Picture a great speaker—a famous politician, maybe, or a poet or performer. Maybe you’re thinking of someone speaking to an audience in a high-stakes scenario.
Most of the talk that happens in your classroom does not look like this. In small group or whole class discussions, students are more concerned with learning than with audience: Their talking is exploratory rather than presentational.
This is one of the challenges of teaching communication skills: What “good” looks like depends on the context. The skills needed to speak in front of an audience and hold a room are different from those needed to solve a problem or engage in a group discussion. If what you’re trying to teach is slippery and hard to define, how can you go about teaching it?
A Framework for Looking at Communication
Academics at Cambridge University and teachers at my school created a framework for describing good communication skills in different contexts. It divides these skills into four distinct but interlinked strands:
- Physical: How a speaker uses their body language, facial expressions, and voice.
- Linguistic: The speaker’s use of language, including their understanding of formality and rhetorical devices.
- Cognitive: The content of what a speaker says and their ability to build on, challenge, question, and summarize others’ ideas.
- Social and emotional: How well a speaker listens, includes others, and responds to their audience.
This framework provides a starting point for working out what exactly constitutes great communication in different situations. But how can a teacher create a classroom culture that values and actively develops students’ communication skills?
Start by talking explicitly with your students about what good communication looks like for a given context. While there are plenty of examples of great public speakers to hold up and analyze, it can be harder to find examples of excellent exploratory discussions. One fun way to explore what makes a great discussion is to film a group of teachers having a terrible discussion (fidgeting, going off topic, one person dominating and making irrelevant points while others aren’t listening) and then look at a really strong example (listening, building on or challenging each other’s ideas, working together to reach consensus). Comparing the two discussions, you and your students can start to build a shared understanding of what “good” looks like.
You can use this understanding to write, with your students, a set of discussion guidelines, including things like:
- We build on, challenge, summarize, clarify and probe each other’s ideas
- We are prepared to change our minds.
- We include everyone by inviting them into the discussion.
Creating guidelines with your students provides an opportunity to establish a positive culture for talk. It also enables you to dispel any negative, perhaps unspoken, misconceptions students may have about discussion, such as: “She always does well on tests, so I’ll just say what she says,” or “He’s my friend, so I shouldn’t disagree with him.”
Of course, creating discussion guidelines alone is unlikely to transform talk in your classroom—your students will need each skill to be explicitly taught, modeled, and praised, at least initially. You can establish the culture by saying things like, “I listened to what X said, and actually it’s made me think differently—I’m starting to change my mind,” or, “I’m not totally sure yet, but I think _____. What do you think?”
You’ll also need to explicitly and deliberately teach many communication skills. Take for example the skills involved in summarizing a discussion. Your students need to know what a summary is. They may also need some sentence stems to scaffold summarizing a discussion (“The main points you raised were...,” “In summary, we talked about...”). They may also need practice judging when it’s useful to summarize a discussion.
Over time, you can work on each guideline in turn and strengthen your students’ understanding of it. Continually returning to your discussion guidelines provides an opportunity for students to reflect on and talk about talking—to engage metacognitively in the learning process.
Supporting Quiet Students
For quieter students, increasing the amount of talk in your classroom may feel daunting. Ensuring that you have a guideline that requires all students to be included in discussions gives more confident students a responsibility to ensure that everyone is heard from. Again, you may need to explicitly teach what it means to invite someone into a discussion: developing an awareness of who has and hasn’t spoken yet, and turning your body to face someone who has been quiet and saying their name or asking them a question.
You can also support quieter students by providing them with scaffolds such as sentence stems, or by giving them a specific role, such as summarizer, that provides a clear route into discussion. Increasing the number of low-stakes opportunities to speak, in a supportive environment, may give some quieter students the confidence they need to find their voice.
If a student isn’t speaking as frequently as their peers, you needn’t assume that they aren’t benefiting from the increase in talking in your classroom. It’s likely that they’re listening carefully and taking in what is being said, so it’s vital to praise and celebrate listening skills as well as speaking skills.
Ultimately, learning is a process of sharing, engaging with, and responding to new and different ideas. As Professor Frank Hardman has said, talk is “the most powerful tool of communication in the classroom, and it’s fundamentally central to the acts of teaching and learning.”