Speaking of the Common Core ... Give Students Time to Talk

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Beyond formal presentations, the Common Core State Standards for Speaking and Listening demand a broad range of social-interaction skills with a focus on oral communication. At first glance, the list of skills can seem daunting: productive collaboration, attentive listening and subsequent expression of ideas, synthesis of multiple-source information, information evaluation, the ability to use and adapt media and visual displays in context, argumentation … . But let’s break it down a bit.

The most important thing to realize is this: We need to provide students with plenty of opportunities to speak (and listen).

Even as a language arts teacher who seeks student input, I consciously plan for oral-proficiency practice. I make sure my lessons offer students the opportunity to talk—sometimes scaffolded, sometimes more spontaneous.

I've found that students' increased comfort with smaller oral tasks builds confidence for the more complex discussions. Here are some strategies to try:

1. Offer sentence frames to help students practice word order and use new words and phrases in context. (For example, "I predict __________ because I already know __________," or "The evidence I found/ read/ heard to support my idea is __________.") You can also use these as discussion starters and reference anchors for those students who need a comforting scaffold. They can be written on large sentence strips or printed on paper for individual use for any content area.

2. Look for quick activities you can slide into your routine. For example, you might ask students to turn to a shoulder partner and reiterate your instructions. (Meanwhile, you can monitor comprehension of the task before it even begins and address misunderstandings.)

3. Have students record themselves reading their written responses, then follow along as they listen to the playback. Better yet, record students talking about something they learned that day as they’re packing up—this prompts them to synthesize information learned, evaluate its importance to them, and apply it to inquiry. The bonus? You learn about their understanding of a lesson.

4. Prepare questions in advance to extend student thinking during the lesson. Align your set with Bloom's taxonomy so that you have a variety of cognitive challenges at your fingertips. (I find that preparing these leads to higher-quality inquiry than asking questions on the fly!)

You can eventually encourage students to ask the questions during the lesson. Offer them the chance to randomly pick from a handful of leveled questions on index cards. Pure motivation, leading the activity.

5. Consider extending students' roles as "teachers." Start small, helping them "prepare" a lesson on a predetermined topic or an idea they raised earlier. Provide examples of a couple activities and ensure they understand how to explain the idea or concept to their peers. Then work together to anticipate possible questions. With appropriate support, even 3rd graders are fully capable of handling this responsibility.

6. Plan scheduled opportunities and times throughout your lessons for students to interact socially with meaningful intent. Interestingly, listening to students' conversations will help your learning about them and their understanding. And if your students are anything like mine, they will realize and appreciate that you are paying close attention to them as learners.

So here's a challenge: The next time you plan, include a purposeful focus on oral skills. Pay attention to how your planning shifts, and how student-engagement levels follow suit. Ironically, you won’t need the students to tell you how much more they’re learning.

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