by Dr Lyn Dawes
We hold a conversation.
To hold something is not the same as to have something; we have a chat, we have words, we have a natter. Having – well, you just have it. But we hold a conversation, just as we hold talks to resolve a difficult situation; we hold our peace. We hold our breath. Holding means that we take definite action with some purpose.
Thinking of the word ‘hold’, what do you imagine or visualise?
To me it seems to imply such actions as cupped hands, balance, strength mixed with carefulness, an element of protection or skill. The dictionary has a long list of entries defining hold, including:
grasp or support with the hand; support; sustain; own; have possession of; maintain (opinion); consider, regard, believe, think; continue;
All of these uses of ‘hold’ can help us to think about what a conversation is and why it matters so much that we need to teach children the oracy skills with which to hold a conversation. Not just in their future, but in their lived present, children do better if they are able to listen attentively, think about what they hear and consider and offer a response, take turns when talking to others, and chain ideas together to help make sense of things.
In order to get on socially and educationally, they need to learn how to encourage others to talk and to be prepared to speak up themselves. These are the skills for holding a conversation. Fortunately, they can all be readily taught through curriculum lessons, real and virtual. I will outline one way of setting about this below.
Communication and conversation
Holding a conversation is something we do voluntarily and determinedly although perhaps with no certainty of its outcome. It’s an exchange of words, thoughts, and confidences, to find out what others think and convey our own thoughts.
Both matter. It’s often quite hard to tell what others think except through spoken language, and even then it’s tricky. You may think you know what someone else thinks, but consider how often you are in error, even with people you know really well!
Equally, our own thoughts may not be clear to us; they are held in a kind of solution until speaking within the structure of a conversation crystallises them for long enough to communicate them. Sometimes this process is problematic – communication can seems like transferring what we think we said to others who hear what they think we said – it’s very chancy. But luckily, like everything else, the better we are taught and the more practice we get, the better the chances of accurate and useful communication through conversation.
What’s important about classroom conversation – and what isn’t
There is an unhelpful cliché in which conversation is referred to as ‘an art’. The phrase ‘the art of conversation’ evokes a kind of nostalgia especially since it is often followed by the dismissive, ‘is lost’. Maybe there is an art to refining conversation into elegant phraseology and knowing how to deploy rhetoric and the other devices involved in clever persuasion. But this is not the kind of talk most useful for learning.
I believe that worrying about the art of conversation is unimportant. But what then do we mean by ‘conversation’? You can find many texts and books which mull over the answer to that. Summaries and tips to support conversation are produced by a range of experts – writers on mental health, writers on etiquette (a minefield of its own making), psychologists, sociolinguists interested in the history of language, and corporate trainers (‘good conversation is at the heart of networking, meetings, interviews, negotiations and raising your profile’).
We can learn that conversation has variously Five Stages, Three Levels, Seven Steps (‘Seven Steps to being smooth and mastering the art of small talk….’) or Ten Rules. It isn’t that these angles on conversation are wrong or totally irrelevant, it’s just that they don’t quite fit what we would look for in a classroom.
What do we want? We want children to speak, listen, think and learn. But the plethora of ‘art of conversation’ information does remind us that everyone seems to want to identify and put to use the somewhat hidden skills of conversation.
Three questions about conversation for education
We need to consider the importance of conversation in classroom settings if we are to hold conversations within any ordinary school day which will support teaching and learning. These three questions might help us to do so:
- Teaching time being at a premium, why would we want to hold conversations?
- What sort of conversation might that be?
- What do you think are the skills that we can teach to enable children to have such conversations with one another?
Three brief answers (to which you will have things to add based on your expertise and professional knowledge) are:
- Conversation is crucial for cognitive development. Developing language and learning depend on conversation. Children readily learn how to use technology to communicate, but they need to be helped to learn the more subtle and more important skills that will help them to speak and listen with others face to face, socially and in learning conversations. They need to see the links between actual and online conversation. Without such skills, they are at a real disadvantage and will remain so.
- The sort of conversations we want to happen in classrooms are honest, enquiring and equitable with contributions not intended to gratuitously impress but to further learning. Of course there must be something sensible to talk about, and while skills are being learned, much support and encouragement. Without a critical number of children who can see the point of such talk and have a good try at it, generating some conversation which can be used as a model, the task is more difficult. But it’s probably more necessary too.
- Some of the key skills needed for conversation are:
- understanding that conversation is important
- encouraging others to talk and being prepared to contribute through talk
- listening attentively
- thinking about what is said
- considering and offering a relevant response
- taking turns
- chaining ideas together
- helping themselves and others to make sense of things
This list, or your own version of the list which you know will support your children or students, is a structure for planning an eight week intervention to highlight the importance of conversation and to teach how to take part in conversation. Each point can become a Learning Intention and you can focus on one per week, using these during as many of the week’s curriculum sessions as possible.
An example of a conversation skills plan is provided here with reference to the Oracy Skills Framework.
You will need to ensure that there is plenty to talk about within your topics, and that the outcomes of conversations are valued, feeding into further questioning, writing, research, group or individual presentation or personal learning.
It’s important to talk explicitly with children about your aims for their oracy skills, explaining aims and purposes. Direct teaching involves demonstration, giving examples or modelling how it’s done, then clarify the Learning Intention and asking for questions to check understanding.
Activities are a chance to for children to try out their developing oracy skills; make sure there is support for talk. It is learning the oracy skills that is difficult, I suggest that you ensure that topics and subjects for conversation are familiar to the class, and that they have at least a basic common knowledge to draw on.
The crucial plenary provides opportunities to talk about the topic and crucially, to talk about talk; to bring out what is working, what is difficult, and to find out what children think.
Below is a generic content-free plan.
The curriculum you are working on will provide the opportunities and subjects for your classroom conversations. Prefix your lessons with the oracy skills learning intentions. Encourage the sort of talk you know will enable learning. Find out what the children think is difficult, face to face or online. Ask the class to discuss ways round the difficulties.
After the eight week intervention, ask the children to say if they feel better able to involve themselves in conversation, or to say what they are getting out of increased or better quality talk.
Of course, eight weeks is never enough! Repeat the whole course with a different curriculum topic, or focus on skills that the children report as especially difficult.
Keep conversation as a resource for learning with your children.
Planning for Teaching and Learning Conversation Skills (Example)
|Overall aim||Learning Intention||Activity||Plenary|
|1 Understanding that conversation is important
(Social & Emotional, Working with Others)
|to think about conversation as a way of learning||talk about what makes a good conversation; what is the point? Is it difficult and why? Can you give examples of people you like to have conversations with?||Share ideas about conversation and start a record of who you conversed with, what about and what they thought.|
|2 Encouraging others to talk and being prepared to contribute through talk
(Social & Emotional, Audience awareness, Confidence)
|to support others while they talk and to talk myself||learn sentence stems which support contributions.
‘Could you say..?.’
‘Do you know about….?’
Everyone should be invited to talk.
|Who did you talk with?
How did people encourage you to talk?
What is difficult about having a classroom conversation and how can we get round it?
Would it be better to give up?
|3 Listening attentively
(Social & Listening and responding)
|to listen carefully
and be able to say what I’ve heard
You do not need to be self-conscious with ‘body language’; if you are really listening, that follows.
Listen to a brief talk then longer contributions.
|Identify who is a good listener and why. Say what is hard about listening. What did you hear and did you understand it? What more do you need to hear?
|4 Thinking about what is said
(Cognitive, Content & structure)
|to think about what I hear and be able to say what I think about it||Listen, think and either ask a question or offer a relevant comment on the content||Give examples of something interesting someone in the conversation said|
|5 Considering and offering a relevant response
(Cognitive, Content; Reasoning; Social & emotional, Audience awareness)
|to think what to say and why||respond to a subject with a related idea, fact, or opinion with reason.
Or ask a question.
|Give examples of something relevant someone said as a response|
|6 Take a turn
|to make sure I take a turn and that I help others take a turn||Learn sentence stems for turn taking, such as:
‘Over to you.’
‘What about you…’
‘Can I say now…’
|How well do others enable turn taking?
Did you take a turn when you wanted to or have to wait?
What is difficult about this skill?
|7 Chaining ideas together
(Cognitive, structure, clarifying & summarising)
|to follow on from what is said
or summarise ideas and add more
or ask a question
|Consider two ideas and add a third;
or explain why what you say follows on
|Re-create aloud a chain of ideas you’ve heard|
|8 Helping themselves and others to make sense of things
(Cognitive, structure, clarifying & summarising)
|to talk with my group to have a learning conversation about our topic||Choose a topic and employ conversation skills to talk it over||Evaluate the conversation. What skills were used? What was difficult? How can we get round this? What did you get out of the conversation?|
Types of conversation
It’s interesting to think about types of conversation.
Adjectives commonly used to qualify ‘conversation’ include: brief, casual, friendly, interesting, constructive, sensible, virtual, face to face.
Once conversation has become part of the classroom, there is chance to move on to evaluating conversation or trying to hold a particular kind of conversation. It’s also useful to have a conversation about the same topic, online and then face to face, or vice versa; to find out what the differences are, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. There is also some thinking to do about disagreement and what sort of conversation is useful in helping people to see other points of view, even if they cannot agree with them.
Children can take home ideas for conversation, or parents can be told of the skills-based approach to learning conversation, and asked if they would be happy to help the child to ‘practice’ at home.
There is no doubt that some children will not want to take part in conversation. They can be encouraged to think about why and to share their ideas on this. It may take a whole school year for some children to join in. Some children will only talk to specific others. These things are understandable in terms of the child’s experience, capacities and personality; but every child should have infinite chances to learn and develop ways to talk with their peers.
Others may not have the language skills or the concentration that make for good conversation – but they can begin to learn through listening and joining in with activities with their peers as models. At every stage, it’s helpful to ask children what they like and dislike about talking to others, to find out who they enjoy talking to, and to listen to ideas that arise from their conversations. They need to see themselves as participants, skilful, supportive of others, and having an impact on communication in the classroom.
Simple subjects help children to learn difficult oracy skills and become aware of their individual ‘voice’ in the classroom.
Finally – the Conversation Poems and what they tell us
Between 1795 and 1807, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote an innovative and brilliant set of poems, each detailing a life experience and written in conversational, informal language as if talking with friends. In the 20th century these poems were seen to have similarity in focus, style and content, and became grouped as the Conversation Poems. Coleridge was an exceptional thinker and a very talkative person who would hold friends, strangers, congregations and audiences spellbound by his fluency and the fascinating way he strung ideas together. As he grew older this striking power may have tipped into his not being quite such a good listener; at his grand-daughter’s christening in 1832, aged 60, he ‘talked incessantly for a full five hours’!
In the conversation poem The Nightingale, written when he was in his twenties, Coleridge ‘converses’ with his friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth. He has left them outdoors in the late evening to return to his wife Sarah and little boy Hartley. In his writing, he talks as if to his friends about his response to the song of the nightingale he hears, its ‘strain’, and thinks of how Hartley would listen with pleasure. This idea prompts him tells his friends – and to tell us – what he calls ‘a father’s tale’, a little anecdote in which we get a glimpse of family life as he takes Hartley outdoors to look at the moon.
Here is an extract:
And you, my friends! farewell, a short farewell!
We have been loitering long and pleasantly,
And now for our dear homes. That strain again!
Full fain it would delay me! My dear babe,
Who, capable of no articulate sound,
Mars all things with his imitative lisp,
How he would place his hand beside his ear,
His little hand, the small forefinger up,
And bid us listen! And I deem it wise
To make him Nature’s play-mate. He knows well
The evening-star; and once, when he awoke
In most distressful mood (some inward pain
Had made up that strange thing, an infant’s dream)
I hurried with him to our orchard-plot,
And he beheld the moon, and, hushed at once,
Suspends his sobs, and laughs most silently,
While his fair eyes, that swam with undropped tears,
Did glitter in the yellow moon-beam! Well!
It is a father’s tale.
What this extract from a conversation poem tells us as educators, is that our simple, lived experiences are valid subjects for conversation if we can share them in ways that help us and others to understand their importance. Coleridge knows that his simple story is ‘a father’s tale’, that is, others might not be as impressed as he is with Hartley’s reaction to seeing the moon.
But because he tells us of it in a direct, conversational manner, this little incident does matter; the incident has turned into a picture, into something we too experience. Conversing in his thoughts with William and Dorothy, Coleridge knows he can be informal. He trusts them with his personal life. He includes his readers, us, in the conversation. This is disarming and we feel that we’ve got to know him and the way he goes on through the brief but powerful intimacy of a good conversation.
That is what we want for children. The skills that you can teach will help them to share ideas, lived experiences and tentative thoughts, through conversations that will enable every child to relate well to and be intellectually honest with their friend, school mates and others. Through collaborative conversations they gain insight into how and why to focus on listening, thinking and responding as good ways to learn. They learn their own importance as an individual and part of a group. Holding learning conversations is very satisfying for those fully taking part. To be heard and to contribute when you know that others are openly listening, makes children feel strong.
Holding a successful conversation, then, is not a matter of luck or chance or even ‘personality’, but draws on learned skills which let participating children understand one another, and the topic they are sharing, better. In doing so they can examine together the limits of their individual and shared knowledge, and decide what questions they want to ask of the world.