Effective communication skills, like most things, need to be modelled and taught. It’s likely that effective speaking and listening skills are dealt with during English lessons in school, but effective communication skills can be utilised throughout the curriculum. Arguably, teaching effective communication skills is one of the most important jobs for a teacher. But where to begin?
Teach effective communication skills with our list of easy ways to effectively teach them in your classroom today.
What are the 5 basic communication skills that pupils need?
First, what does effective communication look like? While speaking and listening do make up some of what is needed for effective communication, there are other elements that make up a great communicator.
1. Being able to actively listen
This means not just listening to the words being said but being able to comprehend the ideas being communicated. It takes great concentration and attention.
2. Having empathy
Empathy means being able to see something from another’s point of view, often ignoring our own biases and/or judgement. Empathising is helpful in communication as it allows humans to tap into emotions and ideas.
3. Connecting with non-verbal communication
93% of communication is non-verbal, meaning being able to recognise signs in body position, facial expression, hand movements, gestures, eye contact, tone of voice and attitude all help towards better communication skills.
4. Being sensitive
Being sensitive to others when they are experiencing heightened emotion and recognising heightened emotion in ourselves is important. Listening and responding in a sensitive way to all kinds of emotions (anger, sadness, happiness, embarrassment, fear, etc) is a demonstration of great communication.
5. The use of words
This might seem basic, but the expansion of vocabulary to ensure people can communicate their thoughts and feelings effectively is a lifelong journey. In children, expanding vocabulary that deals specifically with emotions can be a great starting point.
9 ways to teach children to communicate effectively
Begin to feed in these effective communication activities across the curriculum.
1. Teach children to empathise
Teaching children how to empathise is not a short process. But it is underpinned by some basic principles:
- being able to recognise they have thoughts and feelings which are independent from other’s thoughts and feelings
- have the ability to see a situation from another’s point of view
- being able to recognise what responses are appropriate in particular situations
To teach these basic skills, you should commonly name and discuss feelings. Children need to be able to recognise and name their own feelings before they can communicate more effectively with others.
You can also begin to point out other people’s behaviours and feelings. That might be within the class, for example, “Fran is feeling sad because you took her pencil case without asking. Please give it back and ask politely.” You can also use TV shows and books to point out when a character is being empathetic, or not and explore and evaluate that with the children in your class.
2. Establish rules for speaking and listening in the classroom
A big part of behaviour management involves establishing rules for speaking and listening. We might not consciously recognise that this is also great groundwork for a class of great communicators.
Make the rules for speaking and listening in the class simple and memorable and ensure they are enforced.
Rules might include:
- One person speaks at a time.
- Take turns to speak.
- Try to make eye contact (be wary of this one if you have children in your class who are autistic as this can be a real challenge).
- Respond with respect.
- Speak slowly and clearly.
- Use respectful language.
- Think about your tone.
- Listen when someone is talking to you.
3. Explicitly teach conversation skills
Conversations are incredibly complex and the rules for good conversation aren’t always straightforward. Nevertheless, it is possible to model great conversation with children.
Demonstrate good conversation by having short interactions with pupils where you ask them about themselves and use positive conversation enhancers to demonstrate interest, e.g. That’s interesting, mmmm, how lovely! (Hint to teachers of English and grammar: that last example is also a great example of an exclamatory phrase.)
For older pupils, you could take a look at a transcript of a real conversation and teach pupils the different elements of spoken discourse. Seeing a conversation in black and white can demonstrate clearly the people who dominate a conversation, who remains very quiet, and what kind of language is inclusive. Use a free transcript app to turn a conversation between pupils into a transcript your pupils can see and analyse.
4. What is respectful and what is not?
The best way to teach respect is to model and discuss it. By modelling respectful language, you provide cues for the children you teach for how to be respectful.
You might also want to model what disrespectful looks like by setting up a dummy conversation with a teacher buddy.
- Agree a time that your teacher buddy will come into your class whilst the class is getting on with something independently, agree on the topic of conversation and let the acting commence. One teacher ‘borrowing’ the board pen of another for too long works well as a conversation/argument starter.
- Talk over the top of each other, raise voices and mimic the kind of disrespectful tone you often see in children when they argue.
- Once the conversation/argument is done, reveal to the class the conversation was to demonstrate to the class what a disrespectful conversation looks like.
- Get children to make notes and discuss what they saw and heard.
- Discuss what each teacher could have done to show more respect in the conversation.
This activity will be particularly memorable because children see teachers as generally very composed and the lesson in respect will be long-lasting.
5. Teach non-verbal cues
As human beings we communicate a lot without even saying a word, making conversation pretty complex. But it is possible to teach non-verbal cues, both how to use them and how to recognise them in others.
You will need to explicitly teach the following elements:
- Facial expressions
- Body language
- Eye contact
- Tone of voice
You could start with very simple instructions for non-verbal cues: sitting up straight, nodding to show interest and asking questions are really simple ways of engaging in conversation.
You could also explore facial expressions and what different facial expressions communicate. The Feelings and Faces game from Hope Education is a great way to explore a range of emotions and how they might be represented in facial expressions.
6. Encourage turn-taking
As teachers, we often experience young children with something burning to say. When this occurs, turn-taking becomes a challenge. A great way to encourage turn-taking is to use a ‘conch’. In Lord of the Flies, order is attempted through the use of a conch shell; whoever holds the conch has permission to speak and the rest should take it as an indication to listen.
You can choose any item to be the ‘conch’ of your classroom, and unlike in Lord of the Flies, you should find order in communication is restored and more easily respected.
7. Teach quality questioning
Questioning is a skill. As teachers, we are taught to ask open-ended questions, ones that will lead pupils to more in-depth and thoughtful answers. There’s no reason why pupils can’t be taught the basics of this as well.
Encourage them to actively listen to others and think carefully about the question they might reply with. You might like to show them a question matrix that encourages them to think of more complex/thoughtful questions to ask. The ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ questions will gain them simplistic answers. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions will gain them more insight into another’s thoughts.
8. Use group work for communication skills
Group work isn’t just great for children to share good ideas with each other, it’s also a great opportunity for children to exercise their communication skills. Carefully consider the task you set for children and the dynamics of the groups of children you put together. Different tasks and different mixes of types of children will result in different communication skills being worked on.
A practical teamwork task that works well is the paper bridge exercise. Each team has access to a limited amount of newspaper, sticky tape and a measuring tape and must create the longest bridge in 10 minutes. After the activity, discuss with pupils the need for effective communication, leadership and feedback.
9. Teach active listening
Active listening is an integral part to good communication skills. Pupils not listening is also probably one of the biggest woes for a teacher; all the more reason to practise!
Remind pupils they can be listening with more than just their ears; the eyes, body and heart are equally as important (see teaching non-verbal cues).
To practise active listening:
- Put pupils in pairs and ask one child to tell the other about a happy memory, a funny story or a proud moment.
- Instruct the ones listening to make eye contact, asking thoughtful questions and demonstrating interest.
- After 5 minutes, stop the pupils and ask those who have been listening to volunteer to retell the story they have just heard.
- Swap roles.
This activity will not only help pupils get to know each other, but they will also be able to practise those all-important listening skills in a low-pressure environment. You could also do a similar activity with a video or podcast.