedom.
The 20-year ban on Vygotsky’s
writings came to an end. In 1962 an
English translation of Vygotsky’s
collection of essays, Thought and
Language, appeared in the U.s.
Within less than a decade, a team
led by Lawrence Kohlberg of Harvard
University had compiled provocative
evidence in support of
Vygotsky’s ideas.
In the late 1970s some American
psychologists were becoming disenchanted
with Piaget’s theory, and at
the same time, a broader range of
Vygotsky’s writings appeared in
English. These conditions, coupled
with Kohlberg’s results, inspired a
flurry of new investigations. Indeed,
since the mid-1980s the number of
studies done on private speech in
the West has increased threefold.
Most of these studies, including my
own, corroborate Vygotsky’s views.
In his papers Vygotsky described
a strong link between social experience,
speech and learning. According
to the Russian, the aspects of reality
a child is ready to master lie
within what he called the zone of
proximal (or potential) development.
It refers to a range of tasks
that the child cannot yet accomplish
without guidance from an adult or
more skilled peer. When a child discusses
a challenging task with a
mentor, that individual offers spoken
direction and strategies. The
child incorporates the language of
those dialogues into his or her private
speech and then uses it to guide
independent efforts.
“The most significant moment in
the course of intellectual development,”
Vygotsky wrote, ” … occurs
when speech and practical activity,
two previously completely independent
lines of development, converge.”
The direction of development,
he argued, is not one in which social
communication eventually replaces
egocentric utterances, as Piaget had
claimed. Instead Vygotsky proposed
that early social communication precipitates
private speech. He maintained
that sodal communication
gives rise to all uniquely human,
higher cognitive processes. By communicating
with mature members of
society, children learn to master activities
and think in ways that have
meaning in their culture.
As the child gains mastery over
his or her behavior, private speech
need not occur in a fully expanded
11. Why Children Talk to Themselves
form; the self, after all, is an extremely
understanding listener. Consequently,
children omit words and
phrases that refer to things they already
know about a given situation.
They state only those aspects that
still seem puzzling. Once their cognitive
operations become well practiced,
children start to “think words”
rather than saying them. Gradually,
private speech becomes internalized
as silent, inner speech-those conscious
dialogues we hold with ourselves
while thinking and acting.
Nevertheless, the need to engage in
private speech never disappears.
Whenever we encounter unfamiliar
or demanding activities in our lives,
private speech resurfaces. It is a tool
that helps us overcome obstacles
and acquire new skills.
C
umentlY two American research
programs, my own
and that of Rafael M. Diaz at
Stanford University, have sought to
confirm and build on Vygotsky’s fi)ldings.
Our respective efforts began
with similar questions: Do all children
use private speech? Does it help them
guide their actions? And does it originate
in social communication? To find
out, I chose to observe children in
natural settings at school; Diaz selected
the laboratory.
Ruth A. Garvin, one of my
graduate students, and I followed
36 low-income Appalachian five- to
55
2 .:. COGNITION, LANGUAGE, AND
10-year-olds, who attended a mission
school in the mountains of eastern
Kentucky. We recorded speech in
the classroom, on the playground, in
the halls and in the lunchroom
throughout the day-paying special
attention to those remarks not specifically
addressed to a listener.
Our findings revealed that egocentric
speech, Piaget’s focus, seldom
occurred. Most of the comments we
heard either described or served to
direct a child’s actions, consistent
with the assumption that self-guidance
is the central function of private
speech. Moreover, the children
talked to themselves more often
when working alone on challenging
tasks and also when their teachers
were not immediately available to
help them. In either case, the children
needed to take charge of their
own behavior.
Furthermore, we found evidence
suggesting that private speech develops
similarly in all children and
that it arises in social experience.
The private speech of the Appalachian
students changed as they grew
older in ways that were much like
those patterns Kohlberg had reported
a decade and a half earlier.
Middle-class children, such as
those Kohlberg observed, speak out
loud to themselves with increasing
frequency between four and six years
of age. Then, during elementary
school, their private speech takes the
form of inaudible muttering. The Appalachian
children moved through
this same sequence but did so more
slowly. At age 10, more than 40 percent
of their private speech remained
highly audible, whereas Kohlberg’s
IO-year-olds spoke out loud to themselves
less than 7 percent of the time.
To explain the difference, we
stuelied Appalachian culture and
made a striking discovery. Whereas
midclle-class parents frequently converse
with their children, Appalachian
parents do so much less often.
Moreover, they usually rely more on
gestures than on words. If Vygotsky’s
theory is correct, that private
speech stems from social communication,
then this tacilurn home enviLEARNING:
Early Cognitive and Physical Development
ronment might explain the slow de- ~luming to the classroolJl..-
velopment of private speech in Ap- this time, to the laborato!)’
palachian children. hODIat Illinois State Unj.
While our Appalachian study versily-l embarked on a series of
was under way, Diaz and one of his stuelies to test these intriguing passi.
graduate students, Mamie H. bilities. My team of observers care.
Frauenglass, videotaped 32 three- to fully recorded the private speech and
six-year-olds in the laboratory as task-related actions of 75 first to third
the youngsters matched pictures graders as they worked alone at their
and solved puzzles. Frauenglass desks on math problems. Their teach_
and Diaz also found that private ers considered this work to be appmspeech
becomes less audible with priately challenging for each child.
age. Yet their results, along with Graduate student Jennifer A. Bivens
those of other researchers, posed se- and I then followed the first graders
rious challenges to Vygotsky’s the- and monitored their behavior as
ory. First, many children emitted second and third graders.
only a few utterances, and some Every child we observed talked to
none at all-seeming proof that pri- himself or herself-{)n average 60
vate speech is not universal. percent of the time. Also, as in preAnother
difficulty arose. If pri- vious studies, many children whose
vate speech facilitates self-regula- remarks described or otherwise
tion, as Vygotsky believed, then it commented on their activity reshould
relate to how a child behaves ceived lower scores on homework
while working and how well the and achievement tests taken that
child performs. Yet in Frauenglass same year. Yet private speech that
and Diaz’s study, children who used was typical for a particular age premore
private speech did worse on dieted gains in math achievement
the tasks set before them! Other re- over time. Specifically, first graders
searchers had reported weak and who made many self-guiding comsometimes
negative associations be- ments out loud or quietly e1idbetter
tween private speech and perform- at second-grade math. Likewise, secance
as well. and graders who often muttered to
Diaz crafted some insightful ex- themselves grasped third-grade
planations for these outcomes. Af- math more easily the following year.
ter a close look at Vygotsky’s Also, the relationship we noted bedefinition
of the zone of proximal tween a child’s use of private speech
development, Diaz concluded that and his or her task-related behavior
perhaps the tasks typically given in bolstered Vygotsky’s hypothesis that
the laboratory were not suitable for self-guieling comments help children
evoking private speech in all chil- direct their actions. Children whose
dren. Some children may have speech included a great deal of taskbeen
so familiar with solving puz- irrelevant wordplay or emotional exzles
and matching pictures that the pression often squirmed in their seats
cognitive operations they needed or chewed on or tapped their pencils
to succeed were already automatic. against their desks.
Other children may have found In contrast, children who frethese
tasks so difficult that they quently made audible comments
could not master them without about their work used more nonverhelp.
In either case, self-guiding bal techniques to help them overprivate
speech would not be ex- come e1ifficulties, such as counting
pected. Furthermore, Diaz rea- on fingers or tracking a line of text
soned that since private speech using a pencil. Finally, children who
increases when children encounter most often used quiet private speech
difficulties, it would often coincide rarely fidgeted and were highly atwith
task failure. He suggested tentive. Overall, children who prothat
the beneficial impact of pri- gressed most rapiclly from auelible
vate speech might be delayed. remarks to inner speech were more
56
11. Why Children Talk to Themselves
advanced in their ability to control
(J1otor activity and focus attention.
The development of private speech
and task-related behavior thus went
hand in hand.
In a later investigation, Sarah T.
SpuhL another of my graduate students,
and I attempted to witness in
the laboratory the dynamic relationship
Vygotsky highlighted between
private speech and learningnamely,
private speech diminishes
as performance improves. We added
a new dimension to our research as
well: an exploration of how the interaction
between a child and an adult
canfoster self-regulation through private
speech.
We asked 30 four- and five-yearoldsto
assemble Lego pieces into a reproduction
of a model. Each subject
attempted the exercise in three IS-minute
sessions, scheduled no more than
two to four days apart. nus timing
pennitted us to track their increasing
competence. We pretested each child
to ensure that the Lego tasks would
be sufficiently challenging-something
that had not been done before.
Only novice Lego builders participated.
Two weeks before the sessions
began, we videotaped each mother
helping her child with activities that
required skills similar to those involved
in Lego building, such as fitting
blocks together and matching
their colors and shapes.
N
ext we evaluated the communication
between the
mothers and their children
as they solved problems together.
According to previous research, parenting
that is warm and responsive
but exerts sufficient control to guide
and encourage children to acquire
new skills promotes competence.
(Psychologists term such parenting
authoritative.)In contrast, both authoritarian
parenting (little warmth and
high control) and pennissive parenting
(high warmth and little control)
predict learning and adjustment
problems. Based on this evidence, we
thought that the authoritative style
might best capture those features of
adult teaching we wished to identify.
Our results revealed that children
who have authoritative mothers
more often used self-guiding private
speech. Among the four-year-olds,
those experiencing authoritative
teaching showed greater improvement
in skill over the course of the
three Leg-building sessions. Furthermore,
we did a special statistical
analysis, the outcome of which suggested
that private speech mediates
the relationship between authoritative
parenting and task success-a
finding consistent with Vygotsky’s
assumptions.
Unlike previous laboratory research,
every child in our sample
used private speech. As expected,
the children’s comments became
more internalized over the course of
the three sessions as their skill with
the Lego blocks increased. And once
again, private speech predicted future
gains better than it did concurrent
task success. In particular,
children who used private speech
that was appropriate for their ageaudible,
self-guiding utterances at
age four and inaudible muttering at
age five–achieved the greatest gains.
N
extI turned my attention to
children having serious
learning and behavior problems.
Many psychologists had concluded
that elementary school
pupils who were inattentive, impulsive
or had learning disabilities suffered
from deficits in using private
speech. To treat these children, researchers
had designed and widely
implemented training programs
aimed at inducing children to talk to
themselves. In a typical program,
children are asked to mimic a therapist
acting out self-guiding private
speech while performing a task.
Next the therapist demonstrates lip
movements only and finally asks the
children to verbalize covertly.
Despite the intuitive appeal of
this training, the approach most
often failed. I suspected that the design
of these treatments might have
been premature. The procedures
were not grounded in systematic research
on how children having
learning and behavior problems use
private speech. The spontaneous
self-regulatory utterances of such children
remained largely uninvestigated.
To fill this gap in our knowledge,
my graduate student Michael K Potts
and I studied 19 six- to 12-year-old
boys who had been clinically diagnosed
with attention-deficit hyperactivity
disorder (ADl-ID), a condition
characterized by severe inattentiveness,
impulsivity and overactivity.
Once again, we observed private
speech as the subjects worked on
mathematics problems at their desks.
We compared these observations to
the private speech of 19 normal boys
matched in age and verbal ability.
Contrary to the assumptions underlying
self-instructional training,
ADHD boys did not use less private
speech. Instead they made substantially
more audible, self-guiding
remarks than did normal boys. Furthermore,
we examined age-related
trends and found that the only difference
between the two groups was
that ADHD boys made the transition
from audible speech to more internalized
forms at a later age.
We uncovered a possible explanation
for this developmental lag. Our
results implied that ADHD children’s
severe attention deficit prevented
their private speech from
gaining efficient control over their
behavior. First, only in the least distractible
ADHD boys did audible
self-guiding speech correlate with
improved attention to math assignments.
Second, we tracked a subsample
of ADHD subjects while
they were both taking and not taking
stimulant drug medication, the
most widely used treatment for the
disorder. (Although stimulants do
not cure ADHD, a large body of evidence
indicates that they boost attention
and academic performance
in most children who take them.) We
found that this medication sharply
increased the maturity of private
speech in ADHD boys. And only
when these children were medicated
57
2 .:. COGNITION, LANGUAGE, AND LEARNING: Early Cognilive and Physical Development
did the most mature form of private
speech, inaudible muttering. relate
to improved self-control.
The promising nature of these findings
encouraged me to include children
having learning disabilities in
the research. My colleague Steven
Landau joined me in observing 112
third to sixth graders working on
math and English exercises at their
desks. Half of the children met the Illinois
state guidelines for being classified
as learning disabled: their
academic achievement fell substantially
below what would be expected
based on their intelligence. The other
half served as controls. As in the
ADHD study, we found that the chil.
dren who had learning clisabilities
used more auclible, self-guiding utterances
and internalized their private
speech at a later age than did children
who clid not have a clisability When
we looked at a subgroup of learning
disabled children who also clisplayed
symptoms of ADHD, this trend was
even more pronounced.
R
search on children suffering
from persistent learning
ifficulties vigorously supports
Vygotsky’s view of private
speech. These children follow the
same course of development as do
their unaffected age mates, but impairments
in their cognitive processing
and ability to pay attention
make academic tasks more difficult
for them. This clifficulty in turn complicates
verbal self-regulation. Our
findings suggest that training children
who have learning and behavior
problems to talk to themselves while
performing cognitive tasks amounts
to no more than invoking a skill they
already possess. Furthermore, interventions
that push children to move
quickly toward silent self-mmmunication
may be counterproductive. While
concentrating. ADHD and learningclisabled
pupils show heightened dependence
on auclible private speech in
an effort to compensate for their cognitive
impairments.
How can our current knowledge
of private speech guide us in teach-
58
ing children who learn normally and
those who have learning and behavior
problems? The evidence as a
whole indicates that private speech
is a problem-solving tool universally
available to children who grow up
in rich, socially interactive environments.
Several interdependent factors-the
demands of a task, its
social context and individual characteristics
of a child-govern the extent
and ease with which anyone
child uses self-directed speech to
guide behavior. The most profitable
intervention lies not in viewing private
speech as a skill to be trained but
rather in creating conclitions that help
children use private speech effectively
When a child hies new tasks, he or
she needs communicative support
from an adult who is patient and encouraging
and who offers the correct
amount of assistance given the child’s
current skills. For example, when a
child does not understand what an activity
entails, an adult might first give
the child explicit clirections. Once the
child realizes how these actions
relate to the task’s goal, the adult
might offer strategies instead.
Gradually, adults can withdraw this
support as children begin to guide
their own initiatives.
Too often, inattentive and impulsive
children are denied this scaffold
for learning. Because of the stressful
behaviors they bring to the adultchild
relationship, they are frequently
targets of commands, reprimands
and criticism, all of which keep them
from learning how to control their
own actions.
Finally, parents and teachers need
to be aware of the functional value
of private speech. We now know
that private speech is healthy, adaptive
and essential behavior and that
some children need to use it more
often and for a longer period than
others. Still, many adults continue to
regard private speech as meaningless,
socially unacceptable conducteven
as a sign of mental illness. As
a result, they often discourage children
from talking to themselves. At
home, parents can listen to their
child’s private speech and thus gain
insight into his or her plans, goals
and difficulties. Likewise, teachers
can be mindful of the fact that when
pupils use more private speech than
is typical for their age, they may
need extra support and guidance.
Certainly, we have much more to
discover about how children solve
problems using spontaneous private
speech. Nevertheless, Vygotsky’s
theory has greatly deepened
our understanding of this phenomenon.
Today it is helping us design
more effective teaching methods for
all children and treatments for children
suffering from learning and behavior
problems. One can only regret
that earlier generations of psychologists
and educators-and those they
might have helped-<:iid not have
the advantage of Vygotsky’s insights.
FURTHER READING
DEVELOP.lE.’IT OF PRIVATE SPEECH
A.IO.’.,;G LO••..-I~cOME ApPAL”‘CHIA;-‘;
CHILDRE:-‘: Laura E. Berk and Ruth
A. Garvin in Devt’lopmental Psychology.
Vol. 20, ~o. 2. pages 2il-
286; March 1984.
A LONGlTUD[~AL STLDY OF THE DEVELOp.
MENT OF ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHIL.
DREN’S PRIVATE SPEECH. 1. A. Bivens
and L. E. Berk in Marill.Palmt’r
Quartl7/I{, Vol. 36, No.4, pages 443-
463; Oct’abeT 1990.
VYGOTSKY: THE M,,:-.: ASO HIS CAL’SE.
Guillermo Blanck in v:,l{gotsky and
Education: Instructional Implications
and Applications of Sociohistorical
Psychology. Edited by luis C. Moll.
Cambridge University Press, 1990.
DEVElOPME:-JT MID FUNCTIO~ALSIG~IFICA:CE
OF PRIVATE SPEECH AMONG ATTE.•.•.
‘TION.DEFICIT HYrERACTIVIll’
DISORDERED A.•.•. TI NOR.1AL BOYS
laura E. Berk and Michael K Potts
in Journal of Abnormal Child Psychol.
ogy, Vol. 19, No.3, pages 357-3i7;
June 1991.
PRIVATE SPEECH. FROM SOCIAL I:-‘:TERAC.
TION TO SELF-REGULATION, Edited
by Rafael M. Diaz and Laura E.
Berk. lawrence Erlbaum Associates,
1992.
PRIVATE SPEECH OF LEAR:-JI:-‘:GDISABLED
A:-ID NORMALLY ACHIEVI:-:G CHILDREN
I:-.JCLASSROOM ACADE.11C A’T>
LABORATORY C01’>.iEXTS Laura E.
Berk and Steven Landau in Child
DC’1.’dopmC’nt, Vol. 64, NO.2, pages
556-571; April 1993.

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