This issue of Behaviour Matters looks at the importance of pupils and teachers having basic communication skills

No doubt there are many teachers reading this article who feel that the students they work with every day are already way too good at demonstrating their conversational skills! Skilled they may be, but unfortunately they often use their skills at the wrong time, in the wrong place and with the wrong people. Not only that, but they can be highly selective with their own listening skills, choosing to hear comments that they are prepared to act on and deciding to ignore anything that they either don’t agree with, or simply can’t be bothered to deal with.

“In one ear, and out of the other!” is possibly a good description of students who choose not to listen or comply with instructions and requests.

All of us from time to time meet and attempt to converse with other adults who clearly have poor or selective speaking and listening skills. People who constantly:

  • fail to engage eye contact
  • do not physically engage with you during a conversation (do not face you, or turn away during the conversation)
  • are far too intent on getting their point across rather than listening to what you may have to say
  • talk over you, not understanding the need to take turns in a conversation
  • try to out do you in their response causing anxiety and even confrontation (if you have had a bad experience, they have had it three times over!)
  • constantly go off the subject, being much happier to talk about their own agenda rather than a shared topic
  • give no non-verbal clues that they are either listening to you or have even understood what you have said
  • fail to demonstrate a feeling of empathy towards you in their replies or comments.

Behaviours such as those mentioned above have often taken a long time to develop. The children we work with in our classrooms need to have the opportunity to practice appropriate skills and also have them modelled to them on a regular, day-to-day basis. The intention is that good speaking and listening skills become the norm. In other words these skills are their natural response mechanisms: there is no need to think about the skill, it should be automatic.

Practical Tips

Before setting out to teach new skills or modify ones that exist already, it is important to understand that we all have differing techniques and mannerisms depending on the company and the environment. We all have “a telephone voice”, especially when we do not know who is calling, although caller display has changed this somewhat. We also have learned differing skills to suit differing occasions; out with friends, meeting someone for the first time, at a job interview, etc.

It is worth reviewing on a practical basis the skills that your students already seem to possess. Set up some practical situations that allow them to demonstrate their skills:

  • Mock interviews with and without preset questions.
  • Informal chat situations discussing topic of their choice.
  • Formal discussion on a preset topic.
  • Practical aural and oral sessions followed by simple questions relating to content and understanding of the piece.

The use of audio recording and video recording can prove invaluable at this stage. Many of us (adults included) fail to see ourselves as others see us. Make sure you obtain the necessary permissions from senior management, parents and pupils before undertaking any such audio or video recording. Once you have established some base line regarding existing skills and competencies it is time to address the skills that are not so well developed. Use the suggestions in the introduction as a starter for some of the skills that need more work. It is important that you take into account the type of learners you are working with. Identify and cater for all styles of learning, visual, auditory and kinetic. Identify the individual skill you are going to work on and provide both a formal, taught session on the key issues together with the opportunity to practice the skill in a variety of settings.

Active listening skills:

  • Allow the speaker to complete his or her sentence or contribution before replying.
  • Indicate to the speaker that you are listening while he or she is speaking. Use head movements (nodding) and/or short verbal comments (“yes” or “I see” etc).
  • Make sure that you stay on the subject when you reply.

It’s also worth trying some less formal activities to liven up the learning experience. Try the “Just a Minute” activity with a group of students:

One person tries to speak on a given topic for one minute, but must not hesitate, deviate from the subject or repeat him or herself. When successfully challenged the challenger must continue the subject under the same guidelines and try to complete the minute. It’s a game, which requires quick thinking, clear speaking and careful listening.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in April 2008

About the author: Dave Stott is the author of Behaviour Matters. He has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher level. He has worked in mainstream, special and Local Authority Behaviour Support Services, and is now a successful consultant and trainer.