Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Anna Stetsenko

Committee Members

Patricia J. Brooks

Bruce Homer

Adam Winsler

Susan Kirch

Subject Categories

Bilingual, Multilingual, and Multicultural Education | Child Psychology | Developmental Psychology | Early Childhood Education | Educational Psychology


private speech, mastery motivation, Vygotsky, sociodramatic play, early childhood education, bilingualism


Children’s private speech (audible self-talk) has been studied primarily as a cognitive tool for thinking, planning and self-regulation. This study investigated whether private speech may also function as a tool for motivation. Vygotskian and self-determination theory suggest that children can develop to become agentic and inspired, or conversely disengaged and alienated, based largely on their social conditions of development. Thus, it is important to investigate children’s motivational processes in social and educational contexts that are central to child development. U.S. preschool enrollment is expanding, accompanied by a decline in play-based pedagogy and growth of didactic, teacher-centered approaches. To illuminate the effects of such trends, this study examined the relative impact of playful versus non-playful contexts on preschoolers’ private speech and mastery motivation. Mastery motivation involves ongoing attempts to master challenging activities, with components including performance, persistence, challenge seeking, and independence in problem solving. Approximately half the study’s participants were bilingual, and a recent review suggested that bilinguals may use more developmentally advanced private speech, or a wider variety of private speech functions than monolinguals (Sawyer, 2016). To explore potential bilingual advantages in private speech, bilingual and monolingual participants were compared in terms of these qualities.

Study participants were 47 bilingual and monolingual preschool children ranging from 3 to 5 years of age. (38% White, 32% Asian American, 19% Latino, and 9% African American). Children were randomly assigned to engage in fishing and puzzle activities in one of two conditions (playful or non-playful) that simulated contrasting preschool contexts. The playful condition featured sociodramatic role-play, and encouraged intrinsic motivation and prosocial connection. The non-playful condition was framed as work production, emphasizing extrinsic rewards and individual performance assessment. Children’s private speech, mastery motivation, and relations between them were compared between conditions. Children’s private speech was classified as cognitive, metacognitive, motivational, imaginative, or partially internalized, using an analytic scheme that synthesized and integrated prior work on private speech.

Across both activities, children in the playful context displayed significantly higher mastery motivation than children in the non-playful context. Children in the playful context demonstrated better persistence and performance on the fishing activity, and greater challenge seeking and independence on the puzzle activity. Children in the playful context used more frequent total private speech, especially during the most challenging parts of each activity. Children in the playful condition used more frequent cognitive and imaginative private speech during the fishing activity, and more cognitive and metacognitive private speech on the puzzle activity. Children who used more imaginative private speech were more persistent, while children who used more cognitive private speech were more independent. Within the playful condition, bilinguals used more developmentally advanced (partially internalized) private speech, supporting the hypothesized bilingual advantage in developmental sophistication of private speech. In sum, findings support the use of play and playful pedagogy for promoting bilingual and monolingual preschoolers’ motivational development, and motivationally beneficial private speech.