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Teaching Your Students How to Have a Conversation

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator
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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.

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Comments (21) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

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: 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.

SMK's picture

With our school moving to all students having an iPad, I've seen some value in recording conversations and using it as a teaching tool to address your 8 tips. The students are engaged and improving their skills. Thanks for providing examples for each of your tips.

Jeannie's picture
Third grade teacher from Saint Simons Island, Georgia

Excellent article! I am already doing some if these things in my classroom, but I want to incorporate the others beginning next week. I agree with Rosemary about knowing signaling the end of a conversation. Also I think that although quality conversation seems to be a dying art, we as teachers can model and train our students to renew the art of conversation!

Tom Voorhees-Pasquini's picture

Crucial for student success. What if we taught these skills as part of the standards? What if we build on this idea and teach listening skills to every student starting in 3rd grade? Split students into dyads and practice attending skills (body language, eye contact, facial expressions, nodding, minimal encouragements). Teach asking open questions and clarifying. Restating and reflecting feelings to increase understanding between people. If students were taught these skills throughout their school careers, we would have less divorce, conflict, and more peace. Why do we wait until students get to college to teach these skills in a communications class? What about the students who don't make it to college. To have a better life they could use these skills. Thanks for listening.
Also, the open question is really closed and could be changed to, What would you say to Columbus?

Daniel Centofanti's picture

This is a great article, but just wanted to point out that, "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?" is not an open ended question. Yes, it is long and imaginative, but it is a close ended question. Open ended would offer a chance for a similarly imaginative response. Something like, '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 and he wanted you to be his first mate. How would you prepare for the journey? What would you study to make sure you made it to the new world?' etc...
Again, enjoyed the article, thanks for writing it.

Chancellor Roberts's picture
Chancellor Roberts
English-language teacher.

Not fond of asking people how they feel about something when the expected response is what they think about it.

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