Virtual Teammates, it’s time we chat… about chatting. Recently, many of you reached out asking for advice on one common struggle. How do I teach conversation skills?
After settling into the year, you’ve noticed some patterns:
- Older children are engaging in more parallel play than ever before
- When students sit together, their conversations of lack connections and responses
- More students seem to be taking up all of the air time (or battling for it)
- Children sit in silence because no one is initiating conversation
This makes sense. Many children missed crucial years of building conversation skills through regular social interactions. Their in-person schooling was either moved online or had higher social restrictions than ever before. Our students’ primary place for building conversation skills was the home. Which, as you know, offers a very different kind of social interaction.
Why this Matters Right Now
Conversation skills are a key part of relationship building.
This isn’t something most of us learned in teacher prep programs.
So, we know students are struggling, but how do we remedy this situation? By teaching conversation skills directly. This isn’t a new concept, but it is much more widely needed nowadays, which is why we’re here! Today I will share three steps:
- How I break down conversation skills into subskills
- How I teach them
- When to teach them (Yes, you have time!)
- Ways to ensure you’re staying inclusive each step
Identify & Teach Conversation Subskills
Conversation skills have been part of my teaching practice for over a decade. At first, I focused on four components of conversations that I noticed as HUGE hurdles to building friendships: Starting, Maintaining, Joining, and Ending.
However, the more I observed, the more I learned. There were so many different subskills under the umbrella of conversation skills that I took for granted:
- Looking for Connections
- Air Time
- Reading Body Language
Bit by bit, I realized that children master different subskills at different rates and times. Some were amazing listeners, while others were regularly making connections. Some students were ON AIR throughout a conversation but were not responding to their peers.
The first step to supporting students was identifying their personal conversation skills, strengths, and weaknesses.
Initiation is the act of entering into or getting a conversation started. For many students, initiation is one of the most challenging conversation skills to learn and enact. However, it is crucial. Without initiation, there is no conversation.
To initiate a conversation, our students need to notice a few important cues:
- If it is or is not an appropriate time to start a conversation
- Social cues that show your conversational group is ready to listen
- Whether or not a topic is appropriate or potentially interesting to the group
When teaching conversation skills, initiation can be tricky. However, I’ve noticed that teaching students to start conversations by asking questions is incredibly helpful. First, it connects to our class work on developing empathy skills. Second, it helps students who don’t know each other well to learn common interests before settling on a conversation topic.
Listening is another major component of well-rounded conversation skills. Listening is not just being quiet while others speak (although you might hear that as a definition from students). Instead, listening is taking in information from your conversational peers.
Inclusivity Reminder: Contrary to popular belief, listening looks different for everyone. Some students will maintain eye contact, while others will look away and make subtle movements of recognition.
A key way that we show our listening is through our response. Verbal responses acknowledge what another person has said and continue the conversation.
For example, if Student A says, “This weekend, I got a new book!” In response, Student B might ask, “What book?”. Student B’s verbal response acknowledges the “new book” while eliciting continued dialogue between the two people.
You might be thinking: Jillian, this is beyond basic. But, many of us respond to people without thinking about it. We take these social skills for granted.
However, highlighting conversational responses is important for many students who have had more limited social interaction or need support with learning social cues. Often, children have difficulty following up and responding to someone when they aren’t asking a question.
Different ways of responding include (but, of course, are not limited to):
- Asking follow-up questions (ex: What book did you get?)
- Acknowledging knowledge of the subject (ex: Oh yes, that book was on the shelf last week.)
- Stating an opinion in reaction to what someone says (ex: We shouldn’t buy new books).
- Making a connection (ex: I bought a new book too!)
Looking for Connections
Take a moment: Think about typical student conversations.
After receiving emails from many of you with this problem, I took time to reflect on past conversations in the classroom and observe my own children (and adults). I noticed that the primary form of response was making connections.
Making connections is a crucial part of early conversation skills. One of the primary ways we bond with each other is by identifying similarities. In a conversation, connections help us identify what we have in common.
Learning how to balance air time is one of the overlooked lifelong conversation skills that we all need to learn. Air time is the amount of time you are speaking compared to others in a conversation.
When talking about conversation skills, we often focus on what we should do in conversations (no matter how large the group). But when do we know how to stop talking or responding?
Like many conversation skills, awareness of air time involves closely looking at the people in your conversation. It also requires self-awareness of how much one is speaking.
Reading Body Language
Language isn’t all verbal.
A massive percentage of our reactions are shown through body language. Does something pique your interest? Your eyebrows might raise, a smile may start to form on your face, or you might turn toward the speaker. Is the conversation losing your group’s attention? Their shoulders might start to sag, their bodies may turn elsewhere, and they might start to fidget.
Inclusivity Reminder: Again, all people are different. Body language might look different depending on the person.
When to Teach Conversation Skills
SEL (social-emotional learning) always intrigued me. Yet as a new teacher, I regularly asked myself: When on earth do I have time to teach it?!
And I get questions like this a lot whenever I post about SEL on Instagram. When it comes to SEL lessons, it can feel like solving a Sunday morning crossword puzzle to fit them into our already packed schedules.
I get it. Many teachers don’t have flexible blocks to dedicate to SEL lessons. There are endless standards that we need to cover. And unfortunately, many administrators don’t always support SEL lessons. Perhaps, because they are not part of a script. Or because they are more worried about test scores.
That’s why we need to get creative. A little creativity can open up numerous pockets of time that can you dedicated to specific SEL skills, including conversation skills.
- Morning Meeting
- Snack Time
- Read Alouds
Morning meeting is prime time for social-emotional learning. Every morning, we gather in the meeting area. We get ready for the day with our calendar math routine. Then, we engage in different SEL-based activities.
Many of our games and activities in Morning Meeting help students develop conversation skills. They encourage students to:
- Share experiences with each other
- Collaborate and help each other
- Discuss ideas
- Listen to another person’s ideas or interests
Morning Meeting also offers time to teach conversation skills directly and immediately practice them with short activities.
Another great time for students to build conversation skills: Snack Time.
In my classroom, I create a very intentional snack time routine. The routine includes:
- Intentionally creating snack time free of academic expectations
- Intentionally creating snack time placements
Conversation skills aren’t just meant to be built with established friends. That’s why I assign snack time placements with students who do not naturally gravitate toward each other.
This can be tricky.
While I often rely on observations to decide who should sit together, I’ve also implemented the “notecard” activity. You may have seen this practice elsewhere on the teacher-web. It’s become popular because it is an excellent way to notice who is getting left out.
The notecard activity is simple:
- Give students a pencil and a notecard
- Let students know that they will be writing down the names of people to sit with, they will not be choosing all of their tablemates, but they will sit with at least one tablemate.
- Remind them that this activity is confidential. They should not share the information they write with anyone.
- They can write down two people they enjoy sitting with, and one they haven’t spent much time with but are interested in getting to know.
When in doubt: Teach it through a read-aloud.
There are so many amazing ways to teach conversation skills through read-alouds. And, on top of that, you can get very creative with conversation skills in picture books.
There are two approaches to teaching conversation skills through read-alouds:
- Books that EXPLICITLY discuss or portray conversation skills
- Books that stir up conversations that can turn into a guided, conversation practice
Inclusive Conversation Skills Discussions
What does that mean?
Most important: Don’t assume that your idea of how someone should act or behave in conversation is the only way. As you discuss the basics of conversation skills with your class, you also need to discuss how that can look different depending on the person you’re talking to.
Not Everyone Is the Same. Even without a “diagnosis,” not every person (kids or adults) will act the same in a conversation.
You’ve probably noticed this in your day-to-day interactions with colleagues. Some people will joyfully enter and contribute to conversations. They quickly feel at ease sharing, no matter the group dynamic. They can’t wait to share stories and ask questions. You hear their voice a lot.
Other people are much quieter. You can see that they are listening and actively engaged through their body language. Occasionally, they will ask a question or share a connection. However, they prefer to listen deeply to what others have to share. Sometimes, you might wonder if they are listening, and then, suddenly, they respond in detail. They’ve heard and processed everything.
And some people are somewhere in the middle.
I call this: the Big Talker-Big Listener range.
Every year, our “Big Talker-Big Listener” talk is one of the most important conversations.
- It helps students reflect on their own social preferences (and articulate them)
- It helps students recognize that conversation skills look different for everyone.
- It reminds everyone that just because we are learning conversation skills doesn’t mean we should monitor our peers as their conversational styles might differ.
Conversations, at their core, should be enjoyable! They are an opportunity to learn about each other and share experiences. Students should not feel like they have to fit a specific mold. Rather, learning conversation skills is a practice of empathy and effective socializing.
In addition to the “big talker-big listener” discussion, I aim to be transparent about two more crucial aspects of conversation skills:
- Air time
- Empathy/thinking about others
Conversations are a way of connecting. And while some people are big talkers, they should also be aware of how others react to their stories and thoughts.
Likewise, some people are big listeners. They can reflect on how they show that they are listening even if not verbally responding.
Tools & Tricks for Teaching Conversation Skills
Conversation skills aren’t unique.
Let me explain: I approach the teaching of conversation skills just like I approach teaching literacy and math. Students need direct instruction, ample demonstrations, practice opportunities, and reflection moments.
Here’s my process:
First, we discuss. I begin our lessons with specific subskills in mind. For example, initiating a conversation. Often taking place during morning meetings, I present the skill of initiating a conversation. Then, I turn it over to the kids. I ask: How would you start a conversation if you wanted to talk to someone new?
Some kids won’t know what to do. But, others will have lots of ideas. We write those ideas down and try to think of concrete examples of how to start talking (enter: conversation sentence starters).
Second, I demonstrate! Similar to a demonstration of a routine or activity, I show the first demonstration. After, I ask volunteer students to try.
Third, we practice! Because SEL blocks are limited (or non-existent), we often do a quick “turn and talk” practice. However, we refer to that subskill for days (or weeks) afterward. We engage in morning meeting activities that highlight the skill. And I make sure to remind students about the skill before snack time.
Finally, we reflect. Sometimes, this takes place during morning meetings. Alternatively, I use journal prompts for students to write about their experience with the recent conversation skill we learned. For example, I might ask: What techniques do you use to start a conversation? Or, describe a time you started a conversation.
Practice, Practice, Practice (in Small & Whole Group Settings)
Important: Vary your practice time!
Conversation skills can be practiced in a range of situations. And they should. Conversations vary, and so supported practice should as well. Participation often skyrockets when practicing in small groups or partnerships.
Why might students be more willing to participate in a small group? Let’s get into our students’ shoes.
Imagine: You’re at a conference. You enter a discussion with 20+ people. You’re having a discussion about a topic that you know a lot about. However, there are a lot of voices contributing. How does that make you feel? How likely are you to jump in without a moderator?
Large group conversations can be overwhelming. Instead, have students practice in small groups or in partnerships. I’ve found that the magic number is 2-4 students.
Sometimes the conversation comes to a halt. Or worse, you need help getting it started. Here I like to lean on something I call Conversation Sticks.
Each conversation stick provides a prompt to the group in conversation. For example, a stick might read: “talk about the people in your family.” One person picks a conversation stick out of a jar. Then, the group members take turns responding.
I try to keep conversation sticks concrete and low stakes. That way, students don’t need to think too hard and find things in common more quickly.
Note: Like all activities, we start by using conversation sticks as a group. We learn how to use them properly and effectively. Then, students can use them independently.
Partner Work in ELA & Math Stations
Conversation skills and get-to-know-you activities aren’t just for the first six weeks of school. Throughout the year, I incorporate relationship-building activities into my ELA stations.
Partner work in rotating stations is an excellent way to practice conversation skills. Students will problem-solve, take turns, initiate ideas, respond, listen, and connect via shared experiences.
Believe it or not, even my math centers sneak conversation skill-building. Partner games and collaborative activities are conversation starters!
Conversation skills are a building block of lasting, meaningful relationships. I hope this post will help you structure and implement conversation skill-building in your classroom. I promise that working on conversation skills will EMPOWER and bond your classroom community. Notice any additional tips and tricks along the way? Please share!