The role of oral communicative competence in pre-schoolers’ peer relations

Dominik Froehlich, Femke van der Wilt


Engaging in positive relations with peers is crucial for children’s future functioning. It is through peer interactions that children understand the world around them and learn how to behave in it. Children’s behavior and the underlying causes of their behavior have proved to affect childhood peer relations. Research has shown, for example, that engaging in aggressive behavior increases children’s risk of developing negative relations with peers whereas prosocial behavior has found to positively affect children’s peer relations (e.g., Menting, Van Lier, & Koot, 2011). Children’s level of oral communicative competence might be an underlying cause of the behavior children engage in. In our study, oral communicative competence entails a combination of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that enables children to use language in an appropriate and effective manner in their peer group. The findings of previous studies indicate that oral communicative competence plays a significant role in children’s relations with peers (e.g., Van der Wilt et al., 2018). This is interesting, because oral communicative competence could be rather easily and effectively promoted (Nӕrland, 2011). The question is, however, whether this is the whole story. Specifically, a question that remains unanswered is whether oral communicative competence not only affects children’s peer relations, but also influences the network patterns in early childhood classrooms. The current study investigated two hypotheses regarding the role of oral communicative competence in network patterns: (1) children build relations with peers who have similar levels of oral communicative competence and (2) children with high levels of oral communicative competence have many positive peer relations. In addition, it was explored whether an intervention focused on the promotion of dialogic classroom talk affects change in network patterns. It was specifically expected that principles derived from the theory on homophily and the social exchange theory would play less of a role after the intervention. After attaining ethical approval, a sample of 18 preschool classrooms in the Netherlands was taken. Classrooms were randomly assigned to the intervention or control group. In total, N = 334 children participated in the present study. All participating teachers were asked to orchestrate weekly classroom discussions over an eight week period. As previously mentioned, teachers either participated in the intervention group or in the control group. Teachers in the control group followed the teacher manual in orchestrating the weekly classroom discussions. Teachers in the intervention group received the same manual, but also participated in a professional development program. Teachers in the intervention group were asked to practice the use of productive talk and meta-communicative moves during the eight classroom discussions. Before and after the eight classroom discussions, several tests were administrated. The extent to which children were able to communicate in an effective manner was measured with the Dutch Nijmegen Test for Pragmatics. A sociometric assessment using peer nominations was used in order to obtain the network data. Specifically, children were asked with whom they like to play. To investigate the hypotheses, the data were analysed using a relational, quantitative-dominant crossover mixed analysis (Froehlich, 2020).

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