John Flavell on Inner Speech

By Chia-wa Yeh, Research Coordinator and Teacher

During spring quarter, thirty-two Bing children each had a turn sitting across a table from a silver-haired, soft-spoken man who read storybooks and drew pictures of the children. The man was John Flavell, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford and a renowned developmental psychologist specializing in young children’s knowledge about the mind.

Flavell came to Stanford twenty-seven years ago, after teaching at the University of Rochester and the University of Minnesota. He originally trained as a clinical psychologist and studied developmental psychology with his mentor, Heinz Werner, at Clark University. At the time, developmental psychology in general and Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist, in particular were hardly recognized.

In the past ten years, Flavell has been examining what children know about the mind and mental experiences. Previous studies have indicated that preschool-age children do not realize that the mind is constantly active, that a person who is looking into empty space is also thinking. Most recently, Flavell, along with Adrian Wong, a Stanford graduate student, is studying what children know about private and inner speech. Speech is normally social (addressed to others) and overt (spoken out loud). However, overt speech can be private (not addressed to others) and speech can be covert (not spoken out loud) and therefore also private. Flavell and Wong seek to discover children’s awareness of these private and covert forms of speech.

In their study, Flavell and Wong presented children with three tasks. In the first, involving overt private speech, Wong sat next to a child across a table from Flavell and asked Flavell to draw the child’s face. Flavell looked at the child, talking aloud to himself as he drew: “Here are the ears. The eyes are up here.…” Meanwhile, Wong asked the child, “John’s talking right now, isn’t he?” He then followed up with questions about who John was talking to.

Almost all of the four-year-olds and 77 percent of the three-year-olds understood that Flavell was engaged in private speech, though overt. This finding was surprising because two of the usual cues for social speech were present: eye contact (looking at the child) and audible, comprehensible speech. In addition, the speech was about the listener.

The second and third tasks, involving private covert speech, were similar to each other. In the second, Wong asked Flavell to read the first page of a story and then asked him to read the second page without making any noise. In the third task, Wong asked Flavell to count some crayons and then to count without making any sound. The questions to the child were whether John was saying story words and numbers to himself, inside his head. The children didn’t perform on these two tasks quite as well as they did on the first one but some children did well. The children answering no on these tasks apparently believed that Flavell was not engaged in any internal speech. Seeing no overt signs of talking, these children probably didn’t imagine that he was talking to himself inside his head.

Simplifying the tasks in a follow-up study helped some of the children who did not initially recognize silent speech. In a follow-up reading task, Flavell read a picture book containing only repetition of the word hiccup.He pointed to the words while reading out loud and later continued moving his finger over them while reading silently. Wong then asked, “Is John saying hiccup to himself?” For a follow-up counting task, Flavell counted sets of three objects, saying “one, two, three” out loud and then just pointing. During the silent counting time, with Flavell still pointing, Wong asked, “Is John saying ‘one, two, three’ to himself?” Most of the children who had performed poorly on the inner speech task in the initial study did well on these two tasks.

Flavell concluded that preschool children do have some understanding of nontypical forms of speech (i.e., private overt speech, and covert speech). In favorable circumstances, with facilitated tasks, they are able to recognize both that speech can be private even when spoken out loud and that speech can be internal.

This study involved Flavell in direct work with children for the first time in decades. About his experience as a confederate in the study, Flavell smiles, saying, “I really enjoy it. It’s like a second childhood for me.”

John Flavell and Beverley Hartman, Head Teacher, co-authored What Children Know about Mental Experiences. The article has been accepted for publication in the journal Young Children.