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Parents' speech to toddlers: the effect of play context*

  • Marion O'Brien (a1) and Keith J. Nagle (a1)


The language of mothers and fathers to their toddler sons and daughters at play with three different types of toy was analysed for both sentence types and structural elements. Two of the play contexts, dolls and vehicles, were highly sex-role stereotyped, and the third, shape sorters, was neutral. Few differences in speech were found as a function of either parent or child gender. Each of the three play contexts, however, elicited its own language pattern. With dolls, parental speech was characterized by a relatively large amount of language and a frequent use of questions and nouns, especially by contrast with vehicle play, which involved little language. Play with shape sorters elicited a high proportion of directives and attentionals and a relatively low variety in language. These results suggest that children who play frequently with dolls may receive more opportunities to learn and practise language than do children who select other toys for play. In this way early toy preferences may contribute to differential socialization by parents.


Corresponding author

Department of Human Development, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS 66045, USA.


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This work was supported by University of Kansas General Research Fund grant 3525, and preparation of the manuscript was supported in part by NIH Program Project Grant HD18955. We thank Yvonne Caldera for subject recruitment and videotaping; Connie Emerson and Linda Clement for transcription of tapes; John Colombo and Aletha Huston for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. We especially appreciate the help of the 20 parents and children who participated in this study.



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