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Teaching Your Students How to Have a Conversation

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator

I was recently in a third grade classroom and was struck by the presence of rules that were posted for how to have a conversation. The poster said, "Each person must contribute to the discussion but take turns talking. Ask each other, 'Would you like to add to my idea?' or 'Can you tell us what you are thinking?' Ask questions so that you understand each other's ideas. Say, 'Can you tell me more about that?' or 'Can you say that in another way?'"

Having visited many middle and high schools, I think these same rules could -- and probably should -- be posted there as well.

Maybe you have also observed how common it is nowadays for students to not know how to have a conversation. Perhaps this owes to a preponderance of talk shows in which people with different opinions rarely listen to each other, instead preferring to out-shout their opponent. Maybe it is due to changed dinner habits where more families are eating on the go rather than sitting down together and catching up on each other's day. It could be about how texting and tweeting now trump talking and listening as today's preferred forms of communication.

8 Tips for Speaking and Listening

While it is impossible to know all of the reasons, there is no doubt that learning to listen and talk is an extremely important way to broaden knowledge, enhance understanding and build community. Perhaps this is why the core standards in English-language arts include an important emphasis on developing speaking and listening, the basic tools for conversation. The eight tips below can be used regularly to help your kids learn good conversational skills.

1. Model a Good Conversation

Make a point of having one-to-two minute interactions, one-on-one, at least a few times each week with students who struggle conversationally. Share information about yourself as you might when meeting a friend or acquaintance, and show interest in the student by asking questions about his or her interests. Conversation enhancers include responses and prompts like:

  • "Really?"
  • "Wow!"
  • "That’s interesting."
  • "No kidding!"

If these students don't or won't share easily at first, don't give up.

2. Encourage Physical Cues

Identify procedures for having a conversation that includes appropriate non-verbal behavior. For example, you might teach a strategy like S.L.A.N.T. (Sit up straight. Listen. Answer and ask questions. Nod to show interest. Track the speaker.)

3. Challenge Put-Downs or Hurtful Comments

For example, if a student says, "I think what she did was really stupid," challenge with "How else can you say that without being hurtful?" If the student seems unaware, teach an alternative like, "I disagree with that." Ask the student to repeat what you said and then move on to:

  • "What happened to make you feel that way?"
  • "How would you have handled things differently?"
  • "Do you think there is only right answer, or could there be more?"

4. Ask Open-Ended Questions

These are questions without one correct answer, questions that stimulate discussion and can be a very powerful way to reinforce the idea that there are different views of an issue, or a set of beliefs that can be equally valid. For example: "So if Columbus came knocking on your door and told you that sailing to the New World would be an amazing adventure and there might be lots of riches there, but you might never arrive because the world was flat, would you go?"

5. Put Thinking Ahead of Knowing

When asked a question, don’t accept "I don't know." Tell students that you don't require them to "know" but that you do expect them to "think." Teach them how to wonder aloud, speculate, guess or give the best answer they can. ("I'm not sure about that, but I think _____ .")

6. Have Informal Chats

Before class begins or in the hallway, ask students about their other classes, what they think about a current event, or how they feel about the outcome of a game. Share your thoughts as well. ("I thought it was more that the Jets lost the game than anything the Eagles did to win. How did you see it?")

7. Make Eye Contact

When a student is speaking in class and you are listening, give him or her your eye contact. However, gradually scan away from the speaker and direct your gaze and movement towards other students. This will often get the speaker to redirect his or her talk toward peers, and it invites peers to get and stay involved with what's being said.

8. Encourage Turn-Taking

Use an object, such as a talking stick, as a signal for turn-taking. Teach your students that when they have the object, it is their turn to talk or pass while others are expected to listen.

How do you help your students become better speakers and listeners? Please share your strategies in the comments section below.

Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal

We find that we have a lot of good results when we focus on the idea of a Quality Conversation right off the bat- especially in the lower grades. By creating T (looks like/ sounds like) or Y (looks like/ sounds like/ feels like) charts, we can break conversation down into concrete, observable behaviors that kids can grasp and practice. (You can see some examples here:http://www.pinterest.com/criticalskills1/quality-conversation-audience-w...)

If we lay the groundwork in the early grades, middle and upper grades teachers can really reap the rewards and kids are the winners.

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Great advice. I don't know if it's a matter of a new generation losing these skills so much as teachers being more aware of social and emotional learning. I know plenty of adults who might benefit from employing the tips outlined above, too. In addition, I would like to emphasise one point: I think it's important to teach young people how to listen, rather than simply with their turn to speak.

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator

Thanks for your comment and the link, Kendra. Your point Keith about teaching good listening skills is well taken. When I was a kid, my mother told me that G-d gave me one mouth but two ears for a reason!

Rosemary Schmid's picture
Rosemary Schmid
ESL teacher, academic program college level, Charlotte, NC

In the discussion of ideas, the discussants profit most by attending to the ideas, not the presenter of the idea.
In other words, tear into the idea, but don't attack the person with the idea! Nothing beats the grins on both faces when two friends can say, "my esteemed friend, that's a stupid idea, and here's why!" Of course, they've been practicing goofy ideas, bizarre solutions to first-teacher-then-classmate-proposed issues, and other imagined disagreements "just to practice the language."
A ten-minute presentation of basic communication theory is also effective early on. We start with industrial-sized coffee filters across our faces. Have a basic conversation with filters in place and notice the difficulty of understanding completely without seeing faces. (I sometimes participate with the class as a whole, answering in a variety of persona with "issues.) Then, draw stick figure Person A and Person B in conversation. Both pass and receive messages through their own affective filters.Then brainstorm on the board or an overhead what might be in the filters - age, gender, economic status, first language, cultural differences, region of the US, small town, big city, and so on. (Make a copy of the brainstorm for everyone to have in their binder - and to add to if other ideas come up.)
The teacher can have ready some of the less effective ways of participating in a conversation - possibly collected in advance from listening to the students! (You're stupid!) Then, together the teachers and students can generate alternatives. Go for some academic-level vocabulary. "Big words impress some people."
When the conversation is not about ideas, but one person wants to get to know the other person better, then the conversation is about sharing "stories" and to be a good conversation, the listener needs to help the speaker elaborate the story by asking more questions, or responding to what the speaker has said with "active listening" techniques rather than jumping the story or trumping the story with his / her own story. Good training for this technique is to have the students prepare some probing questions to use in interviewing a family member, for example, about something they remember from their youth, or whatever fits into the coursework. Search for StoryCorps for question ideas.

Nini White's picture
Nini White
Founder-Developer of Kids' Own Wisdom.

All the principles presented are valuable, but the one I honor the most is helping students put thinking over knowing, because "knowing" is usually accompanied by an 'end-of-the-conversation' kind of an attitude. When students are encouraged to think, to problem solve, to approach challenges with a creative 'all-possibilities' attitude, new horizons open, and conversations tend to be much more fascinating for all concerned - speakers AND listeners. Thinking is an open-ended endeavor. "Knowing" = not so much. Yes, of course it's good to know, but to be ever open to new thoughts on any subject worth contemplating, as well. We exist in an expanding universe, which implies that knowledge can also continue expanding. Can we imagine our students growing into the kinds of world citizens who have this approach to problem solving?

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator

One of the things I love about posting to Edutopia is the learning I get from reading readers' responses. Rosemary - so many good ideas you shared. Nini - I hadn't considered that "knowing" implies a conversation ender and "thinking" suggests that we continue the conversation. Thanks to you both.

Vanessa Vega's picture
Vanessa Vega
Former Edutopia Senior Manager of Research

Great post! Edutopia's video of College Prep High School in Oakland also shows great techniques to engage high school students in discussion: http://www.edutopia.org/stw-collaborative-learning-math-english-video. These tips resonates with practices that meta-analyses have shown to support text comprehension across grades (Murphy et al., 2009; Goldenberg, 1993), briefly:
* Include a thematic focus (e.g., friendship);
* Connect the theme to background knowledge (e.g., use the text or personal experience);
* Direct-teach skills or concepts if necessary;
* Use elicitation techniques to promote complex expression and understanding (e.g., "Tell me more. What do you mean by ___?");
* Ask students to provide support for interpretations (e.g., "How do you know? Show me where it says that. What makes you think that?");
* Ask questions with multiple answers and fewer questions with known answers;
* Communicate with connected discourse, in which teachers and students make comments that build off of what others have said;
* Foster a nonthreatening environment and encourage all to participate;
* Allow student-directed discourse, in which the teacher does not hold exclusive control over who talks; instead, students volunteer or select others to speak.

Laura Lamarre Anderson's picture
Laura Lamarre Anderson
2nd grade ELL teacher in Massachusetts

Conversation is a huge focus in my school right now. It's been great to collaborate with other teachers to brainstorm and refine ideas that help our students understand the value of conversation. My 2nd graders are practicing to build ideas with each other, clarify when they need to, and fortify their arguments with evidence. The increase in quality conversation is slowly making its way into improved writing as well.
Thanks for this great article.

Andy XU RUNYUN's picture
From Shanghai, China. A volunteer in Walnut Valley Unified School District.

Communication skills is a large topic these days. Good communication skills will make our students feel comfortable and respected, while ill communication skills will make they feel disrespected. Students however, should be taught to communicate with others well throught critical thinkings and valuable opinions.

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