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Creating a class of straight talkers

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

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. It wasn't a major issue but it was a nagging one; something about which he wanted guidance before he would feel at ease again. 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 bit more. After half an hour or so he said that he felt better and could see what he needed to do. I told him I was glad to have helped, although I wasn't sure exactly what I had done.

Yet that is not quite true. Like many of us, I knew instinctively what I had done: although I had not offered my friend 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 but two are of particular note. 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. There is much truth in the old adage "a problem shared is a problem halved".

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; the American educational reformer John Dewey noted it in the context of teaching for democracy; and we, as teachers, can observe it by watching our students progress by using discussion and the questioning techniques we teach them.

The risk with speaking and listening is that, because students are so used to it in their everyday lives, they may not stay focused on the educational activity. But here we will look at effective ways of structuring activities so that students do not get distracted.

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. You could use the activity at the end of a topic, so that students are primed to answer questions. Alternatively, you could use the activity when revising a topic students already have knowledge of or opinions about.

Invite students to come up with between five and 10 questions for their peers (the exact number will depend on how long you have for the activity). Encourage them to use a mixture of open and closed questions so as to elicit a variety of answers. When students have their questions, ask them to interview between three and 10 people in the class (again, depending on how much time you have). They should make notes as they go. Finally, ask students to write up their results and to share these with a partner.

The next activity that promotes great speaking and listening 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". Indicate that half the class is to argue for the proposition and half is to argue 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.

But the process does not finish there. 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". This is simple and effective, requiring little preparation. 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 stay on track by modelling what good discussion looks like, or provide a series of questions they can use as the starting point for their discussions.

The purpose of this activity is twofold. First, you are encouraging students to articulate their immediate responses and thoughts, which will draw out any problems, concerns or uncertainties. It will also give them a chance to refine their existing ideas. Second, students will be able to supplement their thoughts with those of others, helping them to extend their thinking further than if they were to continue reasoning alone.

Encourage high-quality speaking

In considering paired talk we touched briefly on the importance of facilitating speaking and listening to ensure that it is of a high standard. Now we will look at specific techniques you can use to do this.

One very important technique is waiting after asking a question. In the classroom, we frequently ask questions and expect an immediate response. Often this is because we are trying to keep the lesson moving. But giving students time to respond is an important part of encouraging high-quality speaking. By doing so, you will be giving them time to think and their responses will be of a better standard.

Second, there is the issue of structure. In each of the activities above, some form of structure underpins the speaking. In speed debating, it is the contrived nature of the debate, with students asked to defend or denounce a proposition regardless of their own feelings. In interviewing, it is the need to answer the questions posed by a peer. In paired talk, it is the questions or modelling provided by the teacher, along with the choice of discussion topic.

Structure ensures that students' speech is focused and relevant, and 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 in which you encourage them to ask certain types of questions. For example, you could ask students to focus solely on asking open questions. You could then follow this with a discussion in which different sorts of questions are analysed and students assess their strengths and weaknesses.

Listening activities

So far we have focused a little more on speaking than listening. But we will now look at three activities that concentrate on listening.

A "lecturette" is a lecture in miniature. In university education, lectures are often an hour long - sometimes even longer. This is inappropriate in schools. Indeed, I think it is far from ideal in any setting. Still, during the course of their lives students will frequently be in situations where they 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 them through a topic for about 20 minutes. Then invite them to share, compare and contrast their notes with three of their peers. This process should be one of analysis and discovery. They should add to their notes where appropriate from the information their peers have shared.

Our next listening activity is "hot-seating", a technique that will be familiar to many teachers. Divide the class into groups of four and appoint a hot-seater in each. These students come to the front of the class where they are told that they will be taking on a role or character associated with the topic under discussion. It can be helpful to give them a sheet with background information about the character.

The students then return to their seats and let their fellow group members quiz them. The idea is that the rest of the group is trying to find out as much as possible about the character the hot-seater is playing. They need to listen carefully throughout the activity, not least to gain ideas about the range of questions they will have to ask 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 must 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 is slightly different. Divide the class into groups of four. In each group, one student reads a piece of their work aloud while the rest of the group listens. A discussion then takes place in which students share 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.

We touched on listening frames in the previous section. There are no hard and fast rules about how to structure these. Here are three potential approaches:

First, provide students with a sheet of A4 paper divided into four. In each quadrant, there should be a question students will be able to 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 various 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. When we want students to do something, or to understand something, we frequently show them how using our body language. 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. Are you looking at the speaker? What sort of body language are you displaying? Are you asking any questions? If so, what type of questions? Everything you do should be setting a great example for your students. And do not be afraid to talk to them about this - highlight your choices and actions, and talk about why they are effective.

Encourage students to ask questions. The most useful questions, after listening to a piece of text, are those that ask for further facts or clarification. These help us to understand precisely what the speaker is trying to say. Using them shows that not only have we listened but we are interested enough to want to find out more, and to check that what we think we have heard and understood is correct. 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 that almost any teacher can use in almost any lesson to help ensure that excellent speaking and listening takes place.

The thread that runs throughout is a sense that structure, modelling and carefully targeted support will help students to use their existing skills in the service of learning. Hopefully we can show them that by using these skills inside the classroom 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 us to clarify, develop and improve 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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