Before I went into administration, I got to teach speech for a couple of years (ten years of teaching technology applications) at the middle school where I taught in Texas. In many ways it was the most fun I had teaching. I would get the chance to take someone who was scared to death of speaking in front of a class of their peers (and you know how peers are in middle school) and help them overcome that fear.
I will admit, I am a biased communication major with a master’s in education writing this article, but I don’t know a skill like communication that, no matter what, crosses over into so many aspects of a person’s life.
Whether it is relationships or work related, communication filters into everything. In the end, for students, we explain that communication could drastically impact how much money you make in your lifetime…that usually gets their attention.
What Skills Make Up Effective Communication?
Narrowing down this list is hard, but let’s focus on school and work related needs primarily for the sake of time and priorities.
The Ability to Be Concise
For years in English, students are taught to find the main idea and that skill morphs into finding the author’s purpose and explaining the main point of the story. This ability in writing spans into communication. Tell people what you are going to tell them, tell them the main idea of what you are going to say, then say it again and check for understanding. Not much is different for what is done in an effective classroom. One of the things we look for in our classrooms is if a teacher has ‘framed the lesson’. Has the teacher in student friendly language told the students what they will learn, then worked on what they learned, then checked that they learned it.
As we prepare students for interviews as they leave high school, we tell them at some point during the interview they will have a chance to sell themselves and convince the person that they should hire them. If you are not concise and to the point in this short elevator speech, you may miss your opportunity.
Ethos, Pathos, Logos
Those of you reading this article probably have heard of these before, and they apply to effective communication.
Does what you say have credibility (could be based on position, experience, relation with the person)? Is what you say logical (I ask students if what you just said sounds crazy when you say it)? And does what you say appeal to emotionally (what is the emotional impact of what I said)?
If a student wants to give a speech on aliens living under the crust of the Earth, it better have a strong level of evidence behind it. If a student wants to convince an employer they are the right person for a job (and us also) we have to make a clear concise argument, have logic behind our argument, emotionally make them feel ok with the decision, and give them a reason they should believe us.
Why Is It Important for Students to Possess Communication Skills?
For purposes of this article I will stick to soft skills and 21st century skills, otherwise, how much time do you have?
Just Google soft skills that job employers want from the workforce that is coming to them. There are 15 of them, but for time’s sake I will mention those where effective communication is easily needed: communication, teamwork, problem-solving, conflict management, leadership, persuasion, and openness to criticism. Seven of the 15 easily qualified and the others’ communication could be argued as needed also.
The same trend shows up when you look at the definition of 21st-century skills. There are twelve: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, information literacy, media literacy, technology literacy, flexibility, initiative, productivity, and social skills.
Communication is in both lists and actually determines the success of most of these skills. Thus if a student wants to be successful when they leave high school or even at school, they need to possess effective communication skills.
Are There Any Barriers to Effective Communication?
There are two major barriers that are very obvious and need to be mentioned but not discussed much, physical and environmental. The definitions are fairly easy to understand also. People can have physical barriers that make communication difficult for them and not easy to understand for others. Impediments, hearing issues, etc…
Then there are environmental factors. How loud is the place you are in where you are talking? Should what you say be heard by others around you?
The biggest barrier I find in effective communication is simply the life experiences of the people you are trying to communicate with. Try explaining what snow looks and feels like to someone who has lived their entire life in the tropics? There would only be a few common experiences that could bridge that gap so that understanding between the two people could take place.
This is why it is so important for speakers, teachers, and interviewees to find common ground with who they are talking with so that they can build their relationship with those commonalities.
Activities for Learning How to Communicate Effectively
So how does this look in the classroom and how can we as educators develop effective communicators.
- Make your room a safe place for students. This almost goes with saying, but it is important enough to mention that trust has to be built for students to feel able to talk to you, the teacher and to other students. Relationships are key here.
- Cooperative learning: Cooperative Learning requires students to work together to complete projects, figure out who does what in a group, how to make decisions in a group, and work toward a goal. It also works best in small groups so that students who are shy would likely feel more comfortable and the teacher can choose which students are in groups to increase the likelihood of success for the group. This also spans grade levels and subjects.
- Have students give presentations: Whether it is in groups or on their own, having students present information to their class is a great way for students to learn how to handle the pressure, the situation, feeling of talking with many people at the same time. This also requires students to prioritize what is important and what is not when presenting or speaking. This can be informal also when a math teacher calls a student to the board to explain a problem.
- Give consistent feedback: Students who don’t know what their expectations are or what they are doing wrong will likely not succeed unless they get lucky. The teacher needs to give feedback on the group conversations and presentations to help students grow in this area.