As I work with teachers and administrators around the country, I’m often asked some version of the following question: “If I want to get students involved in content-oriented academic conversations, where do I start?”
The answer I invariably give is this: “Start with pairs, not with larger groups of students.”
When I ask groups of educators how many of them can remember a time when they were able to “hide” in a group tasked by the teacher with an in-class assignment while one or more members of the group did the work, a large percentage of the hands go up. The rest of the hands go up when I ask this question: “How many of you are the ones who did the work while others hid?”
When teachers want to get students involved in academic conversations at any grade level, my experience is that pairs work best, and for a very simple reason: There is no place to hide in a pair. Students engaged in paired conversations (standing or seated) are facing each other as they operate in constant speaking or listening mode. In such close proximity, they rely on each other for support.
I have seen scores of classrooms where students have learned how to communicate effectively in standing pair shares or seated with shoulder or face partners. In one Virginia second-grade classroom, students met with partner after partner, displaying their ability to summarize effectively in a strategy called paired verbal fluency. They were perfectly comfortable doing this, and could deal with content in any number of subject areas.
Before students tackle content, however, I suggest teachers have them practice their oral-communication skills by discussing material and topics that are personal in nature:
- Share with your partner what you would do with a 100% free day in the summer.
- What is your idea of the perfect one-week family vacation?
- Discuss in detail your favorite evening meal.
- What are the attributes of a good personal friend?
Teachers can provide a time limit (60 to 90 seconds), then walk around the classroom while students discuss the topic at hand. Teachers can also instruct Partner A to summarize what Partner B just said. Partner B can then summarize what Partner A says.
During the first few days of school, students can practice having basic face-to-face conversations with classmates, working on improving both speaking and listening skills, including:
- Making appropriate eye contact
- Using supportive body language
- Paraphrasing or asking questions to clarify something
- Pausing to give both partners time to think
- Avoiding passing judgment
- Attending fully to one’s partner
- Keeping distracting gestures to a minimum
Teachers can—and should—model effective oral-communication skills every day, and students can—and should—practice these skills early and often during the school year. Once students are comfortable explaining, describing, summarizing, asking questions, and otherwise supporting partners in these paired discussions, teachers can square the pairs so that students get practice working in quartets.
I recommend configuring classrooms so students can easily stand and meet in pairs, then change partners without bumping into the furniture. Figure 1 shows how desks might be arranged so that students can easily work in standing pairs, then create quartets, all in the center/front of the classroom.
Students who may find it difficult to talk in large groups in September, when they don’t even know all the students in their classes yet, will find it far less intimidating to meet with a single partner and discuss something. The first conversations, as we have seen, can be personal in nature, followed by standing or seated pair shares built around course content. In this way the process horse comes before the content cart.