Why Do Children Talk To Themselves?
Whether you are a parent, teacher, child care giver, or
a child observer you may have noticed that many children talk to themselves.
Laura Berk reports that, “private speech can account for 20-60 percent
of the remarks a child younger than 10 years makes” (78). Why do
children do this? Does it benefit the child as Vygotsky would say,
or is it just that the child is making egocentric remarks that play no
positive role in normal cognitive development as Piaget would claim?
I am going to be looking at the differences between Vygotsky’s and Piaget’s
points of view. Then, I will look at Laura Berk’s findings in her
article, “Why Children Talk to Themselves.” I will also talk about
other findings concerning this topic.
Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky were developmental psychologists
interested in the origins and processes of cognitive development.
These two psychologists disagreed sharply on the role that private speech
played in one’s cognitive development. Vygotsky called this private
speech while Piaget called it egocentric speech.
Piaget observed the activities of three to eight year
old kindergarten children, and discovered such uses of speech as verbal
repetitions of another individual, monologues during an activity, and non-reciprocal
remarks in collective settings. In these instances their speech was
not directed towards other individuals. In Piaget’s mind these patterns
of speech showed evidence of egocentrism, a sign of cognitive immaturity,
and an inability to share the perspective of another individual.
However, he argued, as the children grow older they socialize increasingly
more with others, and their speech becomes communicative. Their speech
moves away from being self- to other-oriented, a sign that they are able
to adopt the perspectives of others. A child overcomes egocentrism
by beginning to think critically and logically, causing egocentric speech
to fade away.
Vygotsky believes that a child’s cognitive development
originates in socialization activities, and then goes through a process
of increasing individuation. He argued that self-directed speech
did not show any cognitive immaturity, but did show some form of development.
He claims that private speech represents a functional differentiation in
the speech of a child, or that a child begins to differentiate between
speech that is directed towards the others and speech that is self-directed.
The second statement assumes important cognitive functions, such as planning,
monitoring, and guiding oneself while engaging in various activities.
Vygotsky also sees that as a child grows older, this self-directed speech
changes into silent inner speech. He explains that vocalization becomes
unnecessary because the child “thinks” the words instead of pronouncing
them. He also believes that older children, when faced with
obstacles, examine the situation in silence and find a solution.
When they describe their thoughts, they are similar to those of preschoolers
when thinking aloud. Vygotsky sees that private speech is connected
with children’s thinking because it helps them overcome difficulties.
As a future teacher I need to “recognize that private
speech is an essential part of cognitive development for all children”
(Berk 78). The development of private speech is important to understand.
As a child gains mastery over his or her behavior, private speech need
not occur in a fully expanded form. “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”
(Berk 78). The child, then, soon begins to say less words out loud,
and begins to think their thoughts internally. This is saying that
private speech soon becomes silent inner speech. This inner speech
is defined by Berk as: “Those conscious dialogues we hold with ourselves
while thinking and acting” (80).
Berk describes six varieties of private speech.
Egocentric communication are “remarks directed to another that make no
sense from the listener’s perspective.” An example of this is when
a child says something to another child like, “It broke,” without explaining
what or when. Fantasy play is when “a child role-plays and talks
to objects or creates sound effects for them.” An example of this
would be when a child yells “out of my way” at an object after they bump
into it. Emotional release are “comments not directed to a listener
that express feelings, or those that seem to be attempts to review feelings
about past events or thoughts.” This would be described as “a child
sitting at their desk with an anxious look on their face, repeating to
themselves, “my mom’s sick, my mom’s sick’.” Self-direction is when
“a child describes the task at hand and gives himself or herself directions
out loud.” Reading aloud is when “a child reads written material
aloud or sounds out words.” Finally, inaudible mutterings are “utterances
so quiet that an observer cannot understand them” (Berk 80).
Laura Berk and Rafael Diaz both did research to build
on Vygotsky’s findings. Berk did her research on children in the
natural setting of school, and Diaz selected to do research in the laboratory.
Berk found that “most of the comments she 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” (80). Children also talked
to themselves more when they were faced with a difficult task, when working
by themselves, or when a teacher was not available to help. They
studied the private speech in Appalachian children as well as middle class
children. They found that Appalachian children’s private speech developed
at a slower pace than those who were middle-class. One reason that
they found this to be true may come from the fact that middle-class parents
talk to their children more often than Appalachian parents. This
would also back up Vygotsky’s theory that private speech stems from social
A problem they faced was with Diaz’s research. He
observed that children who used more private speech did worse on the tasks
set before them than those who did not use private speech. He came
up with some explanations for this. He looked at Vygotsky’s zone
of proximal development (a range of various kinds of support and assistance
provided by an expert who helps children to carry out activities they currently
cannot complete but will later be able to accomplish independently).
After looking at this he concluded, that perhaps the tasks typically given
in the laboratory were not suitable for evoking private speech in all children.
Some children may have been so familiar with solving puzzles and matching
pictures that the cognitive operations they needed to succeed were already
automatic. Other children may have found these tasks so difficult
that they could not master them without help (81).
Diaz sees that private speech would not help in this case.
Next Berk went into a laboratory school at Illinois State University.
She and her team observed 75 1st through 3rd graders as they worked alone
at their desks. Every child that they observed talked to themselves
on an average of 60% of the time (Berk 81). Her team also found that
students who made many self-guiding comments out loud or quietly did better
at second-grade math. They found Vygotsky’s hypothesis to be true,
that self-guiding comments help children direct their actions. Berk
and her team also found that students who did use private speech were less
fidgety in class, and were more attentive.
Berk also looked at children who had learning disorders.
She found that “these children follow the same course of development as
do their unaffected age mates, but impairment in their cognitive processing
and ability to pay attention made academic tasks more difficult for them”
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 any one child uses self-directed
Therefore the intervention would benefit a child with
a learning disorder by creating an environment where he or she can learn
to use private speech effectively.
Rubin and Fisher in their book Your Preschooler explain that children
talk out loud to control their feelings and actions. “A preschooler
often uses this ‘thinking out loud’ technique to help him manage situations
that are beyond their immediate control, or that are emotionally painful”
(46). A child may talk to himself after his parents have tucked them
in for the night. They may say “bye-bye mommy, night-night” to comfort
them as their parents leave to go to bed. A child may also talk himself
through anger or other negative emotions. Instead of hitting another
child they may call them names, or tell them that they are mad at them.
This could also show why temper tantrums decrease as children’s language
skills increase because they begin to internalize their emotions better.
Rubin and Fisher also note that talking out loud could reinforce their
Both children and adults use private speech. You
may have noticed yourself talking out loud when you are under stress, have
a lot to do, or are trying to figure out how to put something together.
During Christmas break I observed my parent’s friend’s son who is 8 years
old. During the time that he played with his toys he continuously
talked to them. When he was frustrated at the game he was playing
he would call the game stupid and vent his anger this way. I noticed
that this is the way that he works through his difficult tasks.
As stated in Child Development, “Research has confirmed
that children, like adults, use private speech when they find tasks difficult
or when they made errors, and that when they use task-relevant private
speech, their performance on a variety of tasks improves” (281).
As future teachers and parents it is important to see how private speech
helps children perform better in schools, and also how it is also beneficial
to their development.
Berk, Laura E. “Why Children Talk to Themselves.” Scientific
November 1994: 78-83.
Bukatko, Danuta, and Marvin W. Daehler. Child Development:
Thematic Approach. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Franklin, Margery B., and Sybil S. Barten. Child Language:
New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
“Private Speech: A cognitive tool in verbal communication.”
February 28, 1998
Rubin, Richard, and John Fisher. Your Preschooler.
Johnson and Johnson, 1982.
“Review and Analysis of Vygotsky’s Though and Language.”
http://184.108.40.206/INST5931/vygotsky.html. February 28,