Students, especially pre-teens and teens, all too often shy away from healthy conversation with their peers, choosing instead to stare at their smartphones. Many would rather text one another than have an actual conversation, even when they are sitting inside the same room or classroom.
According to one education expert who recently visited a third grade classroom, she was struck by a set of rules that had been posted by the teacher regarding the proper ways to engage in healthy conversation. The poster stated, “Each person must contribute to the discussion but take turns talking. Ask each other, ‘Would you like to add to my idea?’ or ‘Can you tell us what you are thinking?’ Ask questions so that you understand each other’s ideas. Say, ‘Can you tell me more about that?’ or ‘Can you say that in another way?’”
The education expert, having also visited many middle schools and high schools, thought these same rules should apply and also be posted in each classroom. It’s possible if not probable that you have observed how sadly common it is these days for students not to know the proper way to engage in a face-to-face conversation.
The problem could be due to the proliferation of smartphone tech and rampant social media platforms. It could be attributable to popular talk shows where people are no longer tolerant of their peer’s opinions. It might have something to do with a general breakdown in the family dinner hour. It could also be due to tweeting and texting as a preferred form of communication.
While the real reason behind pre-teen and teenage students’ lack of conversational skills may never be truly identified, here are 5 tips for teaching them how to communicate better.
1. Make Yourself a Model for Good Conversation.
As a teacher and/or a parent, you should make certain of engaging a one-to-two minute, face-to-face conversation with students who struggle with conversation. It’s a good idea to share information regarding yourself like you would when meeting up with a friend, and to pay attention to the student’s interests. You can ask questions that double as conversation prompts like, “No kidding?” or “Wow” or “Really?”
If the students still don’t engage in conversation after a couple of tries, do not give up. They will come around sooner or later.
2. You Must Make Eye Contact.
When a student speaks in a classroom and you are intent on listing, you should give him or her proper eye contact. But, you should gradually shift your focus away from the speaker and direct your eye contact onto the other listening students. This gets the speaker to redirect his focus away from you and onto the other listeners and, at the same time, getting everyone engaged.
This can be accomplished in a traditional classroom setting of desks that face the blackboard. But in less traditional classrooms that replace the old fashioned desk for a conversation table or tables, students can comfortably and casually face one another and engage in hearty conversation. Conversation tables do exactly what they are named for. They encourage the verbal exchange of ideas.
3. You Must Nurture Physical Cues.
Not all conversation occurs from your vocal cords. Says Edutopia.org, you should identify procedures for indulging in a conversation that also includes non-verbal behavior. As an example, you can teach a strategy known as S.L.A.N.T. or, “Sit Straight. Listen. Answer and ask questions. Nod to show interest. Track the speaker.”
4. Always Challenge Negativity and Hurtful Comments.
If a student smugly says something like, “I think what he said is really dumb,” you might challenge with a rebuke like, “How can you rephrase that so it’s not so hurtful?” Or, if the student still seems unaware of his or her negative response, you might challenge him a little more forcefully with, “I totally disagree with your response.”
5. Encourage Informal Chats.
Before a class formally begins you can gather around a conversation table or stand out in the hallway, and simply engage the students about how their other classes are going. In the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, you might ask them their opinion on the virtual classroom versus the traditional classroom environment.
Or if you want to get their thoughts away from academia, ask them their opinion on the outcome of a recent sporting event, or a about a current event, or even the state of politics either in your state or on a federal level. “So what do you think of our new President?” you might ask. You might be surprised at the variety of answers such an open-ended question elicits.