Joint engagement predicts language scores, but which kind of joint engagement?

Joint engagement predicts language scores. Got it. But which kind? You lost me. There are different kinds? As it turns out, yes, and this paper offered some pretty good information on them. You have your good old, traditional joint engagement, which is when at least two people actively attend to the same thing at the same time, and each person knows they are attending to the same thing at the same time. But you can break that down even further, into supported and coordinated joint engagement. Supported joint engagement (SJE) is when the child focuses on a shared item, but the parent carries the communicative load, so to speak. The parent supports the rest of the interaction while the child only has to spend cognitive energy on that item. Coordinated joint engagement (CJE), on the other hand, is when the child splits focus between the object at hand and a communication partner. For example, consider a Jack-in-the-Box toy. In SJE, the parent might turn the handle, narrate what is happening, and react to the doll popping out of the box while the child watches, listens, and learns about the weird musical box. In CJE, the child might turn the handle as she otherwise divides her attention between the toy and her parent, commenting and sharing in the suspense and surprise. 

Conway, et al. recorded mothers playing with their two-year olds and administered language assessments at 2, 3, (PLS-4) and 4 years of age (CELF-P2). Mean language scores for the group fell within low average range. The idea was to rate the videos and compare time spent in supported and coordinated joint engagement with maternal responses and language scores. Check out Table 2 in the study for details on the coding and descriptions of joint engagement, and Table 3 for descriptions of maternal responses measured.


It turned out that the more time a mother and child spent in supported joint engagement, the higher the receptive and expressive language scores at 2- and 3-years, but the association was not significant at the 4-year testing. Coordinated joint attention was not associated with language scores, and the authors suggest that coordinated joint attention could be associated with other language skills, like pragmatics. Looking at maternal responses, the authors found that expansion and imitation were associated with language scores when the children spent less time in supported joint attention. The authors suggested that “where SJE is less frequent or of lower quality, expanding or imitating a child’s utterance may be especially important.”

While the authors caution that more studies are needed before generalizing these results, encouraging supported joint engagement and using imitation and expansion in interactions may be a good choice for supporting language development in both typical and late-talking 2-year-olds.


Conway, L. J., Levickis, P. A., Mensah, F., Smith, J. A., Wake, M., & Reilly, S. (2018). The role of joint engagement in the development of language in a community-derived sample of slow-to-talk children. Journal of Child Language. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1017/S030500091800017X