Why you need to know about abstract talk 

Engaging children with abstract talk in the classroom can help to develop larger vocabularies, writes Amber Muhinyi

Amber Muhinyi

Abstract talk: why you need to know about it

Do you know what abstract talk is? And if so, do you use it in your classroom? 

Well, for anyone who doesn't know, abstract talk is a conversion that goes beyond the “here and now”. It might involve guessing what will happen next, recalling what has already happened or providing explanations. Using it in early years lessons is proven to have great benefits for children. 

Research has shown that children who hear more abstract talk tend to have larger vocabularies. For example, Professor Meredith Rowe showed that preschoolers who heard more abstract talk had larger vocabularies one year later, even accounting for their initial vocabulary. Importantly, a lot of abstract talk occurs during shared book reading, as adults often go beyond describing what is on the page and engage children in discussions about the plot.


Abstract talk can also promote children’s language development as it exposes children to more new words and richer meaning. For example, explaining why a shark has sharp teeth might introduce words such as “prey” and “predator”. Abstract talk may also promote literacy, as it often involves the sophisticated vocabulary and grammar children need for their later literacy – for example, subordinate clauses such as, “he said that because he thinks…”, “he knows that the fox…”; and mental and linguistic verbs such as “knows” and “said”. 

These kinds of conversations are ones, then, that teachers should embed in lessons, and encourage parents to take part in at home. But which books are the best to use? Do some promote more abstract talk than others?

Abstract talk: which books encourage it best?

I was part of a team that conducted two recent studies comparing different storybook genres, looking at what effect they had on conversations during book reading. 

In the first study, we examined the role of story genre in parent talk during shared reading with preschool-age children. Parents and their children looked at two commercially available storybooks together: one story had a false-belief plot (where a character holds a belief that does not match reality), and the other story did not. 

Interestingly, the stories with the false-belief plot encouraged more parent talk, and a higher quality of parent talk (as measured by the amount of abstract language and other indices). Story genre did not influence the number of questions posed by parents, but more elaborative follow-ups on children's responses were provided when sharing the false-belief stories. Elaborative follow-ups provide hints and extend the conversation further, and in ways that go just beyond the child’s own current ability. 

In a second study, we visited two preschools and read to small groups of 3- and 4-year-olds. Over the course of six weeks, half of the children were read a set of stories with a false-belief plot and the other half were read stories with no false-belief plot. There was no difference in children’s vocabulary as measured by the standardised tool at the end of the study. But during the reading sessions, children who were read false-belief stories used longer sentences, more mental and linguistic verbs and more subordinate clauses.

So what’s the takeaway message from all of this? Well, we have always known that parents and early years teachers can help prepare young children for school through reading stories. But it’s clear that choosing stories with rich content, and false beliefs at the heart of them, might provide more opportunities for abstract talk, which in turn will support children’s language development and school readiness.

Amber Muhinyi is currently working in the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway University, leading the Nuffield Foundation Baby Books Project

The project is investigating how babies learn new words from picture books and is overseen by Dr Jeanne Shinskey, director of the Royal Holloway Baby Lab and Dr Jessie Ricketts, director of the Language and Reading Acquisition (LARA) lab

The two studies described were conducted by Amber in collaboration with Dr Anne Hesketh (University of Manchester), Dr Andrew Stewart (University of Manchester), and Professor Caroline Rowland (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen)

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