3 Tips for Teaching Speaking and Listening Skills

Students need strong speaking and listening skills to succeed in school and beyond.

There is truth to the old adage “what is tested, is taught,” particularly in the past several years of assessment mania. The question we need to be asking ourselves, though, is what “test” are we preparing our students for?

Clearly, standardized assessments have their place, but some of the biggest tests our students will experience will not come in the form of paper and pencil; rather, students are going to face an increasingly connected and communicative 21st century, and those without strong speaking and listening skills are going to be relegated to lower-paying jobs with fewer opportunities. We can already see this happening, and as the speed and ease of communicating globally continues to accelerate, the true capital will be in the ability to synthesize and collaborate.

What can we do to prepare our students for this eventuality? Here are three strategies to incorporate 21st-century communication instruction of speaking and listening skills into your daily teaching:

Overt Instruction

“I need a pencil,” the slouching boy said quietly, as he looked right past me. He stood, seemingly agitated, shifting from foot to foot.

“I can let you borrow one. But, I want to tell you a better way to get one. Right now I feel like you are irritated at me because you don’t have a pencil. When you don’t look at me, I feel like you are mad. You seem like you want to run away because you keep moving around. Maybe you could ask a question instead of just stating your problem. Any ideas?” I said, slowly and carefully choosing my words. I wasn’t trying to be condescending, and I didn’t want teenage angst to mistake my tone.

“Can I have one?” he asked, glancing at me.

“Of course. Here you go,” I said, opening my drawer. As I handed it to him, I asked, “Can I show you how this whole conversation could make both of us feel capable instead of awkward?”

“Whatever. Sure,” he said, acquiescing, since he didn’t really have any choice.

“Hi, Todd. I’m sorry to bother you. I seem to have misplaced my pencil. May I borrow one?” I said, modeling for him what a successful interaction would look like in this situation. I smiled and kept eye contact.

“So be nice. Is that what you’re saying?” Todd asked, looking me in the eye for the first time.

“Yes. But it is more than that. It is the way you speak—with confidence, but politely, and how you listen—with your eyes and ears. When you are trying to communicate, you give off a vibe. You want to make that vibe the best you can.”

Todd nodded and turned quickly away when the bell rang. Did this quick interaction make Todd a shoo-in for a Fortune 500 job? No, but it did pave the way for appropriate social interactions that involve speaking and listening.

At first glance this scenario may not seem to be so much academic as a question of manners; however, a closer look reveals that the Common Core Standards require students to: “Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.” The best part of addressing the speaking and listening standards is that it is a literacy issue that can be advanced in any classroom situation.

AMLE talks with author Amber Chandler about Speaking and Listening Skills

I’ll be the first to tell you that the overt conversation I am suggesting here is a bit uncomfortable at the onset. However, where else in the curriculum can you have this kind of immediate and useful impact? As we project what our students are going to need in the future, we can be sure that communication is crucial. This is a power standard that will pay great dividends as we shape students’ speaking and listening skills to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

One of the things I love at this moment in education is the reevaluation of what expertise is necessary and which skills we’ve been teaching out of habit. I vividly remember teaching my students how to use MLA style, explaining how to remember the specific parts of a Works Cited. That was fewer than 10 years ago, yet it seems like a horrible waste of time to today’s students because of advances in technology and websites like Noodletools that will generate your Works Cited for you, as long as you plug in the information.

As technology continues to evolve, the need for memorized and rote tasks will be replaced by a surge in the 21st century Four C’s described by the Partnership for 21st-Century Skills (a collaborative of both business and education interests): critical thinking, communicating, collaborating, and creating.

Being able to adapt your speech to a variety of scenarios is not only useful, but expected. Though these types of overt conversations seem forced at first, you’ll be surprised how quickly students will pick up on the correct social cues and adapt their speaking and listening skills.

Push through your initial doubts about this tactic, and you will do your students a favor that just might get them a job interview, an internship, or simply help them find what they need in the library.

Student Voice

Active listening strategies keep students engaged and promote an environment that values all voices.

Another simple way to incorporate speaking and listening instruction in your classroom is through easy-to-implement adjustments to the learning environment. The first one is going to sound a little ridiculous initially: Instead of taking attendance, have students “sound off” down the attendance list. This means they will listen to each name recited, and when it reaches their place in the alphabet, say their own name out loud. If you were walking by at the beginning of my class you’d hear students stating their names in rapid succession.

The result is two-fold. I’m always looking for ways to tighten procedural and transitional activities, and this method cuts the time required to take attendance by 25%. The second, and more important reason to have students take their own attendance, is to have students confidently state their own name. This is the opportunity to talk to students about how they present themselves to the world.

I have to admit I got this idea from my dad. Growing up, I noticed that he’d always answer the phone by saying his name: “Hello, this is Gene Crawford.” I didn’t give it much thought until I was an adult and realized that I always did the same thing. A friend of mine once jokingly said to me, “When you answer the phone, it’s like I’m talking to someone important.” I’d never thought of it that way, but I can attest that there is perceived power in this simple gesture. Feeling comfortable to assert yourself begins with self-assurance to speak up—both literally and figuratively.

Another simple way for students to gain confidence is through a management tool that also promotes a collaborative environment where students collectively establish meaning. When we are having a discussion in class, I call on the first student and then tell students we are going to go into “rotating chair” mode. This means that the first student will summarize what I said, then add his or her own comment or opinion. That student then calls on the next student, who does the same thing.

It might sound like this: “Mrs. Chandler said that fate was really important to the story. Jill agreed but also stated that family relationships were really highlighted by the author. I didn’t think of it that way. I thought the author was trying to explain human greed.”

After several students have contributed in this fashion, I jump in and ask a clarifying question or broach a new topic.

Students exercise their listening skills because they have to summarize the comments of those prior to them in the conversation; they hone their speaking skills by adding to the conversation. This, of course, supports students as they “Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 8 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.”

This strategy is great for discussions because it prevents students from waving their hands wildly in the air, only to say the exact same thing as the person before them because they were not listening, just thinking of what they were going to say. The result is great discourse and another opportunity for students to become more self-assured through speaking and listening.

Project-based Learning

Project-based learning is an inquiry-based unit of study that begins with a burning question that students will answer through research, collaboration, and creative expression.

Students eventually will need to present their findings to an authentic audience of both their peers and members of the community—whether that be the school community of parents and administrators or local community members. Their final presentation is an opportunity to synthesize the information they have found and share it in a meaningful way.

The Common Core Standards are explicit in their expectations of research, technology use, and students’ need for a polished exhibition of ideas: “Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning, and well-chosen details; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation” and “Integrate multimedia and visual displays into presentations to clarify information, strengthen claims and evidence, and add interest.”

In addition to addressing the speaking and listening standards, project-based learning builds community while addressing all four of the 21st-century C’s: critical thinking, communicating, collaborating, and creating.

This is an important note for those teachers who may feel that projects, presentations, and collaboration don’t fit into the prescribed curriculum. So many times, teachers are laser-focused on the standards that are tested; yet, the speaking and listening standards encompass the skills that are in all likelihood going to get your students in the proverbial door. Not only is it beneficial to students’ futures, but a focus on speaking and listening skills creates a climate of respect.

Positive SLANT

In my class we use SLANT, an acronym from Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov. The “S” stands for sitting up straight, the “L” is for lean forward and listen, “A” is for answer, “N” is for nod your head, and “T” is for track the speaker. These are active listening strategies that keep students engaged and promote a classroom environment that values all voices, perhaps the most important 21st-century lesson of them all.