Speaking and listening are at the core of learning. As babies, we learn by listening. As we begin to speak, we quickly start to ask questions, state opinions, and make our needs known, learning about the world around us in the process. The building blocks of oral literacy ultimately support us in developing skills with written literacy.
“Language … is how we think.”
—Fisher, Frey, and Rothenberg, 2008
Throughout our lives, speaking and listening serve essential social and educational purposes. We connect with others by speaking and listening. Listening attentively and tailoring our speech to another person is key to building relationships. Our spoken language also shapes our thinking; we take unformed ideas and give them form and structure through speech.
Opportunities for speaking and listening in the classroom serve many purposes, including the following:
- Speaking and listening help build social skills. Classroom conversations create a community of learners and build students’ social and emotional skills. Students build key relationship skills such as respectfully listening, speaking, and taking turns through dialogue.
- Speaking and listening help build intellectual skills. Academic discussions support students in developing key skills, such as thinking about and then articulating ideas, asking questions, making connections among ideas, respectfully disagreeing, and adapting thinking based on new information from others.
- Speaking and listening support knowledge building. Speaking and listening about topics and ideas help students process and retain knowledge. Academic conversations help students deepen their understanding of and retain what they learn and develop the related vocabulary.
- Speaking and listening improve speaking and listening. Conversational, social oral language may develop naturally, but more formal academic language—and structures for communication—emerge through intentional practice. All students, and particularly multilingual learners, benefit from explicit instruction in speaking and listening in the classroom.
FINDINGS FROM EXPERTS AND RESEARCH
Research shows that oral language is foundational to written literacy. Researchers have found that “children’s oral language competence is strongly predictive of their facility in learning to read and write: listening and speaking vocabulary and even mastery of syntax set boundaries as to what children can read and understand no matter how well they can decode” (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010).
Studies like the following further support the foundational nature of oral language skill development. Lervåg and his colleagues (2018) conducted a longitudinal study and found listening comprehension and vocabulary to be predictors of early and later growth of reading comprehension skills. Another longitudinal study of children in Kindergarten through Grade 2 found a relationship between oral and written literacy, where students’ oral competence was a predictor for their writing competence (Pinto, Bigozzi, and Tarchi, 2015). Researchers Wise et al. (2007) studied Grade 2 and 3 students with diagnosed reading disabilities and found that oral language skills correlated with reading achievement and that expressive vocabulary and listening comprehension skills supported students’ word identification skills.
The oral literacy that undergirds students’ reading and writing has additional benefits. The connection between oral language and thought continues to be a focus of research. Current findings suggest that “being taught to use exploratory talk helps develop children’s individual reasoning skills” (Mercer, Wegerif, and Dawes, 1999).
Children learn oral language naturally “when they are immersed in it and when they use it for real purposes” (Zwiers and Crawford, 2011), but more formal academic oral language, both words and structures, must be modeled and taught. In the classroom, teachers must be intentional about creating and supporting students in activities in which they employ academic and content-area vocabulary, use the formal structures of English style and conventions, and organize ideas on a specific topic. Researchers Mercer, Wegerif, and Dawes (1999) attest that “the ground rules of exploratory talk can be taught and their use improves [student work].”
Studies show that increasing opportunities for speaking and listening is a matter of equity. Research shows that teachers tend to provide fewer opportunities for classroom discussion to multilingual students and those from lower-income backgrounds (Zwiers and Crawford, 2011).
“Oral language is a cornerstone on which we build our literacy and learning through life.”
—Zwiers and Crawford, 2011
RESEARCH IN ACTION IN WIT & WISDOM
Wit & Wisdom builds students’ ability to communicate by maximizing the quality, quantity, and variety of their speaking and listening experiences. Students have opportunities to speak to learn; they also have instruction in the skills needed to learn to speak in academic discussions:
- Speaking to Learn: Daily lessons intentionally shift the balance of talking from teachers to students by engaging students in multiple meaningful opportunities to speak and listen. These opportunities help students build and retain knowledge by sharing and refining ideas in discussions with peers. Speaking-to-learn opportunities in Wit & Wisdom are often structured through instructional routines and practices like these:
- Gallery Walk—Students engage in structured conversations about some aspect of peers’ work, deepening their understanding of topics and tasks in the process.
- Jigsaw—Students each study one section of a text and then deepen their understanding by sharing what they learned with students who studied other sections and by listening to what others share.
- Mix and Mingle—Students develop a question (or questions) and then circulate to share and discuss with a peer, enabling them to move around the room and articulate their ideas with multiple peers.
- Oral Rehearsal—Students process their ideas orally before committing their thoughts to paper. This kind of oral rehearsal as prewriting helps students “hear” their thinking and structure as a form of planning and organizing their ideas before writing.
- Think–Pair–Share—Students think about and discuss their ideas with a partner before sharing with the whole group. This routine encourages universal participation and gives students the chance to prepare their thoughts before sharing in a larger setting.
- Turn and Talk—Students take turns listening and speaking with a partner to prepare for a whole group discussion or for reflecting on learning. A Turn and Talk allows students to practice skills in a meaningful context and provides teachers an opportunity to model effective speaking and listening behaviors.
- Whip Around—Students verbally share their responses to an open-ended question, one after another, as a quick check for understanding or a culminating reflection on learning. Sharing aloud offers students the chance to hear the diversity of responses and provides teachers the chance to assess the general level of understanding.
- Learning to Speak: The Content–Speaking Connection—Wit & Wisdom’s foundational structure is the Content–Craft–Create framework. The framework begins with content. Knowledge is the foundation of students’ learning and the basis of their success as readers, speakers, and writers. All craft instruction in Wit & Wisdom is grounded in the content and texts, and students use speaking as a tool for learning as they build the skills of effective speakers. Students use the integrated elements of content and craft together when they speak to communicate their ideas and understandings.
- Learning to Speak: Explicit and Implicit Instruction—Students learn speaking and listening through rich, rigorous, and joyful instruction. From explicit modeling to experimentation to independent expression, students build capacity in discrete speaking and listening skills that make their communications stronger. As with writing instruction, this speaking and listening instruction is always text based or text inspired and follows the Craft Stages. Students hone their skills and awareness of the many purposes for speaking and listening, and they learn to tailor their speaking and listening for a specific purpose and audience. Students also learn how to participate in daily academic conversations and how to deliver a formal presentation.
The Socratic Seminar is an essential element of Wit & Wisdom’s approach to speaking and listening. These seminars provide a space for students to engage in the joyful rigor of building knowledge as part of a community of learners and allow teachers to assess students’ speaking and listening skill development. Each seminar focuses on a rigorous question that provokes new thinking and requires students to rely on evidence from module texts. Students prepare for these structured academic conversations by gathering evidence to respond to the seminar question. Students apply the crafts of speaking and listening to express and extend what they have learned from their reading and writing. In every Wit & Wisdom module, students engage in two or more Socratic Seminars, building their skills toward independence. For more detailed guidance on Socratic Seminars, see the Implementation Guide, http://witeng.link/IG, pages 89–95.
The following ideas can help you to support speaking and listening in your classroom
Deepen your understanding of speaking and listening skills. To teach speaking and listening well, teachers must have a deep understanding of what strong speaking and listening looks like and what skills effective speakers and listeners employ. State standards are a useful source of guidance to identify grade-level skills in speaking and listening. The Wit & Wisdom speaking and listening rubrics in Appendix C and the checklists with Socratic Seminars also unpack specific skills. Analyzing students’ speaking and listening can be challenging in the moment. Teachers might consider recording student conversations, which they can then analyze to determine what students did well and what skills they might need to focus on in upcoming conversations. Teachers can do this work individually or collaboratively in grade-level Professional Learning Communities.
Hone your facilitation skills. Students learn best when teachers artfully facilitate academic discussions. Focus on developing facilitation skills like the following:
- Asking compelling questions—Questions with a clear right or wrong answer promote a teacher-centered approach. Instead, focus classroom conversations on texts, and pose open-ended questions that encourage student-centered discussion. As City (2014) puts it, “Texts provide common ground for the conversation—terrain on which people with different experiences and ideas can engage.”
- Providing sufficient wait time—Wait time (consider 8–10 seconds) helps ensure that students have a chance to reflect on what they want to say and how to say it before the conversation begins. Teach students what wait time is and why it matters so they use it productively. Being explicit about wait time also helps students learn to hold their thoughts instead of speaking immediately.
- Flexibly using routines to support academic conversation—If students are struggling in a whole group conversation, consider having them Stop and Jot for more individual reflection or Turn and Talk with a partner to refine their thinking without the pressure a whole group conversation brings.
- Helping students talk to each other directly—Rather than filtering all comments through you, encourage students to respond directly to each other. Avoid providing feedback on each individual comment; instead, keep the focus on the student-to-student conversation. When students cannot hear or understand what another student has said, avoid repeating or explaining for that student. Rather, ask the student to speak louder or to rephrase.
- Asking follow-up questions when needed—Rather than stepping in with the answer when students are struggling, ask follow-up questions that support them in articulating their own thinking. For example, direct students’ attention to a particular section of the text (“What evidence can you find on page 35 to help us answer this question?”) or ask students to consider learning from earlier lessons (“In our Reveal lesson, we discussed how the author juxtaposed two characters. How can those differences help us determine the theme?”)
- Paraphrasing students’ points—At key points, reflecting back students’ points helps them see how their words are heard and communicates respect for students and their ideas.
- Summarizing key discussion points—Particularly in longer discussions, students sometimes lose track of progress and the conversational thread. Step in at these moments to summarize students’ discussions and name key questions that remain.
Establish ground rules. Clear guidelines for effective speaking and listening support students’ effective practices, expectations, and self-assessment. An anchor chart that lists speaking and listening expectations, such as “No hand-raising while someone is speaking,” reminds students of key behaviors in collaborative conversations. To increase ownership of these expectations, engage in a collaborative process to identify the classroom rules for discussion.
Ensure that students are prepared. The most effective writing happens when students investigate and develop specific ideas to communicate. In the same way, successful classroom conversations require preparation. Help students structure their evidence collection by encouraging them to use organizers to collect evidence over the course of lessons and the module. Students can also record their thinking and maintain notes in other ways. They might bring sticky notes with key ideas to formal Socratic Seminars, for example, to remind them of specific textual evidence they want to discuss.
Provide ongoing support. In addition to establishing ground rules like those described above, support for students’ speaking and listening can take many forms.
- Sentence frames that model academic language, such as the examples below, help students interact respectfully in Socratic Seminars and other discussions.
- Based on _____, I think that _____.
- What I heard you say was ____.
- Can you say more about _____?
- How did you come to that conclusion?
- I disagree with _____ because _____.
- I want to add to what ____ said because _____.
- Modeling supports students in understanding expectations. Teachers can model how to listen and interact respectfully and can model the use of academic language. Modeling verbal and nonverbal strategies supports students’ effective oral communication and collaboration skills.
- Posted lists of academic and content-area vocabulary support students with choosing more precise words.
Foster participation by all students. To develop speaking and listening skills, all students need to speak and listen. Many Wit & Wisdom instructional routines—such as Think–Pair–Share, Mix and Mingle, and Turn and Talk—support quiet students or those who find speaking in the whole group challenging. Use these structures as needed, but also work to ensure that all students participate in larger discussions. Monitor whole group discussions for participation and facilitate so that all students engage.
Gradually increase students’ independence. As students become familiar with classroom routines and expectations for collaborative, academic conversations, they engage with minimal adult support.
Preserve speaking and listening opportunities. Processing information during discussions can be time-consuming, and it can be tempting to abbreviate students’ conversations or lessen or remove opportunities to talk. However, doing so undercuts students’ content understanding and speaking and listening skill development. Even when pacing is a challenge, take care not to modify to remove speaking and listening opportunities and instructional routines.
Assess and recognize progress. Promote students’ self-assessment as an approach to building their awareness of their speaking and listening skills. After Socratic Seminars, students can use a checklist that might include skills like these:
- I took turns speaking and listening.
- I followed the rules for working in my group.
- I connected my comments to other students’ comments.
- I listened respectfully with my whole body.
Many Wit & Wisdom modules include checklists for specific speaking and listening performances, such as oral presentations and Socratic Seminars. In addition, Appendix C in many modules includes a speaking and listening rubric that delineates performance expectations for process and listening. Teachers can observe students and record elements like these:
- Number of comments (tally)
- Responds to what others say
- Speaks in complete sentences
- Initiates new ideas
- Listens attentively
Teachers, too, can benefit from self-assessment. Ask yourself questions like these:
- Am I using classroom talk purposefully to deepen students’ understandings—not just to check on their comprehension?
- Are my questions rich enough to ignite—not direct—students’ conversations?
- Would a visitor to my classroom hear more of my voice or more of my students’ voices?
- Do students ask each other questions, or do they wait for me to ask them questions?
- Am I comfortable with silence, or do I jump in to try to rescue students?
Document your strengths and set goals for growth.
ENGAGING FAMILIES AND CAREGIVERS IN SPEAKING AND LISTENING
Families’ and caregivers’ daily conversations with children play a key role in children’s speaking and listening development. You can support further development of students’ oral language outside of school by sharing ideas like these with families and caregivers:
- Read books aloud together. Choose books with interesting content, beautiful images, and descriptive vocabulary. For younger children especially, read favorite books again. Draw children into the reading by noticing and wondering about the book’s language, ideas, and words. Ask questions.
- What do you think will happen next?
- What does this remind you of?
- What do you see in that picture?
- Why do you think that character made that decision or acted that way?
- Talk to each other. Devote time to family members sharing about the events of their lives as well as their hopes and dreams. Tell each other stories, real or imagined. Ask questions to ensure turn-taking. Engage in extended conversations that go back and forth.
- Encourage children’s questions. Questions foster learning and conversation. Listen to children’s questions and, when possible, help them explore answers.
- Narrate children’s activities. Doing so models thinking and speaking.
Oral communication matters. Being able to effectively speak and listen is crucial to students’ relationships, learning, and future success in college and careers. Students who speak in an articulate, organized, and thoughtful way and who respectfully raise questions, concerns, and disagreements build relationships and engage in collaboration. Listening thoughtfully and purposefully promotes both collegiality and learning. Through the speaking and listening instruction that Wit & Wisdom lessons provide, students expand their vocabularies, make cognitive connections, collaborate effectively, and develop a greater capacity to engage with others and with ideas.
City, Elizabeth A. “Talking to Learn.” Educational Leadership: Talking and Listening, vol. 72, no. 3, 2014. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov14/vol72/num03/Talking-to-Learn.aspx.
Fisher, Douglas, Nancy Frey, and Carol Rothenberg. “Why Talk Is Important in Classrooms.” From Content-Area Conversations, ASCD, 2008. http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/108035/chapters/Why-Talk-Is-Important-in-Classrooms.aspx.
Lervåg, Arne, Charles Hulme, and Monica Melby‐Lervåg. “Unpicking the Developmental Relationship between Oral Language Skills and Reading Comprehension: It’s Simple, But Complex.” Child Development, vol. 89, no. 5, 2018, pp. 1821–1838, https://srcd.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cdev.12861
Mercer, Neil, Rupert Wegerif, and Lyn Dawes. “Children’s Talk and the Development of Reasoning in the Classroom.” British Educational Research Journal, vol. 25, no. 1, 1999, pp. 108–109.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. 2010, http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/.
Pinto, Giuliana, Lucia Bigozzi, and Christian Tarchi. “The Relationship between Oral and Written Narratives: A Three-Year Longitudinal Study of Narrative Cohesion, Coherence, and Structure.” British Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 85, no. 4, 2015, pp. 551–569.
Wise, Justin et al. “The Relationship among Receptive and Expressive Vocabulary, Listening Comprehension, Pre-Reading Skills, Word Identification Skills, and Reading Comprehension by Children with Reading Disabilities.” Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, vol. 50, 2007, pp. 1093–1109.
Zwiers, Jeff, and Marie Crawford. Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings. Stenhouse Publishers, 2011, pp. 7–8.
Tanisha Spears is a Regional Director for the Humanities Implementation Success team at Great Minds®, where she shares her passion for helping educators use high-quality curriculum as a vehicle to raise their perceptions of what all students can do. Before joining Great Minds full-time, Tanisha was a public-school educator in DC for more than 15 years, during which she served as a classroom teacher and Assistant Principal and began her work with Great Minds as a Professional Development Fellow for Wit & Wisdom.