School Matters: Learning through conversation

Submitted "School Matters" column for the week of May 18.

One of the best parts about being a primary school principal is just simply being around the children; whether it is during instructional time in the classroom, or on the playground.  Children, no matter what age, always have something to share. There is something powerful in their ability to share ideas, stories and personal interests.  It is through conversation and on-going communication that we begin to learn about each other, develop friendships and make attachments to the people around us.

The way we communicate has changed substantially over the last decade.  Writing a letter has been replaced by e-mail or Skyping, and text messaging has created an entirely new vocabulary filled with abbreviations.  Children are now entering our schools with new technological skill sets and access to tools to help them to communicate with others in ways that I never thought possible.  Although the advancements in technology are exciting for our learners and educators, the skills involved in having a face to face conversations needs to be re-visited.

Knowing that the development of oral language skills is a predictor in the overall development of children, the staff at Eileen Madson Primary School (EMP) agreed that it was time to focus our efforts on oral language skills. As adults we often take for granted all the skills used in conversation, as they have become somewhat natural and integrated into our daily lives.   This year, our school focus has been fostering the conversation skills that are important for young children.  In her book titled, “Are You Listening? Fostering Conversations that Help Young Children Learn”, Lisa Burman highlights four conversation skills important for young children: 1) thinking aloud, 2) building vocabulary for conversation, 3) taking turns, 4) staying on topic.    The staff and School Planning Council at EMP have been engaged in discussions to help identify effective strategies that facilitate the kinds of conversations that reveal children’s thinking and build their conversation skill set. The use of A/B structured partner talk has proven to be one successful tool that has helped our students develop their conversation skills.  Students are provided with a framework to help guide them through conversations that are focused on a specific topic.  Students are expected to be active participants both as speakers and listeners.

These structured conversations have helped us identify the most difficult task for our primary aged learners:  understanding the importance of taking turns and listening to what others have to say.  Janet Gibbs, the author of ‘Tribes: A New Way of Learning and Being Together’, says, “Attentive listening is a gift to be given.”  It is also important for all of us as teachers and parents to give this gift to our students and children.  As role models in our students’ lives we have the ability to empower children to understand the value and importance of listening to the ideas, stories and perspectives of others.  Taking the time to actively listen by really thinking about what the speaker is saying, has proven to be the most valuable conversation skill in building and sustaining both personal and professional relationships. After all, it is through listening that we learn more about each other and the world around us.

Lisa Tenta


Eileen Madson Primary School