Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Wheels are round

Psychologists' shock-horror revelation!

Saturday's edition of The Times (of London) has a pull-out section, Body and Soul, appearently aimed largely at the worried well.

Each week this section includes a feature called ‘Breakthroughs, tips and trends’, written by John Naish. On Saturday (5 April) the lead story on this page was headed ‘The talking cure’, bringing together snippets of research publications involving various examples of what, I suppose, might be called loosely ‘the role of speech’

The first of these, ‘a study showing that five-year-olds are better at dexterity-challenging tasks when encouraged to indulge in “self-talk”’, was summarised as follows.

The study, in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, adds to a body of research that shows that throughout life, talking to oneself … can carry significant benefits. The new study found that 78 per cent of children of children performed better on motor tasks when speaking to themselves than when they were silent. Their commentaries may have aided their ability to focus.

The lead researcher, Adam Winsler, says that parents and teachers should support toddlers’ self-talking habits rather than ‘thinking of them as weird or bad’….

The study had been published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly a year ago by Elsevier, not an open-access publisher, but has recently found a wider audience following a press release from the lead researcher's university. On 1 April Tara Laskowski from the Media Relations department of George Mason University in Northern Virginia, where Adam Winsler works in the Early Childhood Language and Self-Regulation Laboratory, elaborates:

Winsler’s recent study published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly showed that 5-year-olds do better on motor tasks when they talk to themselves out loud, either spontaneously or when told to do so by an adult, than when they are silent…

Winsler says that private speech is very common and perfectly normal among children between the ages of 2 and 5. As children begin talking to themselves, their communication skills with the outside world improve.

‘This is when language comes inside,’ says Winsler. ‘As these two communication processes merge, children use private speech in the transition period. It’s a critical period for children, and defines us as human beings.’

Psychologists, doncha love ‘em?

So there you have it, interiorisation (internalisation) of outer speech to inner, to fuse into verbal thinking and create a new stage in the mental development of the child, as a unique human characteristic.

All very reassuring for those who like to argue rhetorically along the lines of ‘Research has confirmed…’ (though ‘Research continues to confirm…’ might be a better and more appropriate statement of the situation) and feel that Adam Winsler and the journal that he edits offers a more convincing source for their evidence than Vygotskii, Luriya, Gal’perin and the colossal psycho-pedagogic edifice that derived from their work.
Perhaps they are right.

But how depressing that we are still stuck with such a pre-paradigmatic psychological science, that still in the twenty-first century can be reporting empirical findings to demonstrate that wheels are round – with a major UK national newspaper, plus a good selection of the American technical media, along with presumably their educated readerships – apparentlyconsidering this news.

After all, this particular wheel has for years been proving to be a practical and effective tool in all sorts of educational contexts, including one of the most arduous of all, the pedagogy and upbringing of children with motor disorders.


Naish, J. (2008) The talking cure, Body and Soul, (pull-out section of the Sunday Times), 5 April 2008, p.3

Winsler, A., Manfra, L., Diaz, R. M. (2007) ’Should I let them talk?’ Private speech and task performance among preschool children with and without behavior problems, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, vol. 22, no 2, pp. 215-231 pages 215-231

George Mason University Children with and without behavioral problems, as well as autistic children, should be encouraged to talk aloud in classrooms (press release)

Laskowski, T. (2008) Preschool kids talking to themselves a good thing, research shows, The Mason Gazette, 1 April

Child Development Research Laboratory, George Mason University


I hope that I have not appeared unduely flippant about Adam Winsler’s work, though the date of the newsletter report (1 April), the first thing that I stumbled upon when I began following up John Naish's report on the Internet, did rather have me wondering whether this would be just another barmy-boffin story. Unfortunately, like many others I cannot readily access complete journal articles in subscription publications, so I have to appreciate their content only second- hand. The full formal abstract for this article reads as follows which, to be fair, is not quite how things come across in the papers.

Preschool and kindergarten teachers must make decisions everyday about how much to allow their children to talk out loud to themselves during various classroom activities. The present study examines the effects of children's private speech use on task performance for a group of behaviorally at-risk children and a group of control children during a speech–action coordination task. Twenty-nine behaviorally at-risk preschool children and 43 control children completed two versions of a speech–action coordination task (motor sequencing version and numeric tapping) two times, once with and once without speech instructions. Results indicated that the behaviorally at-risk children used more speech spontaneously compared to control children and performed just as well, and that both groups of children performed better when given instructions to use speech. Implications of these findings for early childhood educators’ decisions about children's private speech use in the classroom are discussed.

Most remiss of me, commenting from secondary sources, without site of the original. Maybe my problem here is more one of popularisation.

You never know, a serious contemporary psychological interest in this underpinning aspect of Conductive Education might still make a major contribution to both sides. There are enough Conductive Education centres in the Washington DC area to make something possible.

But it is not my role to act as marriage broker!

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