Equipping Students to Foster Civility in Conversation

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In days gone by, rules of etiquette and decorum were set in print. As a youngster, George Washington ascribed to 110 maxims printed in Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation (for full listing see this NPR link). The first of these maxims sets the tone for all others:  “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.” There was a time when the focus of civility was the sensitivities of those around us.

Be polite!How different today! Kids and adults use the F-bomb with the frequency of a comma. Texting or checking the phone while in face-to-face conversation is standard behavior. Responding to a question or an observation with a finger has become common practice. Interrupting a speaker as an utterance begins to take shape on the lips is credited to wit.

These rudely common habits have become accepted conventions within today’s conversations. Whether viewing political campaign speeches, nightly sitcoms and dramas, or attempting to engage in a public conversation, similar scenarios play themselves out across populations. Through public tolerance of such displays, our communities tend to encourage rudeness in conversation.

The Common Core Standards (though bearing various names across the country’s state lines), offer a tool with the power to reinstate civility and return courtesy to the natural act of talk through the teaching of Speaking and Listening Standards. The standards for teaching oral communication begin in the kindergarten with guidelines regarding listening and taking turns, then advance to first grade with language that builds from merely listening to “listening with care” (p. 23). The primary grades address rules of conversation and in second grade suggest speakers practice “gaining the floor respectfully.”

The CC Speaking and Listening Standards for the upper grades, six through twelve, are built on the foundation of mutual respect among the speakers. Indeed, in grade six speakers are expected to “review the key ideas expressed and demonstrate understanding of multiple perspectives” (p. 49). In high school, discussants are to “when warranted, qualify or justify their own views and understanding…through thoughtful well-reasoned exchanges” (p. 50).

But how can civil discourse be the outcome amidst a backdrop of non-examples? How can our children learn to listen, rephrase, reflect, question, and compromise or justify in a respectful manner when centered in a world that seems to ignore rules of civility while rewarding braggadocio?

As teachers and parents, we have a responsibility to both point out rudeness in communication and model fitting behaviors of discourse. But modeling is not enough for effectual instruction. We must also explicitly teach and provide opportunities for practice. Children need reminders around them of how they can effectually listen, speak, justify, and persuade without becoming disorderly, offensive, or vulgar.

Sentence starters are one means of providing speakers with alternative ways to structure common conversational needs. My four-year old granddaughter gains the floor respectfully by beginning a sentence with, “Excuse me….” followed by her request, question, or assertion. Building on that, what other sentence starters could help learners enter courteously into conversations?

Gaining the floor respectfully

  • From my viewpoint…” then add, agree or disagree
  • Might I…” then add, agree, or disagree
  • I would like to …” then add, agree, or disagree
  • Excuse me…” followed by inquiry or question

Linking to other’s comments

  • I thought that, too…
  • I hear what you are saying…” followed by agreement, disagreement, paraphrase, etc.
  • I think I hear you saying…” followed by restatement of another’s ideas

Asking for clarification

  • I’m not sure I understand. Could you explain further?
  • Could you provide another example to help me understand?
  • Where did you find that evidence?
  • What might be another way you could say that?

Engage others in conversation

  • _____, what thoughts do you have about …?
  • _____, would you like to offer your ideas?
  • Are there others who share my understanding?
  • Are there others who understand this differently?

As sentence stems or question starters, the language can be posted in the classroom large enough for students to read from a distance or formatted as bookmarks for use in conversation. But the language needs to be present and visible as a constant reminder of alternatives to the barrage of offensive conversation stoppers and insulting thinking enders.

Moreover, as teachers and parents, we have a responsibility to provide guided opportunities for speaking practice. Home and school need to allow and expect students to use mature and inclusive language and reward through encouragement of appropriate language use. At the same time, students need explicit instruction in the skills of respectful listening. Where is the place for yawing, for texting, for eye rolling?

By using structures such as Socratic circles and fishbowl conversations (YouTube is full of examples!), teachers can provide occasions for variations on the small group discussion that allow for students to watch peer exchanges and provide feedback on both the content and the context of the oral exchange. Using a rubric aligned to the standards and providing specific sentence stems encourage positive practice. Practice builds habit. Habit becomes practice.

Although not planned, Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation pervade the Common Core’s Speaking and Listening Standards. From the opening statement’s focus on “respect to those that are present” to the final Maxim 110, “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience” the standards expect speakers and listeners to be thoughtful in consideration of others and in the representation of self.  Only through our individual conscience can people build bridges of respect reaching not only across classroom and political aisles but across the bounds of time and place.

In equipping our students with guidelines for academic and social discourse they can engage others in civil conversations that will build a community of thinkers whether they agree or disagree on topics of conversation and discussion.


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