Create a class of straight talkers

Mike Gershon shares his top tips for enhancing students' thinking skills by working on speaking and listening

Recently, a friend of mine came to me with a problem.

We sat down over a drink and talked about it.

He spoke and I listened. Then I asked some questions and he spoke a little more. After half an hour or so he said that he felt better and could see what he needed to do. Although I had not offered a specific suggestion or solution to his problem, I had given him the opportunity to discuss what was troubling him.

Language allows us to organise our thoughts and communicate them. By engaging in this conversational process we achieve many things. First, we give ourselves a better sense of what we are thinking, feeling or attempting to say. Second, we give voice to our thoughts, which makes them real and gives us the opportunity to analyse them more clearly. The process of speaking and listening moves the problem from the interior realm and makes it something concrete in the exterior world.

Speaking and listening is integral to our lives. It is also integral to the process of learning and, by extension, a vital part of any lesson.

The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky noted the importance of this when observing the behaviour of children; and we, as teachers, can observe it by watching our students progress by using discussion and the questioning techniques we teach them.

Here we will look at effective ways of structuring activities so that students do not get distracted from the topic.

Activities for any subject

"Interviewing" is a fantastic activity for almost any class and in almost any subject. Present students with a topic you want them to research something their peers can answer questions about. Invite students to come up with between five and 10 questions for their peers.

Encourage them to use a mixture of open and closed questions. Then ask them to interview between three and 10 people in the class, making notes as they go. Finally, ask them to write up their results and share these with a partner.

The next activity is "speed debating" one of my favourites. Divide the class in half. Present a proposition connected to the topic, such as "Macbeth was not solely responsible for his actions". Get half the class to argue for the proposition and half against it. Split the halves into even smaller groups and give 10 minutes for preparation. During this time, students should come up with reasons, evidence and examples to make their case.

Next, invite the students who are "for" the proposition to sit in a line. The students who are "against" should sit opposite them, so that members of the opposing sides are paired.

Give the students who are "for" one and a half minutes to argue their case while their partners listen. When the time is up, reverse the roles. Finally, have a one-minute free-for-all in which both sides can argue.

After the first debate, ask half of the class to stand up and find a new partner. The activity then runs again with the new groups. Repeat this one more time before wrapping things up, perhaps seguing into a piece of extended writing centred on the proposition.

The final activity is "paired talk". Whenever you ask your class a question, present them with a task or provide a piece of stimulus material and encourage them to discuss it with the person next to them. Help students to stay on track by modelling what good discussion looks like. This activity encourages students to express their immediate responses and thoughts, refine their existing ideas and supplement their thoughts with those of others, helping them to extend their thinking further.

Encourage high-quality speaking

In considering paired talk we touched briefly on the importance of facilitating speaking and listening. Here are some specific techniques to do this.

A key here is to wait after asking a question. Giving students time to think and respond is an important part of encouraging high-quality speaking and ensuring their responses are of a better standard.

Second, is the issue of structure which underpins each of the activities above and ensures that students' speech is focused and relevant; that it combines content and skills without overemphasising or neglecting either.

Third, there is questioning. Adroit use of questions will help the teacher to draw thoughtful answers and developed ideas from students. Use open questions ones that ask for clarification or to explain their reasoning.

For example, instead of asking "What is democracy?" try asking "What might democracy be?"

You can further raise standards by teaching your students how to ask good questions themselves. Modelling is a part of this, but so too is setting up activities which encourage them to ask certain types of questions.

For example, you could ask students to focus solely on asking open questions and follow this with a discussion in which different sorts of questions are analysed and students assess their strengths and weaknesses.

Listening activities

We will now look at three activities that concentrate on listening.

A "lecturette" is a miniature lecture. During the course of their lives students will frequently need to listen carefully for an extended period of time. Lecturettes are a way of helping them to develop those skills.

Provide students with a listening frame, a series of subtitles or relevant keywords and ask them to make notes while you talk on the topic for about 20 minutes. Then invite them to share, compare and contrast their notes with three of their peers. They should add to their notes where appropriate.

The next activity is "hot-seating", where you divide the class into groups of four and appoint a hot-seater in each. These students will be told they will be taking on a role or character associated with the topic under discussion. You might give them a sheet with background information about the character.

These students are then quizzed by their fellow group members who will be trying to discover as much as possible about the character the hot-seater is playing. They need to listen carefully and ask a range of questions to discover the "identity" of the hot-seater.

The final listening activity is "read-aloud peer-assessment", which is most effective after students have completed an extended piece of written work.

There are two ways to structure it. In the first, the teacher chooses one student's piece of work and reads it to the class. The students listen carefully and peer-assess what they have heard. The teacher can provide categories for this peer-assessment success criteria or leave it open for students to make their own decisions. When the reading has finished, the students discuss their thoughts.

The second approach has the class divided into groups of four. In each group, one student reads out a piece of their work while the rest of the group listens. They then discuss their thoughts. If you have time, repeat the activity until every student has had their work peer-assessed.

Support high-quality listening

To conclude, let us consider ways to help students listen effectively. Here are three potential approaches:

First, provide students with a sheet of A4 paper divided into four. In each quadrant write a question students can answer by listening to what is said later. Second, give students a list of keywords to write down, leaving space under each one. As the students are listening, they should note anything that is relevant to the keywords. Third, provide students with an outline of what they are going to hear (from a lecturette, an audio clip, a video or a speaker). They can then add to this as they go along.

Modelling is something teachers do all the time. Things are no different when it comes to listening. When you are listening in class, think carefully about what you are modelling for your students. Everything you do should be setting a great example for your students. Feel free to talk to them about this and talk about your choices and actions and why they are effective.

Encourage students to ask questions; particularly to demand further facts or clarification. These help us to understand precisely what the speaker is trying to say and show that we have not only listened but want to know more. Questions of clarification include: "What do you mean by that?"; "Could you explain that in more detail?"; and "I'm not quite clear; could you go over that again?" They will all help students to become better listeners.


So there you have it, a brief collection of strategies and techniques to help ensure that excellent speaking and listening takes place.

Hopefully we can show students that by using these skills they will be likely to make much greater progress. And, of course, it is our greatest hope that they will enjoy themselves at the same time.

Mike Gershon is an author and sociology teacher at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds. His free teaching resources can be downloaded from TESConnect at www.tesconnect.commikegershon


When asking for further detail, use these questions:

- What do you mean by that?

- Could you explain that in more detail?

- Could you go over that again?

- Do you mean ...?

- How might you explain that in another way?


The benefits of structuring speaking and listening:

- It channels students' energy in the direction you want it to go.

- It creates a sense of purpose that motivates students.

- It gives the activity a clear sense of progression, which is good for students, teachers and any observers.

- It allows you to support learners who may otherwise struggle.

- It gives you the means of keeping students on track.

Why is speaking and listening Important?

- It forms the bedrock of our culture.

- It helps tp develop our thoughts.

- It is an excellent precursor to writing.

- It gives us an insight into what other people think and feel.

- It allows us to analyse and interrogate different ideas.

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