Be honest here. How often do you have an extended conversation about your favorite food? I mean sure, you might get three exchanges maximum, but then it pretty much falls flat, right? Conversations naturally bend and move. They are fluid. And this is why conversation topic cards are my pet peeve because we DON’T memorize trivial questions like this. We use what we know about someone and the conversation springs from there.
I don’t believe that conversations are easy to teach.
They are hard. Really hard. And they are really complex. There are SO many skills and things to remember. And I’m sorry but whipping out a deck of conversation topics is not going to do those ‘work on conversation skills’ goals justice.
Just Google the word ‘conversation’ and you will see what I’m talking about: a talk, especially an informal one, between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged.
It’s a great definition and I love the part about an ‘exchange’.
Maybe conversation is your end goal and you just didn’t realize it. Maybe you need to work on a lot of little goals to get you to where you need to be. Think about it from a language point of view. If you were hoping to increase your student’s ability to tell a narrative, you wouldn’t just keep getting them to tell you stories. No, you would look at a framework and the individual skills needed to get you there.
Well then why aren’t we treating conversation skills like this?
So, I’m going to share two big things that I teach and really look for in the context of conversations: asking questions and making comments. Let’s think about it a little more.
Questions– I’m not talking about ‘what’s your favorite color?’ type questions here. Those questions really don’t go anywhere. The point about asking questions is to find out more information and connect with someone… then the conversational topic can occur naturally. So, these are the question things that go through my brain:
- Can the student ask a variety of questions – what, where, who, when, why?
- Do they understand the purpose of asking questions (such as to clarify or find out more information?
- Can they initiate, or do they need visuals?
- Do they know different ways to ask one question type (e.g. ‘what?’)
- Can your student use follow up questions?
If you have a love of colored craft sticks, then I have a new use for you: Question prompts! This is usually my starting place for students who don’t even know the right type of question to ask BUT have the language skills to formulate questions. Simply stick different question types onto craft sticks, hold them up throughout your conversation as an initiation prompt… then fade away once your student understands how, when and why to ask questions. Now just pause for a minute and think. Focusing on ‘questions’ could literally be a whole term of therapy. Maybe even more. And this is just scratching the surface because we haven’t even started to look at using comments.
Comments – I cannot tell you how many times I engage with teenagers who have age appropriate language skills, know how to ask me questions and then when I make statements or tell them something pretty cool, they just sit there. And stare at me. And it’s really quite awkward.
And it’s because they aren’t commenting. They aren’t responding to what I’m saying. They aren’t giving me some signal that I should elaborate, that they are interested or that they even care. It’s like dead air.
But here’s the thing… there are different types of comments that you should be using depending on the situation. Do your students know the situation? Do they know that you shouldn’t respond ‘okay’ when you tell sad news such as “I went to a funeral on the weekend”, or just stare at you when you tell them you are about to go on holidays?
If your students can identify the emotion, or the feeling of the message, then hopefully they can match that with an appropriate comment. Phew. That’s pretty in-depth, right? So, I like to really explore commenting and visuals are obviously my best friend in this situation because they can help scaffold and support so much.
I hope that you can see why those decks of conversation cards can be null and void in the grand scheme of conversations. There are bigger things to work on and your students have to really understand the mechanics and dynamics of a conversation to say that they are properly participating. Now there ARE more areas, this won’t be your conversation ‘cure’. There’s all that nonverbal stuff that I haven’t even upon touched yet. Take a closer look at my Conversation Supports for Questions & Comments for more step-by-step goals, activities, pre and post measures and of course: VISUALS! My go-to reference (and framework) for working on conversations is included in the Thinking About You, Thinking About Me text by Michelle Garcia Winner.