Teaching Skillful Communication

Teaching Skillful Communication

072_DSC7328A Standards-Based Approach to Morning Meeting Sharing

Ryan holds up the book so all his classmates can see the cover and begins: “Reptile Facts is my favorite first grade book. Every first grader should read this book because it shares facts about reptiles.” He displays a few pages showing similarities between reptiles and humans that he’d marked beforehand with sticky notes.

He glances at his sharing planning sheet and continues: “This book makes jokes out of learning, and it teaches you about how some reptiles are endangered. This book is really fun. I’m ready for a reply.”

Ms. Young reminds the class, “First, think about what Ryan said.” Hands begin to rise around the circle, but Ryan gives his classmates time to think before calling on Emma.

“Is the book only about things that are the same about reptiles and humans, or are there other animals in it, too?” she asks. Ryan answers, “It also talks about other animals like zebras, eagles, and vultures. It also tells you what’s different.”

The next question, from Pete, is: “Can you tell us more about why you think every first grader should read this book?” In his reply Ryan describes another aspect of the book he thinks his classmates will enjoy: “The pictures show how things would look if you were actually there.”

Ryan takes a few more questions and comments before Ms. Young brings the sharing to a close. As Ryan puts his book and notes away, Ms. Young reminds the class that they will be able to look at Reptile Facts later.

Then she directs the class’s attention to a nearby chart showing types of questions, a topic the class has been focusing on. They categorize the questions Ryan was asked during his sharing before moving on to the rest of the day’s Morning Meeting.

This example of a dialogue share is what Morning Meeting sharing looks and sounds like by the end of the school year in a first grade classroom at Hyde-Addison Elementary School in Washington, D.C. In this sharing, students employed an array of communi­cation skills, and the whole class was engaged in a learning conversation.

We build toward this outcome gradually over time, by deliberately teaching many specific speaking, listening, and questioning skills. The benefits of doing so infuse our school days: as a result of this focus on teaching communication skills we see students having better partner chats, more productive turn-and-talks, and more focused and engaging group discussions.

Guided by the Common Core

The Common Core State Standards for Speaking and Listening describe communication skills that students are expected to have at each grade level. We used the standards for kindergarten, first, and second grade to guide our thinking about what skills to teach and to assess students’ progress. For example, the dialogue sharing described in the opening of this article showed us that the group was now able to meet first grade standards by “following agreed-upon rules in discussions . . . speaking one at a time . . . through multiple exchanges” and illustrated several children’s skill at asking informational and clarifying questions. We also observed that Ryan, the child who shared, met first grade standards for presentation of knowledge and ideas.

Because this level of conversational skill does not come automatically to most first graders, meeting CCSS Speaking and Listening standards requires teaching skills explicitly and giving children plenty of opportunities to practice and hone those skills. Many children this age come to school without much experience in having the sorts of rich conversations the CCSS describe. So a first step for us was to identify times of day when students might practice having discussions with a partner or a group on a focused topic.

Why Do This Work at Sharing?

We identified Morning Meeting—and sharing in particular—as a prime time to work on developing conversation skills in part because we didn’t want our students to have to juggle mastering skills and new content simultaneously. During sharing, we could focus intensively on listening and speaking skills while discussing personal and academic topics that children already knew a lot about.

We also recognized that all three of the Morning Meeting sharing formats (around-the-circle, partner, and dialogue) could help support students as they acquired and mastered communication skills. For instance, the around-the-circle format gives every child a chance to participate; it’s a good choice for times when our focus is on teaching and assessing foundational skills such as speaking audibly and making eye contact. The partner sharing format provides every child with an opportunity to speak, listen, and respond, and invites participation by children who are not yet comfortable speaking to a large group. Dialogue sharing provides an opportunity for practicing presentation and questioning skills; we teach it after we’ve laid the other groundwork for students’ success.

Supports for Learning

Since we started this work, we’ve found lots of ways to support our students’ learning of communications skills at Morning Meeting sharing. Here are some examples:

“Who Remembers?”

To encourage careful listening, we often challenge students to recall what they heard and report back to the group. We use this technique with all sharing formats. For instance, at the beginning of the year, after a simple around-the-circle sharing on favorite fruits, we’d ask, “Who remembers the person in our class who likes grapes best?” and “Who remembers someone who likes the same fruit as you?” We’ve found that adding this element is well worth the small amount of time it involves; for many of our students, knowing that they might have a chance to share what they’d heard with the larger group is highly motivating and leads them to listen with care.

A “Me, Too” Signal

Children’s instinctive response to sharing is often to say “me, too.” To save talk time for higher-level responses, we teach students a silent hand gesture they can use to show their connections without interrupting the speaker.

Building Conversations With Blocks

To emphasize turn-taking and show how a conversation can “build” through multiple exchanges, we demonstrate with blocks. A teacher and a student model first, chatting as they build a tower out of red and blue Unifix Cubes. The teacher uses red cubes and the student uses blue; each person places a block each time they take a turn speaking, producing a tower with an alternating pattern. After this demonstration, students try building conversation towers for themselves as they chat with partners.

Starters and Frames

As we introduce different ways to build sentences and form questions, we post charts for children to refer to during sharing. For example, a chart about questions initially featured starters for information-seeking queries: “I’d like to know more about ____” and “I noticed that ____.”  Later, when we introduced clarifying questions, we added more, such as: “So you’re saying that  ____”, “It sounds like ____”, and  “So do you mean ____?”

High-Interest Topics

Children listen better if they are engaged, so we try to choose topics for sharing that will excite our students. Early in the year, highly engaging topics tend to be low-risk, personal questions that help us get to know each other. For example, “Do you prefer brownies or cookies?” is one that all of our first grade students have opinions about.

We weave in more academic connections as the year goes on. For instance, near the culmination of a unit in which the class had raised butterflies, we posed the question “How do you feel about letting our butterflies go?” for a partner sharing. The discussions students had on this topic were quite rich; they listened carefully to each other and spoke at length, using details and drawing upon what they knew about butterflies.

Well-Prepared Sharers

To help children prepare for being the sharer in the dialogue sharing format, we developed and taught students how to use a planning template to organize their thoughts. With a family member or a teacher (or both) students would decide on a main idea, supporting details, and a concluding statement for their sharing. They’d also use this template to plan out visual displays, such as which pages of a book to show or what to point out about an artifact. Sharers brought these notes with them and were encouraged to refer to them during their presentation, as Ryan did in the opening example. Here is a letter to parents and planning template these authors developed for a month focused on “All About” shares:

Letter to Families

This month at Morning Meeting children will share about something that they know all about. For example, Ms. Walsh knows all about painting, and I shared that I know all about baking. For our “all about” shares we will use a format that helps the children practice providing details to support a main idea. Here, as an example, is what I said when I shared about baking:

I know all about baking.
I know that when you’re baking it is really important to measure the ingredients carefully.
I know that you bake things in a hot oven so you need to be careful.
I know that you can bake lots of different kinds of things like bread, cookies, or cake.
I love baking and sharing yummy food with my family and friends.

The calendar on this message shows when your child is scheduled to do his or her “all about” share. Being prepared to share is part of your child’s homework! On the day of their sharing, children should bring in a photo, drawing, or artifact from their area of expertise and have planned what they will say when they share. A planning template is attached. We want children to use the template as a support rather than a script, so when you work with your child to plan their share, fill it out using words or phrases rather than complete sentences.

Planning Template for “All About” Shares

I know all about: _____________________________

I know: _____________________________________
I know: _____________________________________
I know: _____________________________________

Concluding statement: ___________________________________________________________________________


Purpose-Filled Morning Meetings

Supports like these have helped our students build key skills and at the same time have elevated Morning Meeting sharing in our classrooms to a new level. We’ve been doing Morning Meeting for years and long appreciated the way this Morning Meeting component builds community and reinforces communication skills. Now that we have more deliberately woven in teaching specific speaking and listening skills, this part of our day plays an even more vital instructional role. With Morning Meeting as our proving ground, we’ve been able to meet the challenge of standards-based teaching in ways that feel meaningful, purposeful, and full of joy.
Kathleen Sheehy is the instructional coach and a former first grade teacher at Hyde-Addison Elementary School in Washington, D.C. She was the District of Columbia Teacher of the Year in 2008.

Emily Young teaches first grade at Hyde-Addison. She has used the Responsive Classroom approach to guide her teaching for ten years.

Tags: Building Classroom Community, Common Core, Conversation Skills, Engaging Academics, Listening Skills, Sharing, Testing