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European Journcl of Psychology of Education

1993, Vol. VIII, n? 4, 473-486

1993, I.S.PA

Semiotic Mediation in Guiding Interactions

With )bung Children: The Role of
Context and Communication Handicap
on Distanciation in Adult Discourse
Michel Ddeau
Eva Gand.on
Veronique Thburet
Universite de Rennes 2, France

This paper pays attention to two factors often neglected in the studies
of instructional or guidance interaction: the specijity of the child as
interlocutor and the constraints exerted by the properties of the tasks
on the semiotic means used to guide the child. Following Sigel's
'distanciation hypothesis' we have studied the 'distancing' characteristics
of the adult's discourse adressed to the child in two groups of dyads,
one with deaf (N = 5), the other with hearing children (N = 7) aged
around 24 months, in two tasks: Symbolic Play and Picture - Book
reading. The main resultsindicate a strong effect of the tasks, SP allowing
more distanciation than PB for both categories. Ii-dyads show few
differences in SP task but less ability to share references in Picture-Book
reading. It appears also that with such young children, the distancing
potential might be conveyed by the forms and pragmatic functions and
not only by the semantic components of adult's utterances.

The central thesis of Vygotsky's theory is that higher forms of mental activity develop
by the means of 'mediation processes'. In that theory, 'mediation' has a general and deep
anthropological meaning. Work is considered as the major form of mediation that not only
changes Nature, but also transforms and, literally, 'humanizes' Man. Indeed, working is acting
for an end that is not one's own, that is not devoted to one's own 'natural' instincts, but

This research has been supported by a grant of the Institut National de 1a Recherche Medicale (INSERM) n? eRE



is in relation to an idea, to a non-biological, a social end: thus, mediation is from the beginning
an interpersonal process framed by social organization.
This first main idea has to be completed by a second one coming from the Hegelian
analysis of the first forms of social division of labor. They involve a social separation between
the functions of planning and supervision (what the Master does), and practical execution
(what the Slave does). In advanced societies, the two roles are played by the same actor. Similarly,
the development of Higher Psychological Processes follows a line that goes from interpersonal
guided activity to an autonomous planned and executed one. The 'general law of mental
development', even quoted by Vygotsky from P. Janet, is rooted in this general philosophical
frame. There is an anthropological necessity to analyze interactional and interpersonal processes
in the mastery of Higher Mental Processes.
This general analysis has a psychological translation. The first thesis gave birth to the
notion of semiotic means as 'psychological tools' that parallels that of material tools and
allows to extend to Higher Mental Processes the analysis of mediation of the material world.
Indeed any process needs an instrument, and semiotic means constitute for Vygotsky the main
instrument of mediation, the 'psychological tools' by which Higher Mental Processes are
elaborated. From a developmental perspective, one should say that the development of higher
forms of mental activity arises from the appropriation by the child of the semiotic devices
that allow both to represent states of the world and to regulate interpersonal interactions.
Among them, language plays a major role on both cognition and communication by virtue
of its semiotic properties. The concepts of 'Zone of Proximal Development' and of 'Instruction'
have been introduced to state on the ontogenetic plane the second aspect of the anthropological
analysis of mediation: the child is able to participate in activities he doesn't yet master under
the condition that it is shared with a more expert partner, and, complementarily, adults (or
more expert peers), offer the chiild 'instructions' that help him/her to engage in and master
some parts of the activity.
These general claims have given a new impetus to functional-developmental analysis.
Nevertheless, while offering new ways to analyze psychological development, they leave many
questions unanswered to which recent developmental research contributed although often
reformulating them, designing new concepts to fit different functions.
Thus, 'routines' or 'tutoring interactions' have been described (Wood, Ross, & Bruner,
1976; Ratner & Bruner, 1978; Wertsch, Dowley, Budwig, & MacLane, 1980; Deleau, 1985),
in which two partners (either an adult or a more experienced peer) engage in a joint activity.
Several general functions of the tutor have been largely documented since this pioneering work
(Deleau, 1990). The first is responsiveness. The tutor's acts are contingent to the child's both
temporally and cognitively, especially concerning the difference between what the child has
done and what was required by the task at that moment (Wood & Middleton, 1975; Wood,
Ross, & Bruner, 1976; Ochs, Schieffelin, & Platt, 1979; Wertsch et al., 1980; Rogoff, Malkin,
& Gilbride, 1984; Valsiner, 1984; Pecheux, 1990).
The second function is one of framing the child's activity. Under focus are especially
metacognitive interventions by which the tutor analyzes explicitely the main characteristics
of the situation or of those of the child's actions, reformulates the goals, the reasons of failure
and so forth (Heckhausen, 1987; McNaughton and Leyland, 1990).
Lastly, the third function concerns the regulation of joint activity. It has to do with such
things as the tutor doing the task himself instead of the child or, on the contrary, limiting
the number of degree of freedom of the task, acting in order to help the child being successful
in doing himself a subtask. Or with direct or indirect means of controlling the child's activity
(Wertsch and Sammarco, 1988).
Depending on the difference between what is required by the task and what the capacities
of the child are , the relative importance of the three functions is not the same: when the
distance is great, the first and the third ones are more important; as the child becomes more
autonomous in the situation, the second one takes precedence, helping the child to 'take
distances' or to 'go beyond' the here and now of the situation.



Language appears to playa major role both as a mean of communication and as a semiotic
device, for the child and the adult. Many research has been devoted to the study of language
acquisition by the child. They indicate that the language adressed by the adult to the child
is of prominent importance, and even, they build their developmental analysis on the
transformation of language adressed to children as these ones become more experts.
This constitute a second major trend on which Vygotsky's conception has been extended
in the last years. A first line of analysis comes from the reexamination of Vygotsky's semiotic
conception (Wertsch, 1985, 1991). As M. Hickmann (1978) observes, while Vygotsky assumes
the general claim that private speech is a result of interiorisation of social speech, he did
not develop the 'how' of such an analysis. Pragmatic and discursive aspects of speech adressed
to the child while solving a problem offer appropriate means. The analysis of requests or
directives for instance (Hickmann, 1978; Wertsch & Hickmann, 1978) shows one first dimension
that is the degree to which the comprehension of an utterance implies the understanding of
the overall goal of the task. Goal-dependent utterances are more difficult than goal-independent
ones which require simply to use an automatized general routine, for instance to look at the
referent. An other dimension is the use of non verbal procedures in helping to understand
the message: depending on the existence or not of a non-verbal deictic (pointing) the same
request ('now, what is next?') can be qualified as goal-dependent (no pointing) or goalindependent (pointing of one piece). In the latter case, the request is nevertheless more goalbinded than a question like 'What color is that?' and can be expected to playa different
role in later problem-solving activity, confronting the child to plan and organize subroutines
in the task execution.
A second line of extending Vygotsky's analysis focuses on the proper cognitive functions
of mediation exerted by language. It is illustrated by the 'distanciation hypothesis' (Sigel, 1982).
The concept has been introduced 'to denote the psychological separation of the person from
the immediate, ongoing present; (1982, p, 50). It leads to analyze the statements of the adults
from the point of view of their distancing potential: low level distancing demands merely intend
to focus the child's attention on something present or to offer him a label; medium level
demands intend to analyze the given situation (for instance looking for similarities or differences
between objects); finally, high level demands push him to go beyond the given situation (displaced
references, alternative solutions, imaginary actions...).
In that conception, the use of distancing strategies is crucial for the child's accessing
to high level mental operations. It has been shown that there is a positive correlation between
the cognitive level of children and the frequency of use of medium and high level distancing
strategies in the family (Sigel, 1982; Sigel & McGilIicudi-Delisi, 1984). Recently, Palacios,
Gonzalez, and Moreno (1992) studied in that perspective 68 dyads with 22 month-old children
in a task of tridimensional construction. The results confirm the validity of Sigel's general
predictions. The highest performing children are to be found in dyads where the mother uses
more verbal instructions, and less physical actions in controlling the child's behaviour. However;
as the children are quite young, there are not so much medium or high level distanciation
demands. In that case it is the number of questions (whatever their distancing level) that is
correlated with the children's cognitive and verbal performance.
Such studies on discursive and cognitive aspects of language used by the adults have
broadened the empirical basis of the Vygotskian perspective. Nevertheless, they leave still opened
many questions, two of which we turn to now. While considering first general processes, most
of the empirical studies share the tacit assumption that the language adressed to the child
depends for the main part on personal or cultural characteristics of the mothers, consequently,
they do not take into consideration the semiotic properties of the specific situation in which
they analyze language. Secondly, they have been scarcely interested in the characteristics of
the child as a communication partner. In the following we will focus on these two issues.
In most of the research, the tasks within which interactions are studied are the same:
free play with or without objects (Labrell, 1992), picture-book reading (Ninio & Bruner, 1978;
Palacios, et aI., 1992); jigsaw puzzles (Wertsch et aI., 1980; McNaughton & Leyland, 1990);



embedding forms (Heckhausen, 1987); tower building (Wood & Middleton, 1975; Wood, Ross
& Bruner, 1976), are the most common. They have been chosen considering general criteria.
They are adapted to the general level of development of preschool children and are not unknown
to the adults who often willingly interact. Other considerations are more practical ones: children
are well motivated by such tasks, the tasks make it easy to observe verbal and non verbal
behaviour in adults and children, and so forth. As each research has it own's tasks and looks
for the most general properties of tutoring interactions, there is an implicit assumption that
they are equivalent considering the interaction and particularly the type of adult discourse
they allow.
Such an assumption is hardly acceptable. The means to communicate are not independent
of the specific contexts in which they are nested. Indeed, in a task of embedding forms, the
adult faces the problem of practically guiding the child's action; in a paper-folding task, the
sequential constraints are prominent, while in a 'reading picture-book' task, the main problem
is not to 'pilot' the child's activity but to share meaning on what cannot be so easily shown
by pointing and has to be 'spoken'.
A second distinction has to be made considering the type of semiotic materials proposed
to the child: a geometric form to embed in an appropriate hole is a 'real object' in itself,
but a picture-book leads to talk about images, about two-dimensions representations of a threedimensional reality; and playing with puppets imply the ability to understand what they stand
for. To engage himself in an interaction the child has to understand that that particular image
or figure 'stands for' something else. The idea here is that a given task conveys its proper
semiotic constraints that apply on discourse processes both from a cognitive and a communicative
perspective. The idea is not a new one in itself, an author such Sigel for instance observes
that classifications and memory problems are easier for lower class black preschoolers with
real objects than with pictures (1970). He also refers to task's factors as being important (1982,
1983) when he states that 'the task in which the parent and the child were engaged appeared
to be the most salient dimension along which parental behaviors varied' (1982, p. 64).
Nevertheless, his subsequent analysis turns on the relative inter-tasks permanence of parents
attitudes and behaviour and the relationships between parent's teaching strategies and child's
outcomes. Thus, although it is not a new idea, it has been scarcely taken into account in
empirical research and the first aim of this paper is to study the effect of the semiotic material
used in a task on the adult's discourse in terms of cognitive (here 'distancing') characteristics.
The second issue concerns the effect of the characteristics of the child as a communication
partner. Indeed, most of the research carried on the Vygotskian perspective share the implicit
assumptions that a) causality operates in one direction: from adult's behaviours towards the
child's psychological development and b) the most important factor to be taken into consideration
is the level of development of the child facing the task. They scarcely consider the specificities
of the child as a communication partner.
The most difficult problem indeed is to distinguish between the child's level of competence
in the task and his level of competence as a communication partner. The study of children
with deficiencies offers on that point interesting opportunities that have been explored by several
Although interactional routines between children with deficiencies and their parents are
generally well fitted to the child's overall cognitive development (Bremer, 1985), it has been
shown that play interactions are often altered. Parents of deficient children often ignore such
events, or transform them in didactic exercises. They have a general tendency to overcontrol
the child's activity and to inhibit the normal processes by which children improve their capacity
to master new skills and construct their competence motivation (Jones, 1977; Mogford, 1979).
Sigel et al. (1983) have compared two groups of preschool-aged children, one with language
disorders (no hearing trouble) constituting a Communication Handicapped group (CH), the other, without handicap (NCH), matched for sex, age, and parent's educational level. They
found that parents of CH children showed less high and medium level demands, used more
pointing and more attention-getting devices, were less sensitive to their child's mood or ability



than the parents of NCH children. In a later paper, Sigel and McGillicudi-Delisi (1984) indicate
that parents of 4-year-old children with language production trouble, evidence more low-level
distancing demands regardless of the task in which parent and child are engaged. However,
they do not differ from other parents in the frequency of use of high level demands but,
generally, ask more questions. The author's interpretation is that these parents try both to
use distancing demands and to encourage their child to verbalize through inquiry techniques.
Another study by Wertsch and Sammarco (1988) shows that the mothers of school-aged children
with communication disorders undertake more strategical steps in the task of copying a complex
array than do mothers of ordinary children.
Thus, it can be concluded that the fact that a child presents language and communication
disorders influences the adult's behaviour while interacting with him, and potentially affects
the child's cognitive development. This conclusionis nevertheless mortgaged: it is hardly possible
to know whether the parents adapt to the communication disorder in itself or to the lower
cognitive ability level of the child. In Sigel's study for instance, CH children are superior to
NCH children on all of the eight cognitive measures studied. The category of 'language and
communication disorders' is certainly a too broad one, and implies too complex aetiological
factors to allow a clear distinction between cognitive and communicative levels.
Sensory deficiencies offer on that point better opportunities than other developmental
troubles (Mellier & Deleau 1991) and particularly pre-lingual deafness: in that case, it is possible
to find children who suffer from major (profound deafness) but peripheral troubles. Thus,
their most important problem is one of communication, at least when they are young, while
their cognitive potential is preserved. They offer a better means to disentangle communicative
and cognitive aspects of development than other communication disorders. In order to study
the effects of the child as a communication partner on the adult's discourse, it would be
more convincing to study the effects of profound pre-lingual deafness of young children without
cognitive deficits than any other trouble.
Some empirical work has been published on that point. In infancy, the main difficulties
seem to reside in the capacity of establishing and maintaining contingency between the child
and his partner. The greater efficiency of the deaf mothers underlined by several authors
(Schlesinger & Meadow, 1972; Gregory & Barlow, 1986) appears to be linked not so much
with the linguistic system they use, but with their capacity to adapt to the temporal pattern
of the child's activity and to the specific functional consequence of deafness: using sequentially
the looking behaviour to control the ongoing action on objects and to communicate, making
more pauses and longer ones, being less intrusive considering the child's ongoing action...
With school-aged children, it has been shown that hearing adults - even professionals often overcontrol the conversation and that there is a negative correlation between control
by the adult and mastery of speech in children (Wood et aI., 1982).
These results confirm firstly that deafness raises specific communication problems in the
field of discourse processes, that cannot be reduced to oral/sign language controversy. They
confirm, secondly, that in most cases, the main consequence of deafness is to disorganize
the semiotic means by which are performed the tutoring interactions that contribute to shape
the cognitive: development of the child. This allows to think, considering the importance of
mediation processes in cognitive development, that cognitive troubles that have been described
in deaf children, adolescents or adults by several authors (for instance Oleron, 1972; Furth,
1966) might be a consequence of communication disorders as the general Vygotskian perspective
would predict (cf. Wood, 1986) and not because they lack oral language use per se (Oleron,
1972) or they suffer insufficient stimulations owing to their isolation from general social life
(Furth, ]976).
Nevertheless the empirical basis they offer is still insufficient and many research is needed
to better describe the effects of deafness on adult's scaffolding behaviour, especially during
the period when language normally develops in the hearing child, that is during the pre-school
years. In order to go further in that direction, the second aim of this paper is to study the
effects of profound deafness on adult's discourse in terms of cognitive (here: 'distancing')



characteristics. More precisely, we have investigated the differential effect of the tasks in two
categories of dyads: dyads with hearing infants and dyads with deaf ones, on the 'distancing
characteristics' of the language adressed to the child by his/her adult partner.

General predictions
We have chosen the end of the second year as age-target in respect of the qualitative
changes in that period where children show an important increase of complex 'semiotic
behaviors': especially Language, Symbolic Play and Image or Picture Comprehension.
The two tasks selected are a task of 'Symbolic-Play' and a task of 'Looking at a PictureBook'. They differ in semiotic complexity on the following point: in the Symbolic-Play situation,
a large part of the signification is conveyed by non-verbal means (conventional or counterconventional use of figures or objects...) that are mastered earlier than verbal ones on an
imitative basis; on the contrary, exchanging about a Picture-Book implie the use of more verbal
means and is mastered later by the child. Thus the comparison between the tasks for one
group will be done on the basis of the same general cognitive level. The prediction here is
that the communication in the Symbolic-Play task will be easier and that the adult's discourse
will show consequently more medium and high distancing demands than in the Picture-Book
Concerning the Deaf/Hearing comparison, we assume that the general cognitive
development during the first two years is of the same kind for the two categories (at least
for children with no other than auditory troubles as will be the case here (see infra). In that
respect, we assume first that the same effects of the tasks will be observed and that, second,
considering the communication handicap of deafness, adults discourse will be for each task
less distancing in dyads with deaf children considering their general difficulty to establish and
maintain joint reference.

In the Symbolic Play task 14 objects (from 'Play-Mobil' and 'Fischer-Price' collections)
are displayed on a small table. They are organized around two themes: the family (figures:
male and female adults, child, baby, craddle...) and the farm (figures: horse and cart, cow,
small animals: dog, hen...). The adult is just invited to 'play with the child and the small figures'.
In the Picture-book task, the book comprises 9 independent pictures: 3 with photographs
of toys; 3 simple drawings (Dick Bruna Albums) of birds, a girl and a flower; 3 more complex
drawings (herb, pine-cone, feather). The adult is invited to 'look at the book with the child'.

Dyads with deaf subjects (D-dyads). They are five. These dyads are engaged with others
in a larger longitudinal study on the processes of psychological development in deaf infants.
All children are profoundly deaf (hearing loss > 90 dB) and have been diagnosed before the
age of 12 months. Their parents have normal hearing. They are all engaged in education
programs and volunteered to participate'. The children's cognitive development is considered
as normal using Uzgiris and Hunt scale (Lepot-Froment, 1988). The children are between 22
and 24 months old.
Dyads with hearing children (Hsdyads), They are 7 and have been examined in day-care



centers. Children are considered as normally developing although no formal evaluation has
been done. The adults interacting with the children are not the parents but the adult considered
as the most familiar with each child. We do not consider this point as problematic: the variations
that might have introduced the difference between parents and a familiar adult in a day carecenter are slight ones in comparison with the contrast between deaf and hearing children as
communication partners. Children are between 21 and 24 months old.

The tasks are proposed twice (once a week during two weeks) to the dyads, in a room
familiar to the child in the day-care center or in the special school center. The order of
presentation is the same for all: first the Symbolic Play and then the Picture-Book. The exchanges
are video-recorded. The first 5 minutes of interaction are then transcribed and coded following
a grid adapted from Sigel and presented in Appendix (Sigel et aI., 1987). The intercoder
agreement on a sample of 200 utterances has been of .86.
Although, the initial grid has been established to be used with children aged 4-5 and
certainly needs to be adapted to dialogues with younger children, we decided nevertheless to
use it here in its original form in order to allow comparisons with other research (for example,
Sigel, 1984; Palacios, 1992). We will return to this point in the discussion.

Overall number of utterances
All utterances produced by the adults have been transcribed and analyzed. The general
results are presented in Table 1.

Table 1
Repartition of adult's utterances on the different levels of distanciation for the D-dyads and
the H-dyads
Distanciation level


Symbolic Play





























Note. DO: irrelevant utterances; Dl: low level demands; D2: medium level demands; D3: high level demands. D: dyads
with deaf subjects; H: dyads with hearing children.

There are great differences in the total amount of utterances between the two categories
but slight ones between tasks for each category: for D-dyads in Symbolic Play, 399 utterances



vs 494 in Picture book reading; for H-dyads, 1072 in Symbolic-Play vs 1155 in Picture book.
A part of utterances was irrelevant to the referents introduced by the tasks, and concerned
the general taking care of the child. They have been categorized as DO and are not integrated
in the analysis of distanciation. They nevertheless give an indication on the capacity of the
dyad to engage a shared activity on the proposed material: the lower is the number of DO
utterances, the greater is the capacity of the dyad to be concentrated on topics relevant to
the proposed tasks.

Analysis of DO utterances
As there are great differences in absolute values, comparisons have been made on a relative
basis: the 010 of DO utterances related to the total number, of which the table 2 gives the values.

Table 2
Relative number (%) of adult's DO utterances in the two settings








Sirnbolic play


Note. D: dyads with deaf subjects; H: dyads with hearing children.

A two factors (2 categories * 2 tasks) ANOVA has been performed that indicates an effect
of the category (F(l,20) = 6.7, P < .01), no direct effect of the task. The interaction between
the two factors is somewhat beyond the statistical threshold (p < .09). Thus D-dyads are more
often 'out' of the topics introduced by the tasks, especially in the picture-book one. This is
confirmed by the differences in mean duration of sessions for the different groups (Table 3).

Table 3
Mean duration of sessions (in s)

Symbolic Play

Picture Book







No/e. D: dyads with deaf subjects: H: dyads with hearing children.



Distanciation: Analysis of DI-D3 utterances

We have considered first the raw number of utterances. It has been analyzed by a 3 factors
(2 categories (D/H) * 2 tasks * 3 levels of distanciation) ANOYA which indicates an effect
of categories (F(l,60) = 50.9, p < .0001), distanciation level (F(2,60) = 94.05, p < .0001),
interaction between category and D-Ievel (F(2,60) = 5.69, p < .005) and of interaction between
task and D-Ievel (F(2,60) = 4.58, p < .01). Thus not only deafness lowers the raw number
of utterances, but it provokes a change in the distribution of these utterances between the
three D-Ievels compared to the distribution in H-dyads, this change being also influenced by
the task. This general result has to be confirmed and/or relativized by a more specific analysis
carried on relative data (0/0), and comparing the effects of categories and tasks for each Dlevel utterances.

Table 4
Relative number (%) of utterances in Dl to D3 levels for the D-dyads and H-dyads
Levels of distanciation


Symbolic Play


Picture Book


















Note. 01: low level demands; 02: medium level demands; 03: high level demands. 0: dyads with deaf subjects; H: dyads
with hearing chi]dren.

Considering relative data, the first point to be underlined is the great proportion of D1
utterances for the two categories. The task appears to be the main factor influencing D1
utterances' distribution (F(l,20) = 5.87, p < .05; no effect of category, or interaction between
category and task). The task plays also the major role in D2 distribution (F(l,20) = 24.06,
p < .0001), whereas the factor category is not far from the signification threshold (F(l,20)
= 2.93; p < .10); no interaction between task and category. At last, category exerts an effect
on D3 level IF(l,20) = 5.5 p < .02; no statistical effect of task or of interaction).
It is thus confirmed that the task exerts a somewhat complex influence on 'distanciation'
characteristics of the utterances adressed to young children depending at least in part on the

The results we have presented are compatible with three of the four predictions we stated
formerly: on the one hand that SP task will a) be easier and b) give birth to more 'distancing'



utterances than PB task, on the other hand that the main effects of the tasks as communication
contexts will be of the same kind between the two categories.
It appears indeed firstly, that Symbolic-Play (SP) is a communication context in which
it is easier to engage the two-year-old child's activity than the Picture-Book (PB) reading:
the total duration of session is higher, and the relative number of DO utterances lower than
in PB task. It is also the case that one can find in SP task a relative number of D2 and
D3 utterances higher than in PB task. It can thus be stated that SP offers at that age better
opportunities for the childs to encounter higher level distancing demands from his/her parents
than PB.
A second argument is the following: we found very few interaction effects between task
and categories, what indicates that the processes generated by the tasks and concerning the
level of distanciation are not qualitatively different between the two categories. Differences
have to be seen as merely quantitative ones.
The origins of these quantitative differences between the dyads remain nevertheless unclear.
The first point is that for both categories and for both tasks, the utterances classified as low
distanciation level (Dl) represent more than 60-70010 of the total number of utterances. A similar
result has been indicated by Palacios et al. (1992). That raises the question of using a
classification firstly elaborated to be adapted to older children whose cognitive level is higher
than the children we have studied here. Indeed, if one can agree with the idea of levels of
distanciation, the effectiveness of such or such is always relative to the child's own level, and
guiding interactions take that information into account. This general statement can be supported
by some part of our data.
Firstly, if we look in more details into Dl utterances, some interesting differences appear
between the four categories of utterances: 'describe' is somewhat heterogenous with the three
others; it 'provides elaborate information about a single instance', what is much more from
the 'distanciation potential' view that getting attention engaged ('observe'), offer a global label
('label') or show how ('demonstrate') using imitative processes. When they 'describe', adults
indicate a specific level of reference (in contrast with 'label' which characterizes a reference
to the whole object). It implies an agreement on the object of attention and, from the point
of view of discourse processes, the minimal capacity of taking into account presuppositions.
On that base, it can be considered as more distancing than 'observe', or 'label', or 'demonstrate'
although belonging to Dl level following Sigel's criteria. Interestingly, the relative frequency
of 'describing' utterances raises with Symbolic-Play task (from 18 to 38% in D-dyads, and
from 20 to 43% in H-dyads). This confirms the result of a greater 'distancing potential' of
this task.
Secondly, it is possible to consider not only the content but also the form of utterances.
Palacios et al. (op. cit.) state for instance that frequent and stable low distancing demands
formulated as questions can push young children to solve problems themselves whereas statements
- even distancing ones - offer them a ready-made solution. The same idea is expressed
by DeLoache and DeMendoza (1987) who state that interrogative modality is typical of verbal
interactions with 'old' babies. A secondary analysis of the repartition of interrogative utterances
has been made in that perspective and gives two main informations. The first is that it does
not confirm any preminence of the interrogative mode in the tasks that have been proposed.
On the total number of utterances: 14% for PB and 16% for SP for H-dyads: 9,5% for PH
and 11,5% for SP considering D-dyads. Nevertheless it indicates as a second information that
the functions of interrogatives are much more diverse in the Symbolic-Play. Indeed, in PH
task, most of the interrogatives are devoted to bring the child giving labels, definitions or
localization (what belongs to D3 level): in PH task they represent 89% of all interrogatives
in H-dyads, and 66% in D-dyads; whereas in SP task they represent only respectively 51 and
59%. In other words, the SP task opens the functions in which interrogatives are used especially
considering utterances belonging to D1 and D2 levels, and offers a more stimulating basis
for the children to actively participate in the course of interaction.
Considering the preceding indications, it appears that the task constitutes a major feature



of the interactional context in which interdiscursive operations develop to the point that it
imposes its constraints, even in the cases where severe communication impairments exist between
children and adults.
This leads us to consider the differences that can be specific to D-dyads when compared
to H-dyads. The first and major result is about the joint capacity of child and adult to share
information about the referents introduced by the tasks. On that point, D-dyads are inferior
to H-dyads in PB task compared to SP one, either considering the total duration of the session
or the relative frequency of DO utterances. Thus generally speaking, the communication
impairment supported by the auditory deficiency lowers the number of distancing demands
whatever the level of distanciation considered, what seems to be partly in agreement with our
fourth prediction of more distanciation in H-dyads. Nevertheless, we had in mind that it could
be found both in PB and in SP tasks and that it will be efficient also between the three
levels. On that point, our prediction is just partly satisfied. In SP task, no difference has
been found on session duration. Considering now the three distanciation levels, results are
not clear cut. No effect of category appears concerning DI utterances distribution. On D2
level, there is a tendential effect of category but the task still plays the major role. This 'tendency'
might be due to the fact that H-dyads have both a higher proportion than D-dyads of D2
utterances in SP, and a lower one in PB, what is in close relation with the greater proportion
of D3 utterances in PB task for H-dyads. In that last case, the effect of category is clear
as one finds no effect of task and no interaction. But as we have seen formerly, the highest
proportion of D3 utterances depends on the high frequency of interrogatives devoted to bring
the child giving labels, definitions or localization. It could be an artifact rooted in the kind
of Picture-Book proposed to our dyads.
It is thus difficult to get a clear analysis of the origins of the differential repartition of
utterances on the three levels considered separately. It seems more fruitful to consider the
'profiles' of the mean number of utterances of each distanciation level between categories.
These 'profiles' are not parallel. For D-dyads, the most important proportion of low-level
utterances (Dl) is to be found in the Picture-Book task. On the contrary, it is in the SymboIicPlay task that the two categories of dyads show the greatest proportion of medium level
utterances. On D3 level, H-dyads have their highest proportion in Picture-book task. To that
we can add some indication issued from a finer analysis of the different functions within
each level. Concerning level Dl, the difficulties in 'getting the attention of the child' are expressed
by a greater proportion in D-dyads of 'observe' utterances (42010 vs 28%) and of 'label' ones
in H-dyads in the two tasks (51070 vs 29070). No major difference in D2 level whatever the
task; more 'displaced references' for H-dyads (29% vs 11010) in PB task for D3 level.
Although it doesn't solve the problem of a possible artifact, it gives, together with data
relative to session duration and to relative frequency of DO utterances, a better plausibility
to our prediction of a 'lower distanciation effect' of communication impairment in D-dyads.
It must be underlined though, that the main effect of deafness results in the important reduction
of the number of utterances on a background of qualitative similarity between the two categories
of subjects.
Such a result comfirms some of the studies we have formerly referred to, which indicate
that one of the main problem of adults interacting with very young deaf children is to establish
specific skills of divided attention between objects and people (Wood et aI., 1986) in the
establishment of joint reference. It adds at least one more indication. One of the means to
help constructing such skills is to offer to D-dyads tasks that make it easier both to 'attend
together' to the same object and to share conventional meaning about it. No doubt that for
the level of development we have studied in this paper, a Symbolic-Play task offers better
opportunities than a Picture-book reading one. Not only it makes the child engage longer
and more actively in the joint activity but it allows more 'distancing' attitudes from his/her
adult partner.
Thus 'distancing' is not independent of the task, that is of the interactional context in
which discours is rooted. It can thus hardly be operationalized only by the semantic features



of the utterances but has to integrate the pragmatic characteristics of the 'distanciative discourse'
as have noted Palacios et al. (1992) about the possible role of questions as distancing devices
with very young children. This leads to a second, more general point on which Sigel's analysis
can be completed. The 'distancing potential' of an utterance does not reside only in the
proposition, nor in the adult's intention or referential perspective in itself, but also in the
child's own level confronted with the constraints of the task. Thus it is not so much the task
per se that exerts pragmatic constraints than the distance between the actual capacities of
the child, the intention of his/her partner and the characteristics of the task. Performing a
more precise analysis of the pragmatic aspects of discourse productions adressed to the child
by the adults seems necessary to assess better and explore more deeply the distanciation

We are indebted to the parents and children who participated in the research and to the staffs of the following early
education programs who have contributed to the general designing of the research and include the varied protocols
in their every-day professional life: Centre Com prendre et Parler et Institut Royal des Sourds et Aveugles (Bruxelles,
Belgique); Centre La Persagotiere et Centre Paul Cezanne, (Nantes et Fougeres, France). We would like to thank also
the staff of the Day-care Centers 'Tannou' and 'H. Wallon' (Rennes, France), for the facilities to work with the hearing

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Distancing demands (from Sigel et al; 1987)
D1: Low level demands
Observe - To attend using any sense. Getting attention engaged.
Label - To name an object, an action, a place. Does not involve inference or
Demonstrate - Show primarily through action and gestures, the 'how' process.
Describe - Provide elaborate information about a single instance.
D2: Medium level demands
Sequence Compare Combine * Correct -

Order events or articulate the steps of a task in a temporal succession.

Describe, define or list the properties of two separate instances.
Classify and/or organize components into a unified whole.
Reformulates giving the proper expression.



* Define

- Defining 'by use' or a functional characteristic.

* Prompt to - make-believe with objects or label objects high level demands.

Generalize Plan Displaced references * Open questions -

To apply or transfert knowledge from one setting to another.

Formulate conditions to carry out a set of actions in an orderly way.
Refer to an object, a person or an event not present in time or space.
Supposed to induce general statements (ex: on what will be done)


Several of the functions described by Sigel, especially in the high level category have had no
instance in our data (what is not surprising considering the young age of children): they are not
listed in the preceding table. On the other hand, we have found some utterances that did not fit
any of Sigel's category, they have been classified in medium and high level according to Sigel's
general criteria and are indicated by a *.

Key words: Communication handicap, Distanciation, Guidance interaction.

Received: May 1993

Michel Deleau. laboratoire de Psychologie du Developpernent et de I'Education, Centre de Recherches en Psychologie,

Cognition et Communication, Universite de Rennes 2, 6 Avenue Gaston Berger, F-35043 Rennes Cedex, France.

Current theme of research:

Socio cognitive development, Pre-verbal communication and language development, Effects of handicaps on psychological

Most relevant publications in the field of Educational Psychology:

Deleau, M. (1990). Les origines sociales du developpement mental. Communication et symboles dans la premiere enfance.
Paris: A. Colin.
Deleau, M. (1993). Communication and the development of symbolic-play. In J. Napel, & L. Camaioni (Eds.), New
Perspectives in early Communication Development, (pp. 97-115). London: Routledge.
Deleau, M., & Weil-Barais, A. (in press). Le Developpement de l'enfant: approches comparatives. Paris: Presses Universitaires
de France.
Mellier, D., & Deleau, M. (1991). Pour une approche developpementale de la communication en cas de handicap; problemes
et perspectives de recherche. Revue Internationate de Psychologie sociale, 4, 99-122.

Eva Gandon. laboratoire de Psychologic du Developpernent et de l'Education, Centre de Recherches en PsychoJogie,

Cognition et Communication, Universite de Rennes 2, 6 Avenue Gaston Berger, F-35043 Rennes Cedex, France.

Current theme of research:

Theory of mind, language development, Assertive modalities development.

Veronique Taburet. laboratoire de Psychologie du Developpernent et de I'Education, Centre de Recherches en Psychologic,

Cognition et Communication, U niversite de Rennes 2, 6 Avenue Gaston Berger, F-35043 Rennes Cedex, France.

Current theme of research:

Language adressed to the child.