Collaborative Discussion: Common Core Basics for Back-to-School

For Common Core collaborative speaking standards, listening may be the most important skill of all.

By Judith Smith Meyer

Group of teachers talking

While many Common Core standards for english language arts evolve smoothly from NCLB-based content standards, and can be easily addressed in the classroom with familiar, proven curriculum, others are completely new and may feel daunting for teachers just stepping into the era of the Common Core. With a strong emphasis on preparing learners for life in the 21st century, where the most in-demand careers are yet to be invented, the Common Core aspires to equip them with tools to support the work of defining problems, conceiving solutions, and building functional working relationships.

Collaboration is Key

The Common Core approach to speaking emphasizes that learning and creating meaning are collaborative endeavors. From kindergarten through 12th grade, the ability to participate, initiate, and engage in collaborative discussions with diverse partners about grade-appropriate topics, texts, and issues, is first among speaking skills.

A profound new element of the Common Core resides in the Comprehension and Collaboration anchor standard. The overwhelming majority of ELA content standards for speaking at the secondary level previously began with the word deliver (as in speeches, presentations, narratives) or recite. Longstanding language arts traditions like how-to speeches, formal presentations based on research and expertise, poetry recitation, and even reader’s theater, featured academic speaking tasks that were prepared, presented to an audience, and not very interactive. Stereotypically, academic discussions have been whole-group undertakings with the teacher asking leading literary questions and learners trying to get the right answer.

Talking Students Can Be Risky!

In situations like these, it is also long-established practice that everyone is quiet while one person in the room speaks. Put the same participants in small groups or partners and the talking can go completely rogue! People interrupting, speaking at the same time, natural speakers dominating the whole discussion, and others carrying on private conversations unrelated to the task at hand.

Pupils talking and listening to each other, and thereby having more command over their own learning, may feel like an open door to chaos, but starting in the first months of school, you can build community in your classroom and introduce essential collaborative speaking skills that move learners toward the Common Core standards and the skills they need to thrive in a future we cannot predict.

Cultivating Good Listeners

Though the standards’ focus is speaking, listening is the basis for any successful interaction. Speaking can only be effective in the presence of a listener. Every recent professional development workshop I’ve attended — accelerating oral language development for long-term English learners, AVID critical reading and writing strategies, and closing the achievement gap by increasing racial equity — featured listening strategies that enable participants to develop as confident speakers.

During class, you can establish the fundamental norms for listening with care (a Common Core term). These norms are pretty simple, and apply to all grade levels, K-12: 

  • Everyone gets the same amount of time to speak.

The class leader operates a stopwatch that equitably provides every speaker with the same amount of time in the spotlight. An open-ended question provides structure for the content. Start with learner-centered talk, advance to text-based conversations later when they have mastered the formula for effective collaborative conversation.

With kindergartners, you could ask a simple question like, “What was the most fun you had this summer?” Give them 30 seconds to speak. Then give them 30 seconds to listen. They can do it, and the stage will be set right away for a year of developing confident speaking and careful listening that will prompt their 1st grade teachers to thank you!

Ask 11th graders to remember a time when they felt respected and to talk about it to a partner for 90 seconds or 2 minutes. This leads to my first writing assignment (the second is about a time they felt DISrespected) from which we establish our codes of behavior for a respectful environment. This will set the tone for a year of serious, respectful learning.

Everyone Gets a Voice

When you put students in pairs and give them each 1 minute to speak and 1 minute to listen to their partner, every person in the class will have been heard in two minutes! Let them choose their partners on the first day so they feel comfortable talking, and circulate to find a pair that has an easy rapport and a good story. These are the ones you will invite to demonstrate the importance of the next norm.

Curb Your Enthusiasm 

Listeners make eye contact, and may nod, smile, or respond with appropriate facial expressions, but may not interject, respond, agree, disagree, or make any other utterance. They also refrain from disruptive facial expressions or body language. After a brief conversation in which class members provide ideas about inappropriate facial expressions, ask for volunteers to role play an ineffective listener. Silly kindergarteners will jump at the chance to show what goofy facial expressions they can make. After the “rude listener” demonstration, act out how you might caringly listen to a student willing to speak before the entire class.

At the secondary level, I would allow two comics (who will show themselves in the first ten minutes of class) to role play disruptive facial expressions and then I would tell my story while a trusted class member (who will also reveal him- or herself right away) demonstrates caring listening.

When learners see from the first day of class that they will be expected to speak, in safe, supportive configurations (pairs and trios at first) with structured topics, and to listen with care and attention, you are on your way to the Common Core! And you’ll be building the kind of community that will make learning, and teaching, easier all year long.

It's All About You

Speakers express their own thoughts, ideas, experiences, and feelings about the topic at hand only. Make it clear that a speaker’s turn is not for any of the following:

  • Asking questions, nor responding to what the previous speaker said.

This is hard for most of us, as we’ve long learned that active listening involves lots of restating and questioning for clarification. Not so. Listening without verbal response gives individuals the chance to think through their ideas on their own, a very empowering reality to create in an world where it will be impossible to know the right answer to questions that have not yet been posed.

  • Criticizing or gossiping about others who are not part of the current team.

You can take five minutes to elaborate on this or ask a student to do so. The outcome of such behavior is well-known to young people and they will be able to articulate why we should avoid doing it.

  • Talking about subjects other than the business at hand.

Raise your hand if your time has ever been wasted by useless chatter in meetings. We speak with purpose. They’ll get it. You can role play about any of these for fun and clarity!

Hold the Line, It Takes Stamina

In practice, this will take a lot of circulating and monitoring at first to establish. We are all accustomed to personal conversation, and partner class talk can resemble it. But once the class knows you care if they follow the norms, they will. The benefit they each enjoy when they get to speak and be heard will perpetuate good listening practice.

As It Was in the Beginning

It ends with good listening, too. Take three-five minutes to reconvene the whole group after any timed speaking/listening activity and allow a few folks to share with the whole group. If such activities become part of your daily routine, your pupils will be well-equipped to take on more challenging collaborative speaking tasks as the year progresses.

Get the Balance Right

And class management will be easier too. I find that my reluctant speakers quickly gain confidence and participate more readily in whole-class discussions when they have had more practice developing their voices in pairs or trios. And those who dominate whole group discussions with constant volunteering—“oh, oh, oh, me, me, me!”—quickly settle down knowing they will be heard in class every day. No matter that it is not me who gets to hear each and every one of them; they are getting heard and their urgency about speaking out diminishes.

The Recap

To review: here is the basic formula for setting up an effective speaking and listening practice to start the year:

1) Set a question to the class; give a chance to make notes or think silently for a minute.

2) Arrange partners, of your choosing or their own, depending on purpose and comfort level needed.

3) Start the timer for the first speaker. Announce the end time.

4) Start the timer for subsequent speakers. Announce the end time.

5) Reconvene for whole group sharing.

With practice you can get routines like this done in seven minutes. And that’s a great time-value to build Common Core skills every day.


Take Time to Listen

Get your 4th-6th graders moving by using this lesson based on a game of telephone. Listeners aren’t silent, but practice restating for accuracy. This activity hones listening skills and shows classmates that they have been understood.

The Power of Listening

Aimed at 10th graders, this resource guides participants to establish norms for interacting in ways that respect individual and group differences. An excellent reproducible with listening which stems learners in listening to themselves as well, the basis of empathy.

Respectful Listening

This clear plan details guidelines and a practice activity for respectful listening that matches peer observers with speaking/listening partners. Both speakers and listeners get feedback on their participation. Gauged for 9-11 year-olds, but I’d use it with high schoolers.

Listening Well

A pair of activities to build listening skills for upper elementary learners.  Partners work together to practice speaking and listening, and then the whole class joins for collaborative story telling.