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4 Strategies for Fostering 21st Century Listening, Speaking, and Thinking

Effective communication has proven to be a problem throughout recorded history.  For example, many years ago the United States experienced diplomatic problems with Panama about the Canal Zone, which resulted in civil disturbances and riots.  Just when it appeared that an agreement had been reached between the two countries, diplomacy again fell apart because each side differed as to the meaning of a single word (Monson, 2010).  This word was ‘negoicar.’

You see, Americans had come together to “negotiate,” or to attend “a conference or discussion designed to produce an agreement” (Funk and Wagnall’s Standard College Dictionary).  Panamanians, however, thought that “negotiating” implied a willingness to renegotiate existing treaties.  It took months to iron out the confusion before the whole matter was settled.

But proper use and understanding of key vocabulary are just parts of effective communication.  Recently, much attention has also been turned to the importance oflistening and speaking.  Across the United States, for instance, new curricular standards encourage regular classroom practice in speaking and listening from the time kids enter kindergarten…until they complete high school (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010).

Strategy 1—Listening and Speaking Games

One way to engage students in listening and speaking is through games.  In my own classroom, I occasionally play a version of the board game ‘Moods’ with students.  In Moods, players take turns reading phrases from cards in the “mood” that they have secretly rolled. Mood examples include “dazed,” “zany,” “sneaky,” and “romantic.” The object is for players to vote on which mood is being demonstrated by the reader using their 4 individual voting chips.   Such games provide engaging opportunities for students to experiment with language and listening.

Another teacher I visited with often plays a mystery game with his students in order to encourage listening and thoughtful formulation of questions.  He gives students a mystery to solve, and only allows them to ask ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions in order to collect evidence.  If students accidently repeat a question already asked, they get ‘buzzed’ out of the game.

In another classroom, I watched a teacher pass out ‘talk-bags’ to her students.  The contents of each bag were unique and contained 5 inexpensive objects such as a pencil, bracelet, notepad or piece of candy.  Students start off by individually evaluating the contents of their own bag on 5-point scale.  They then float around the classroom and seek to persuade other students to trade some of their items.  After 15 minutes, students re-evaluate the original contents of their bag, and discuss in groups what prompted a change in their perspective.

Whether teachers are playing off-the-shelf board games or some other game they have designed themself, it is important for educators to regularly blur the lines between effective communicationand play as they seek to encourage classroom listening and speaking.

Strategy 2—Individual  Listening and Speaking Practice

A variety of activities can be used to encourage individual listening and speaking practice.  One engaging activity I saw used recently was called ‘Own It,” in which students select a piece of text, a handful of terms or some other content important to learning goals, and then seek to demonstrate that they ‘own it’ by creating a dramatic reading, a paper-slide presentation or some other unique, aural presentation.  The only two rules for the presentation were (1) accurate portrayal of the content and (2) a focus on audience engagement.  Offering students choice and control motivates students to develop speaking abilities as they organize, refine, and present their ideas.  Students also develop listening abilities as they get the chance to review and evaluate the finished presentations of their peers.

Many educators seek to encourage individual listening and speaking practice by allowing students to create presentations of existing projects or topics, rather than reinventing the wheel. For example, if a student already seems invested in an art, technology or language arts assignment, teachers can provide suggestions for ‘morphing’ it, or formatting the project into a formal presentation suited to a specific audience (Wallace, Stariha, & Walberg, 2004).

Real-world audiences also foster student effort in listening and speaking activities.  I recently worked with some educators who are using a scenario of an impending alien invasion to help students research various countries around the world.  Each student draws the name of a country at random, investigates its geography, customs, culture, etc. and then works to construct a six-minute argument for the alien invaders as to why their county should be spared.  On ‘Judgment Day,’ each student presents their argument to a panel of aliens.  These ‘aliens’ are actually community members in spacey costumes and masks.  According to their teachers, kids seem to work hard knowing that the fate of millions depends on a single six-minute presentation.

Strategy 3—Pairing, Sharing, and Beyond

Students also need to be granted regular opportunities to listen and to speak with their classmates in pairs and in small groups.  ‘Pairing and sharing’ is a good start, but the novelty of such an activity quickly wears off with students. Thus, there is a need for teachers to regularly update pair-and-share activities by requiring students to examine perspectives beyond their own and by using listening and speaking structures.

For example, a couple weeks ago, I watched students having fun with an activity called ‘Listen…But Don’t Repeat.’ In the activity, the teacher pairs up students and assigns a chooses a topic.  The first person (student A) has one minute to try to explain everything they know about the assigned topic while their partner (student B) listens in silence.  After one minute, the other student has the chance to speak on the same topic, but cannot repeat anything already said by their partner.  Such an activity could easily be done in trios, quartets, and even in slightly larger groups.  While regular pairing and sharing fosters student conversation, it imperative that teachers occasionally vary the format and parameters of such activities to help ensure that students remain engaged in regular listening and speaking.

Strategy 4—Whole Group Listening and Speaking

Speaking with (or in front of) a large group can be an intimidating experience for most students.  In addition, whole group discussions often prove time consuming.  Yet, there is an increased need for structured, whole group discussions that are designed to change the way our learners read, think, discuss, write, and act (Copeland, 2005).  In addition, formal discussions help students learn valuable lessons in preparation and in ‘thinking more while saying less.

Regular use of whole group discussion such as Socratic seminar and Circles of Knowledge provides students with opportunities to build their thinking and communication skills. Such activities help learners to think more deeply about texts, to support claims with supporting evidence, and to develop and share new insights and perspectives on a topic.  In addition, research posits that a significant correlation exists between student achievement and the extent to which classroom discussion recruits and highlights student ideas and voices (Nystrand et al., 2003).

While the format of whole group discussion often varies from classroom to classroom, success depends on an educator’s ability to (1) spark student interest with an open-ended, relevant question, (2) provide students time to formulate their own thoughts, (3) ‘kindle’ student participation by first allowing students to share/compare responses in smaller groups, and (4) allow students time pause, summarize, and reflect on the responses of others (Pickering, Dewing, & Perini, 2012).

When it comes to listening and speaking outside of the classroom, today’s young people appear adept at sharing and critiquing each other’s ideas and opinions.  The key, however, is for educators to regularly select and implement activities that move students from informal conversations with their peers to more formal presentations and patterns of discourse with a variety of selected audiences.

It takes time—and practice—for students to develop 21st Century communication. Doing so also requires more classrooms and teachers that work actively to foster, value, and encourage student listening, speaking, and thinking.

Effective communication has proven to be a problem throughout recorded history.  For example, many years ago the United States experienced diplomatic problems with Panama about the Canal Zone, which resulted in civil disturbances and riots.  Just when it appeared that an agreement had been reached between the two countries, diplomacy again fell apart because each side differed as to the meaning of a single word (Monson, 2010).  This word was ‘negoicar.’

You see, Americans had come together to “negotiate,” or to attend “a conference or discussion designed to produce an agreement” (Funk and Wagnall’s Standard College Dictionary).  Panamanians, however, thought that “negotiating” implied a willingness to renegotiate existing treaties.  It took months to iron out the confusion before the whole matter was settled.

But proper use and understanding of key vocabulary are just parts of effective communication.  Recently, much attention has also been turned to the importance oflistening and speaking.  Across the United States, for instance, new curricular standards encourage regular classroom practice in speaking and listening from the time kids enter kindergarten…until they complete high school (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010).

Strategy 1—Listening and Speaking Games

One way to engage students in listening and speaking is through games.  In my own classroom, I occasionally play a version of the board game ‘Moods’ with students.  In Moods, players take turns reading phrases from cards in the “mood” that they have secretly rolled. Mood examples include “dazed,” “zany,” “sneaky,” and “romantic.” The object is for players to vote on which mood is being demonstrated by the reader using their 4 individual voting chips.   Such games provide engaging opportunities for students to experiment with language and listening.

Another teacher I visited with often plays a mystery game with his students in order to encourage listening and thoughtful formulation of questions.  He gives students a mystery to solve, and only allows them to ask ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions in order to collect evidence.  If students accidently repeat a question already asked, they get ‘buzzed’ out of the game.

In another classroom, I watched a teacher pass out ‘talk-bags’ to her students.  The contents of each bag were unique and contained 5 inexpensive objects such as a pencil, bracelet, notepad or piece of candy.  Students start off by individually evaluating the contents of their own bag on 5-point scale.  They then float around the classroom and seek to persuade other students to trade some of their items.  After 15 minutes, students re-evaluate the original contents of their bag, and discuss in groups what prompted a change in their perspective.

Whether teachers are playing off-the-shelf board games or some other game they have designed themself, it is important for educators to regularly blur the lines between effective communicationand play as they seek to encourage classroom listening and speaking.

Strategy 2—Individual  Listening and Speaking Practice

A variety of activities can be used to encourage individual listening and speaking practice.  One engaging activity I saw used recently was called ‘Own It,” in which students select a piece of text, a handful of terms or some other content important to learning goals, and then seek to demonstrate that they ‘own it’ by creating a dramatic reading, a paper-slide presentation or some other unique, aural presentation.  The only two rules for the presentation were (1) accurate portrayal of the content and (2) a focus on audience engagement.  Offering students choice and control motivates students to develop speaking abilities as they organize, refine, and present their ideas.  Students also develop listening abilities as they get the chance to review and evaluate the finished presentations of their peers.

Many educators seek to encourage individual listening and speaking practice by allowing students to create presentations of existing projects or topics, rather than reinventing the wheel. For example, if a student already seems invested in an art, technology or language arts assignment, teachers can provide suggestions for ‘morphing’ it, or formatting the project into a formal presentation suited to a specific audience (Wallace, Stariha, & Walberg, 2004).

Real-world audiences also foster student effort in listening and speaking activities.  I recently worked with some educators who are using a scenario of an impending alien invasion to help students research various countries around the world.  Each student draws the name of a country at random, investigates its geography, customs, culture, etc. and then works to construct a six-minute argument for the alien invaders as to why their county should be spared.  On ‘Judgment Day,’ each student presents their argument to a panel of aliens.  These ‘aliens’ are actually community members in spacey costumes and masks.  According to their teachers, kids seem to work hard knowing that the fate of millions depends on a single six-minute presentation.

Strategy 3—Pairing, Sharing, and Beyond

Students also need to be granted regular opportunities to listen and to speak with their classmates in pairs and in small groups.  ‘Pairing and sharing’ is a good start, but the novelty of such an activity quickly wears off with students. Thus, there is a need for teachers to regularly update pair-and-share activities by requiring students to examine perspectives beyond their own and by using listening and speaking structures.

For example, a couple weeks ago, I watched students having fun with an activity called ‘Listen…But Don’t Repeat.’ In the activity, the teacher pairs up students and assigns a chooses a topic.  The first person (student A) has one minute to try to explain everything they know about the assigned topic while their partner (student B) listens in silence.  After one minute, the other student has the chance to speak on the same topic, but cannot repeat anything already said by their partner.  Such an activity could easily be done in trios, quartets, and even in slightly larger groups.  While regular pairing and sharing fosters student conversation, it imperative that teachers occasionally vary the format and parameters of such activities to help ensure that students remain engaged in regular listening and speaking.

Strategy 4—Whole Group Listening and Speaking

Speaking with (or in front of) a large group can be an intimidating experience for most students.  In addition, whole group discussions often prove time consuming.  Yet, there is an increased need for structured, whole group discussions that are designed to change the way our learners read, think, discuss, write, and act (Copeland, 2005).  In addition, formal discussions help students learn valuable lessons in preparation and in ‘thinking more while saying less.

Regular use of whole group discussion such as Socratic seminar and Circles of Knowledge provides students with opportunities to build their thinking and communication skills. Such activities help learners to think more deeply about texts, to support claims with supporting evidence, and to develop and share new insights and perspectives on a topic.  In addition, research posits that a significant correlation exists between student achievement and the extent to which classroom discussion recruits and highlights student ideas and voices (Nystrand et al., 2003).

While the format of whole group discussion often varies from classroom to classroom, success depends on an educator’s ability to (1) spark student interest with an open-ended, relevant question, (2) provide students time to formulate their own thoughts, (3) ‘kindle’ student participation by first allowing students to share/compare responses in smaller groups, and (4) allow students time pause, summarize, and reflect on the responses of others (Pickering, Dewing, & Perini, 2012).

When it comes to listening and speaking outside of the classroom, today’s young people appear adept at sharing and critiquing each other’s ideas and opinions.  The key, however, is for educators to regularly select and implement activities that move students from informal conversations with their peers to more formal presentations and patterns of discourse with a variety of selected audiences.

It takes time—and practice—for students to develop 21st Century communication. Doing so also requires more classrooms and teachers that work actively to foster, value, and encourage student listening, speaking, and thinking.

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