Many teachers do not think of listening and speaking as an anchor to literacy success. In today’s digital world, the art and skill of conversation can be lost as we spend more time with technology and less time
with people. Children need something to talk about and someone to talk with! Conversation in
the classroom needs to be modeled and taught. I think back to sharing time in the early primary
classroom and realize the wisdom of teachers who built that time into the day!
Children need guidance about how to talk with others both in the classroom and the larger world.
This is not something that necessarily emerges naturally at home and children then carry with
them to school. Even if it does, the numbers in our classrooms will require some management of
classroom talk. Children also need to learn the flip side of speaking and that is the role of the
listener. Sometimes being a listener is harder to take on than being a speaker! In my classroom I
have a chart that I created for the children that looks like this:
It takes some time to model and demonstrate what classroom conversation will be like. We chat
together about what each of the letter on the chart means and watch for examples of when we are
doing each lettered element of classroom conversation. We practice and self-evaluate. How did I
do today as a member of the classroom conversation? When I spoke, could my classmates hear
me? Did I both listen and look at my classmates as they spoke? How did I show I was attending
to the speaker? We praise each other as we make progress as speakers and listeners!
I like to work with this idea of being a good speaker and listener around the topic of sharing
books, although it can happen at any time in the day. Each day a few children bring a favorite
book to the organized classroom conversations, so they have something concrete to discuss
(much like the sharing time mentioned earlier). When I conference with the children about what
they were reading, I can make comments like “that would be something interesting to share
about your book” or “your book is about dogs and lots of your classmates have dogs of their
own”. This gives me a way to nurture reluctant speakers and plant conversation seeds. In the
group setting, I will often suggest that being a good listener might result in a question to the
speaker. I can ask the discussion group something like “is there anything else you would like to
know about the book?”. I also like to end the teaching /practice times with “questions,
comments, or connections?” as another way of opening the opportunity to participate in
conversation, and to develop listening and speaking skills.
After we have worked on how to have conversations for a while, I ask my students for starters
for questions and comments during conversation. The children will offer ideas and I record their
suggestions: The children typically offer ideas like:
♥ This reminds me of….
♥ I wonder…
♥ I don’t understand …
♥ I agree with … because …
♥ I’d like to add …
♥ So, what you are saying is …
♥ Can you tell us more about …?
Using the children’s ideas for enhancing conversation rather than my own adds to the
meaningfulness of the starters for the class as they take ownership of them. This seems to put
power in the hands of the children and help them be accountable for their own listening and speaking activities. This also
helps move the conversations forward with little support from me. Children begin to understand that conversation is a two-way street. As I listen into conversations in other settings during the
school day, I find myself hearing children using this language (which is exactly the purpose!).
Listening and speaking are essential for effective communication in many settings. We all know
adults who need to work on being good listeners and appropriate responders to others. This idea
of modeling and teaching about conversation is not intended to establish routines and procedures
for classroom conversation but rather to help children see the variety of ways that conversations
occur. It promotes sharing of ideas and promotes inquiry into deeper understanding of each other and our world. I find children move way beyond the literal details of any topic to use inferential thinking about many ideas they encounter during the day as they see that their voices have value.