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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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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
Jeannie
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?

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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.

Andrew Mc's picture

In my science classroom, I have a major focus on oracy and discussing important scientific terms. I use many of the methods mentioned here and always give students a framework with which to hold their conversation. I've found my focus on oracy to be quite rewarding and we now can start every single class off with an informed student discussion that is unscripted. I've also decided to have a component of my final exams this year be holding a discussion with myself in order to demonstrate what they've learned when it comes to discussion skills.

Mick Friesen's picture

I have taught for 20+ years at a few schools. In my early years, classroom discussions were often easily inspired. Why? Was it a few years of particularly engaged students? Sometimes, it was difficult to conclude a discussion because some students were so into it. These days, it seems to me: a) many students don't have the skills and know-how to express themselves, and b) they don't feel a responsibility to contribute to the conversation. There are other contributing factors to be sure. However, the deficit of social responsibility is significant. They may not want to take a chance, but I also sense that there is a fair bit of ego-centrism at work: "I'll believe what I believe. You can do the same. No need for us to actually talk to each other about it."

Shireen's picture

Before launching Literature Circles each year in my 6th-grade classroom, I have students individually come up with several characteristics that they like in a classroom group-mate, and several that make it hard to work and talk with that person. This "should" and "should not" brainstorm yields a student-created "anchor chart" that stays up and gets referred to very often throughout the Term during Circles. Each year I find that students know what makes a good conversationalist, but they may not know how to be that person. By listing their own "norms" for productive, collegial conversation (a common core standard for our grade), students gain ownership of the "rules" and model and monitor each other. Finally, I award team medals to the most improved and most consistently effective conversationalists (both individual and group). That helps motivate reluctant students!

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