First, Partner Skills

This year didn’t start off quite as I’d planned. I’d hoped to start teaching conversation skills right at the beginning of school, but once I met my new class, I decided that this particular group of first graders needed to be more comfortable working in pairs before I started teaching them how to have partner chats.

I made this decision after observing the children’s interactions during our first days together. I noticed that although they made plenty of positive connections with each other on the playground and in the classroom, few of them gravitated towards being with just one other person. Instead, they played side-by-side or in groups. I wasn’t worried by this observation—children often don’t have much experience pairing off with someone their own age before they start school. It just meant I needed to build time for teaching them how to work with a partner—and include more structured opportunities for partner work—into the first weeks of school.

Because I really wanted to build good habits for working one-on-one with different people, I focused on teaching basic partner skills first. I began with mini-lessons on needed social skills: inviting a friend to work with you, responding when someone asks you to work with him or her, asking to join someone, asking for a needed material, sharing an idea, and so on. For each lesson, I used Interactive Modeling to teach the skill, followed by an opportunity for the children to practice. For example, right after a quick lesson on asking for materials, we’d have a choice time where children could try asking one another for blocks, puzzle pieces, markers and other classroom materials.

I also planned activities designed for two people to work on together. For instance, a pair could sign up to look for “things that are the same” and “things that are different” in a hidden picture poster. And I made suggestions that encouraged children to practice their partner skills. For example, to children in the block area, I might say, “See if you can both build the same thing,” or “Show what you figured out about how to use those.”

I also taught games that reinforced academic and partner skills, such as “Tens Go Fish” (a version of “Go Fish” where they make combinations of ten) and card-matching games in which they matched colors with color words or numbers with number words. As they played, I watched their body language and listened carefully. The interchanges and negotiations taking place (“Your turn.” “Now it’s my turn.” “I know where that one is!” “Try this.”) showed me that the building blocks needed for partner conversations were falling into place.

Courtney Fox teaches first grade in Wilmington, Delaware, and was the 2008 Delaware Teacher of the Year. She has been a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher since 2003.

Tags: Conversation Skills, Partners