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Quiet Conversations: A Unique Approach to Practicing Speaking and Listening Skills

By Lauren Bakian Aaker
 | May 23, 2019

marking-textStudents busily move around the table, markers in hand, jotting, drawing connecting arrows, sketching symbols. The only sound to be heard is the scuff of the chairs on the floor and the swoosh of markers moving along the paper. You wouldn’t know it, but students are deep in discussion, moving beyond surface-level observations to more sophisticated ideas that analyze a theme, character, or topic. This is a quiet conversation.

When we think about speaking and listening standards, many of us count on accountable talks or literacy circles, those often used after the completion of a read-aloud or shared text, where students sit in a circle and talk with guidance from a teacher or, if they are experienced, without that guidance. In these conversations, it is usually our strongest verbal students who drive the direction of the thinking, often leaving out or leaving behind students who require more time to process and share.

Not only have I been frustrated that my conversations may only involve a handful of students, but I have also found it challenging to teach developing speakers how to listen—really listen—to what others are saying and to build off that rather than throw another idea into the mix. To address this challenge, which many other teachers experience, I introduced a way of sharing ideas without ever opening your mouth and instead opening your marker cap.

Quiet conversations can be used with a range of texts, from excerpts from primary sources to book blurbs to introduce and build excitement for book clubs. Following is a series of steps to spark quiet conversations. 

  • Prior to your first quiet conversation, ensure students are familiar with annotation symbols and purposes such as underlining, circling, and more.
  • Print out the text to be shared and attach it to a larger chart paper or poster board.
  • Separate the class into groups of 3–4 students for effective conversations.
  • Encourage students to stand around the text from all directions to add their notes and symbols. While not necessary, using different colored writing tools (markers, pens, colored pencils) can help students and teachers alike track different students’ thinking.
  • After students have spent 5–15 minutes “discussing” on paper, invite them to read the other quiet conversations that took place to see where ideas were similar or different from their own. If there’s remaining space, they can even continue the conversation.

The first time this protocol is used, students will be both excited and unsure. As you provide more opportunities to communicate in this way, students will ask for more clarification and explanation from one another, will challenge and connect ideas, and will begin to more frequently build, rather than move on from, ideas that are already started. In this way, we can teach students to be better listeners as well as advocates of their own thoughts and voices.

Lauren Bakian Aaker is an elementary school teacher in Kansas City, MO, who believes in student choice and student voice in the classroom. Lauren began her career in New York City where she earned a degree in literacy from Teachers College, Columbia University and taught graduate-level literacy courses to preservice teachers. To learn more, follow Lauren on Instagram at No Frills Classroom.   

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