In his book In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom, Kelly Gallagher urges educators to place our students’ needs rather than test preparation at the forefront of our instruction. Gallagher argues that “hitching instruction only to what is being tested can be harmful to the overall development of our students” (161). In the previous years of No Child Left Behind, speaking and listening skills have typically been neglected from high stakes exams, leaving many teachers to place little emphasis on them in their classrooms. But talk matters in education and in life. The Common Core State Standards recognize the need for students to “have ample opportunities to take part in a variety of rich, structured conversations—as part of a whole class, in small groups, and with a partner—built around important content in various domains” (CCSS). They’ve dedicated an entire strand of standards to Speaking and Listening arguing firmly that “high school graduates will depend heavily on their ability to listen attentively to others so that they are able to build on others’ meritorious ideas while expressing their own clearly and persuasively” (CCSS). Nevertheless, whether or not speaking and listening skills are valued in the Common Core State Standards matters little to Kelly Gallagher. He has chosen to place more emphasis on speaking and listening in his classroom “because these skills are foundational to becoming literate human beings” (161).
Talking Helps us Learn
The person talking is the person learning. As Bryan Goodwin’s research confirms, students who participate more frequently in class are more likely to be high performers, and those who remain quiet (like elementary school me) tend to do less well (2014).
According to Fisher and Frey, the amount of student talk directly correlates with their achievement. For example, in a study of classrooms with high-achieving students, teachers talked through about 55 percent of the instructional minutes; whereas in classrooms in which students were identified as low achieving, teachers talked through 80 percent of the instructional minutes. If we aren’t giving students opportunities to talk and think, then we are essentially asking students to sit back and relax as passive observers in their learning. We all know the traditional game of school in which the teacher asks questions to which she already knows the answers, kid answers the question, and the teacher evaluates the response as either right or wrong. In this learning environment, “discussions” simply devolve into question and answer session involving the recitation of facts. Thus, people like me learn to accept the role of quiet observer, fearing the public humiliation of getting the wrong answer.
But think about those classroom discussions that weren’t simply conversation with the teacher, but instead gave students a chance to co-construct knowledge, to think critically and collaboratively (Fisher & Frey). During these discussions, students listen to and react to each other’s ideas and further contribute to a group’s reasoning. “Quiet” classrooms don’t mean good classrooms anymore. Teaching and learning hinges on productive student talk.
So Why Aren’t Students Talking?
Breaking away from the well-established, traditional roles of teachers and students can be scary. The teacher feels as though she is giving up some of her control and, to a greater extent, her valuable class time, and students, to be honest, haven’t developed the conversational moves needed to engage in productive classroom discourse. In other words, classroom conversations can be painful experiences for both teachers and students. So we might have good intentions when we engage students in a graded discussion or a Socratic seminar. We might even circle up the chairs and throw out a deep-thinking, juicy question—a question that kids would need to talk over, chew on, and work out an answer together. But, unfortunately, these discussions often get us nowhere because we’ve neglected to teach effective speaking skills first. We assign speaking, but we don't teach speaking.
If we expect students to learn to speak, we need to teach them how. This requires teachers to provide daily opportunities for students to speak, combined with explicit instruction about the “conversation moves” good speakers make as they talk.
Speaking and Listening Boot Camp
At Twin Groves Middle School in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, Communications teacher Mark Weiland has developed a speaking and listening boot camp where students learn, develop, and practice the conversational moves needed to initiate a discussion, build off the ideas of others, provide feedback, and assert their own opinions. As every teacher knows, getting kids to engage in productive talk is not easy. Nevertheless, through trial and error and lots of research, Mark has transformed his room into a training ground where productive and “accountable talk” is the norm (Fisher & Frey 2012).
Mark’s Boot Camp Routine
Provide Meaningful Tasks:
When we began training students for structured class discussions, we quickly realized the importance of choosing meaningful, interesting, and relevant topics for discussion. We didn’t want to overwhelm students with new content during the beginning stages of training, so instead, we focused on questions that would get kids talking without the fear of getting a “wrong” answer. To facilitate these discussions, we turned to Dr. Spencer Kagan and his research on cooperative learning. For the past couple of years, our school district has begun implementing Kagan’s cooperative learning structures to help increase student engagement and promote a deeper understanding of content. As part of this program, teachers are encouraged to provide opportunities for team building to help create the “enthusiasm, trust, and mutual support” needed for effective collaboration (1999, p. 3). To help facilitate our team building activities and get kids talking, we used several of Kagan’s higher-level thinking questions designed to “stretch students’ minds” and “release their natural curiosity about the world” (1999, p. 3). Using the cooperative structure of Fan-N-Pick, we prompted groups of four to take turns asking and answering these higher-level thinking questions. For this structure, Student #1 fans out a stack of question cards and asks Student #2 to “pick a card.” Student #2 picks a question cards and reads it aloud to the group. Student #3 takes a few seconds of thinking time and then answers the question. Student #4 praises and paraphrases the thinking that went into the answer. After each round, the students switch roles so that everyone has the opportunity to answer questions and respond to each other. Some of the questions that we use for this training activity include the following: If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, whom would you choose? What qualities do you look for in a best friend? If you could travel to any place in the world, where would it be and why?
Not only do students enjoy answering these questions, but the questions also provide an opportunity for students to learn more about each other. After a few rounds of this getting-to-know-you style Fan-N-Pick, we brought the full class back together again and began integrating explicit teaching of a key speaking and listening move: respectfully disagreeing.
Explicitly Teach Conversation Moves:
According to Fisher & Frey (2014), in highly productive student-led conversations, “members make claims, offer evidence for those claims, seek clarification, offer counterclaims, and reach consensus or identify points of disagreement.” When students work together on a task or to solve a problem, they are going to disagree; nevertheless, we can teach them to disagree respectfully, or in other words, to “disagree without being disagreeable” (Fisher & Frey, 2014, p. 21). For this task, Mark brainstormed with students a list of sentence starters that students could turn to when they needed help framing their ideas in a less negative and more inviting way. For example, instead of simply telling another student that his ideas are wrong, a student could show that he is willing to listen and learn more about the issue by stating, “I see your point, but please provide another example to help me understand” or “While you make an interesting point, I have another way of looking at the situation. Let me explain . . . .”
Once Mark familiarized students with examples and models of how to disagree respectfully, he put students back in groups of four to practice their new conversational move by once again using the Kagan cooperative learning structure of Fan-N-Pick. For this session, students follow the same format as before; however, instead of having Person #4 praise and paraphrase the thinking that went into the answer, Person #4 must respectfully disagree with the answer by using one of the sentence starters. For this activity to be most effective, the question cards should include topics that lend themselves well to a debate. Here are some of the questions we used: Should students get paid for getting good grades? Should cell phones be allowed in school? Should the school day be lengthened?
Another critical conversational move is the ability to agree with someone while keeping the conversation moving along. Through his past experience observing student-led discussions, Mark noticed that often when students agree with each other, their conversations simply come to a halt. For example, when discussing whether or not students should get paid for good grades, a student might claim, “Giving kids money for grades ruins their motivation to do well.” In response, another students might simply nod his head and say, “Yes, I agree,” offering nothing more to advance the conversation. This student has essentially killed the discussion because he lacked the conversational moves necessary to helped him build off an idea, ask probing questions, or elicit further evidence. These are skills that require some serious finesse; nevertheless, with practice kids can get there.
Again, Mark worked with students to brainstorm a list of sentence frames to help scaffold their responses when agreeing with another student and furthering the conversation. Here are some of the sentence frames we used:
I was thinking about your idea that _______, and I was wondering what if _____
I agree with your idea that ________, and I would like to clarify by adding…
What you said about ________ made me think of…
Mark turned to the Fan-N-Pick cooperative learning structure once again to give students an opportunity to practice their new moves. For this session, Student #4 had to agree with the ideas of Student #3 and keep the conversation flowing.
The Fan-N-Pick cooperative learning structure helps students to develop the habits of effective speaking and listening—but it does so with a heavy amount of teacher scaffolding. As Mark’s students began improving their moves, Mark began weaning them off of the teacher scaffolds by changing up the cooperative learning structure to allow for more student-controlled interaction. For example, using the Kagan cooperative learning structure of Talking Chips, Mark had students engage in a small group discussion in which teammates place a “talking chip” in the center of the team table each time they talk. Students may not interrupt each other and therefore must practice how to listen respectfully. Once students run out of chips, they may not talk again until all teammates have used their chips. This structure regulates discussion, holding all students accountable for participating while keeping at bay those students with the tendency to dominate the conversation.
Use Fishbowl Discussions:
Through Mark’s careful planning, modeling, and scaffolding of speaking and listening moves, students graduate into fishbowl discussions in which an inner circle of students works together through a topic or question while an outer circle of students observe, listen carefully, and offer feedback. For these discussions, Mark uses many of the suggestions from Paideia Active Learning, which promotes Socratic seminars, such as Mark’s fish bowl discussions, as a rigorous approach to instruction “designed to improve students’ critical thinking and communication skills.” Before each fishbowl discussion, Mark pairs a member of the fishbowl with a partner from the outer circle. The partners help each other prepare for their discussion by sharing their questions, thoughts, and evidence and bouncing ideas off of each other. During the discussion, the outer circle partners jots down comments on a list of discussion look-fors, such as making sure students talk directly to other students rather than the teacher, stay focused on the discussion, invite other people into the discussion, and share air time equally with others. After the discussion partners, have time to reflect with each other on their speaking and listening moves, using the look-for sheet to help guide their debriefing.
Build a Speaking and Listening Community:
The students in Mark’s communication class have developed some pretty smooth conversational moves. This is due in part to Mark’s explicit teaching of speaking and listening skills but, more importantly, because he built a speaking and listening community in his classroom. Students soon realized that they were all responsible for helping each other become smooth talkers. If one student struggles with a move, the class works together to help guide that student as he masters the new speaking skill. Unlike my elementary school experiences, the students in Mark’s classes don’t compete with each other to get the right answer, raising their hands for the teacher’s attention while secretly hoping the kid who does get called on gets it wrong (we all have to admit to resorting to this type of behavior at some point—we can’t help it! Most traditional classrooms promote a competitive climate). If I had the opportunity to work on my conversation moves through the guidance and support of my teachers and fellow students, I think school would have been a much different, more engaging experience for me.
Common Core state standards initiative. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2015.
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2014). Speaking Volumes. Educational Leadership, 72(3), 18-23.
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2012). How to create a culture of achievement in your school and classroom. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.
Gallagher, K. (n.d.). In the best interest of students: Staying true to what works in the ELA classroom.
Goodwin, B. (2014). Research Says Get All Students to Speak Up. Educational Leadership, 72(3), 82-83.
Kagan, M. (1993). Higher-level thinking questions: Personal and social skills. San Clemente, CA: Kagan.
Paideia. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2015.