Speaking, Listening Skills Have Fresh Importance

By Matt Renwick

My two children, a 7th grader and a 5th grader, hopped onto their respective laptops shortly after they woke up. It was the first day of distance learning.

For my 5th grader, she met virtually with her classroom via Google Hangout. They checked in with each other, a virtual morning meeting, and practiced taking turns while sharing. Then she responded to a video in Flipgrid to the following three questions from her music teacher:

  • What should be our theme song?
  • What genres of music would you like me to cover in my podcast?
  • Should I shave my beard?

My 5th grader was enthusiastic about learning, despite the distance. Beside her at the kitchen bar, my 7th grader was plugging away with written responses to social studies questions on a Google Doc based on an online article. All I got was a shrug when I asked him how his learning was going.

This article is not to suggest that the written word is falling out of favor. However, has there ever been a better time than now – with the experience of many students and teachers learning from home for the past several months – to incorporate speaking and listening skills into our instruction?

The Forgotten Language Arts

Before formal education went almost completely online in March and April, the speaking and listening skills were pushed to the side of our curriculum in many schools. They aren’t tested as often as the other ELA standards, and they can be challenging to assess.

Erik Palmer, author of Teaching the Core Skills of Listening and Speaking (ASCD, 2014), acknowledges these challenges. He even refers to them as the “Forgotten Language Arts” because of how infrequently they are addressed. However, Palmer also pointed – prophetically as it turns out – toward the reality of these two skills in everyday life.

“Ask yourself, what skills are most useful in the world beyond our K-12 classrooms? What will our graduates be doing, and what must they all be able to do successfully, no matter what field they are in? I would argue that the answer is communicate” (10-11).

Palmer also highlights a study that describes how frequently the four forms of communication are utilized in the workplace.

  • Writing – 9%
  • Reading – 16%
  • Talking – 30%
  • Listening – 45%

Our new reality has increased the demand for effective speaking and listening skills. How do we know that our students completed the assigned work by themselves? Do they truly understand the book they are reading? Can they engage in productive conversations when offering feedback about classmates’ writing during peer conferences?

These questions might be best answered with the help of technologies that can capture our students’ voices and encourage them to listen closely to what others are saying. The rest of this article offers two ways educators can blend technologies with speaking and listening skills in order to assess student understanding of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions we teach online.

Video Conferencing + Comprehension and Collaboration

The first set of speaking and listening standards focuses on listening. As with speaking, in order to listen well, we need opportunities to practice.

Consider Zoom for facilitating this work. The video conferencing application allows you to host online conversations with one, two, or many people. Recent concerns about Zoom security appear to have been resolved; our district uses it a lot and we have had zero security issues. Now with the required codes/passwords, I don’t see a lot of issues going forward.

That said, there are other good options, including Google Hangouts with small group video meetings. The best advice is to take a thorough look at your student privacy/security protocols. This 4/6/20 School Library Journal article by Kristen Mattson can help: Zoombombing Is Just the Start. How To Protect Student Privacy During the Remote Learning Explosion.

A teacher can practice speaking and listening skills with their students in a morning meeting format, such as my 5th grader’s experience. The standards offer a variety of descriptors for this work. For example:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.5.1.c
“Pose and respond to specific questions by making comments that contribute to the discussion and elaborate on the remarks of others.”

The teacher can clarify this standard by asking their class what it means to “contribute to the discussion.” A growing list of indicators such as “summarize what someone else says” and “ask someone to ‘say more about that’” can become the group norms.

Students can then apply these skills in Zoom with book club discussions. With small groups reading a similar text, the teacher can create breakout rooms for a set amount of time to discuss their book. The group norms can be posted in the chat space as a reminder along with a learning objective, i.e. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.5.1.b: “Follow agreed-upon rules for discussions and carry out assigned roles.”

After the session, students can respond to a Zoom poll that guides them to reflect on what they did well during discussion and what they can work on for next time, especially with listening.

Flipgrid + Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas

The second set of speaking and listening standards focuses on speaking.

Flipgrid provides a controlled online environment for building speaking skills as questions or content are posed via video, which students then respond to with their own video recordings. Teachers can control the amount of time allowed per response to ensure brevity and conciseness (which should probably be a standard too).

As you go up in the grades, the standards for speaking and listening become more complex. Here is one of the speaking standards for 7th grade:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.7.4
“Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with pertinent descriptions, facts, details, and examples; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.”

All these indicators are teachable and assessable. Combine this standard with opinion writing and you have a natural combination for authentic and meaningful student work.

A lot of topics ripe for debate have emerged in recent months and could remain fresh into the fall and perhaps throughout the next school year. Teachers could host current event discussions about the pros and cons of online learning, as one example. Larger projects could involve researching social distancing and writing an op-ed for a local newspaper about its importance. Students can refine their writing by reading it aloud in Flipgrid to check for coherence and voice, aided by feedback from peers.

“Start Somewhere”

These ideas do not address all the new challenges for middle level educators. For example, how do we respond to 100 or more students via video in order to assess their learning and skill-building across many standards?

I think the best approach is to start somewhere. With several months of remote learning behind us, we are better situated to reflect on the reality of our experiences and build toward what’s possible, such as facilitating peer assessment or self-assessment in order to better manage the online learning flow.

And while we add on new ways of teaching and learning, we need to start considering what we can let go of. Is that Google Doc of basic comprehension questions going to excite your students and lead to real learning? Maybe not. Know that the best assessment causes the student to want to keep learning, even more so than before.

Speaking and listening skills that are taught and facilitated through video-based technologies offer an opportunity for all educators to rethink their learning environments, both online now and in whatever form it takes in the future.


Matt Renwick started as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he served as dean of students at a junior high, which developed into an assistant principalship along with athletic director duties. As an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District, he is enjoying the curriculum, instruction and assessment side of education.

Matt has published two books with ASCD and writes for Choice Literacy. He also taught online graduate courses for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He blogs at Reading By Example. Matt’s subscription newsletter Read by Example provides a community nexus that “brings together literacy teachers and leaders of many roles so we can improve our practice on behalf of students.” (Samples and subscription info here.)

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1 Response

  1. Thanks for the practical ideas, Matt. As someone relatively new to the online platforms, I found this article helpful and filled with good ideas. I’ve been trying to think of ways to enhance my PD Zoom presentations, and you’ve given me some good ideas.

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