Five Ways to Improve Speaking and Listening

A group of elementary school girls are indoors in their school library. They are sitting together at a table and reading together.

Engagement and Discussion Strategies from the Shared Inquiry™ Toolkit

Among the most basic elements of collaboration are speaking and listening skills. Used in every grade and discipline, as well as at home and at work, these skills can be easily overlooked because they’re everyone’s business. However, deliberately cultivating awareness of the importance of these essential skills in a group is a great way to increase the power of talk in the classroom. According to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development:

“Talk becomes critical when students discuss tasks or ideas and question one another, negotiate meaning, clarify their own understanding, and make their ideas comprehensible to their partners. It is during collaborative tasks that students must use academic language if they are to focus on the content. Here again, their understanding grows as they talk with their partners to reflect on their learning.”

Students, families, teachers, and even potential employers agree that what may be most needed as we head into a new school year is also likely to be essential in the future: connecting with others through effective teamwork and relationship-building. Collaboration is sometimes called a 21st-century skill that yields many lifelong benefits, so it is essential to address group productivity in each new setting, especially after disruptions to learning.

Weaving speaking and listening practice through many different learning activities offers multiple opportunities for reflection, coaching, and growth over time. Here are five practical strategies from the Shared Inquiry method of learning that are transferable to any subject or situation. These strategies can help build listening and speaking skills by engaging learners in authentic conversations.

  1. Invite diverse responses to genuinely open issues.

    Focusing on a complex problem or topic where multiple perspectives are valid provides both a reason for and a product of collaboration. Start with something you personally are wondering or unsure about, and adopt an invitational tone. In Great Books programs, we ask and explore in depth an effective interpretive focus question that invites individuals to contribute to the understanding of a shared complex text.

  2. Build in reflection time.

    Provide time for participants to collect their thoughts, make notes, and find evidence before a group discussion or sharing of ideas begins. Doing so makes it much more likely that students will generate diverse responses, and having their notes handy makes it easier for students to contribute. Remember to invite students who haven’t yet shared to look at what they have written and use their notes to build on ideas or give a new perspective. Ask students to return to these notes at the end of the discussion, then add or change their ideas based on what they heard—this makes it clearer why good listening is meaningful. Last but certainly not least, be sure to regularly reflect on the process of collaboration; make time to consider what went well and what could be improved next time at both the group and individual levels.

  3. Make it conversational.

    Encourage students to speak directly to one another, not just to the teacher or leader. Use people’s names (make name tents or tags, if needed), and encourage group members to do so too. Provide sentence starters and question stems, especially for English language learners or those who are new to collaborative learning. If useful, display options for what to say or ask and how to effectively participate on anchor charts or bookmarks.

  4. Ask follow-up questions regularly.

    Use participants’ own words and ideas when you formulate follow-up questions. Listening carefully yourself not only models best practice but deepens understanding through promoting clarification, giving evidence, or seeking another idea. Encourage participants to ask one another questions. Use a seating chart to track participation, and try making notes on it of someone’s word choice, the page numbers someone cites, or ideas to bring up again later. If there’s a lull, look down and use something you’ve noted to draw in someone quieter based on what the group heard earlier.

  5. Dive into the really good material.

    Whenever you want to amp up attention to speaking and listening, it’s smart to focus on content that’s really worth discussing. For example, a highly meaningful text exploring an issue that is complex and multifaceted allows everyone to genuinely benefit by learning more from others. Here are a number of Junior Great Books® sample lesson plans with fiction and nonfiction texts for a variety of grade levels. Taking time to explore provides students with multiple points of entry and allows for diverse perspectives; students will build deeper understanding in layers through meaningful practice communicating ideas.

Junior Great Books sample lesson plans provide outstanding examples of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that start fun and engaging classroom discussions.

Senior Academic Consultant Denise Ahlquist has enjoyed leading thousands of Shared Inquiry discussions with participants ranging from ages 4 to 99, across the United States and abroad. A veteran educator and “road warrior,” she has introduced thousands of other teachers and learners to the Shared Inquiry method and supported them in a wide variety of K–12 environments.