We communicate with others all the time. But how good are we at it? The English Language Institute of Singapore is helping teachers, and ultimately students, become effective communicators.
As an English Language Specialist at the English Language Institute of Singapore (ELIS) since 2011, Dr Caroline Ho has been conducting various workshops to help teachers become more effective communicators in subjects such as Science and Math. She gives her take on why teachers should and how they can communicate more effectively with their students, and how students can be encouraged to do the same.
Q: What is effective communication in the classroom?
Central to all that we do, it has to be the students who will benefit. We view effective communication as supporting students’ learning, so it applies to all subject areas. We try to make it clear to schools that effective communication is more than just pronunciation, intonation or articulation. Communication also involves the teachers’ classroom discourse and interaction that deepen thinking to help students internalize and process subject content.
We believe in teachers and students co-constructing knowledge together, particularly in the subjects that involve multimodal aspects of communication, for example, visual data such as graphs, charts, statistics.
Effective communication must take into account the context and purpose for which teachers and students are communicating. Given the emphasis on 21st century competencies, more demands are being made on the students to explain, justify and reason through problem-solving strategies.
The interaction among students as they co-construct knowledge becomes important too. We want them to recognize the role of language in meaning making, and see communication as a collaborative activity. It shouldn’t be just one-sided, as in teacher disseminating information, but two-way with teacher and/or students responding to each other to deepen content learning. Effective communication means that the receiver fully understands, comprehends and interprets what the speaker and/or writer has conveyed.
By modelling effective communication as a Science teacher, your students will become aware of the norms and conventions of reading, writing, talking and thinking like a scientist.
– Caroline Ho, English Language Specialist, English Language Institute of Singapore (ELIS)
Q: Why is effective communication in subject learning important?
Teachers can model what effective communication looks like to students. We believe that modelling, thinking aloud and unpacking the thinking processes that are required to convey the content effectively will enable students to process and internalize the targeted subject matter.
If students can replicate this, they can then clearly articulate their own perspectives of what they are learning, their own logical reasoning and thinking processes. This makes thinking visible. It’s even more important now with the emphasis on more knowledge-building, inquiry-based and problem-solving approaches—so rote learning will not do. Students need to learn how to work through their problems and articulate their reasons for why they have adopted a certain approach, and justify arguments put forth.
When we talk about literacy in the subjects, it is the ability to use language appropriately, meaningfully and precisely in a given subject area. It requires the teacher to be proficient in the language and subject knowledge. Subject teachers have to be conscious of how they construct meaningful dialogue with their students, how they can facilitate thinking and understanding of content through interactional modes of language use in the classroom. We are helping teachers with their classroom talk, interaction with students and questioning strategies.
Q: How is effective communication done in a subject like Science?
I’ve been working with Science teachers and that’s where the collaboration with NIE comes in with one study. Science as a discipline demands that we look at evidence. You need to learn how to observe a phenomenon, create hypothesis to test what you see based on the evidence, and adapt your hypothesis or modify your assumptions.
When teaching, you have to help the students formulate very clear and precise explanations that address the specific demands of the questions. And what is tough is where students have to present scientific and logical reasoning, argument and justification to show the logical connection of the evidence and claims. All these skills become very critical: How you formulate your explanations, how you evaluate your explanations as new data/evidence comes in as part of the process of scientific inquiry.
So you can’t talk about effective communication in a vacuum. It has to be in a specific context with a clear outcome. By modelling effective communication as a Science teacher, your students will become aware of the norms and conventions of reading, writing, talking and thinking like a scientist. There’s now a greater awareness and attention on the part of the teachers as to what is involved because they want to help students, especially those who are weaker in English.
We want to help teachers communicate their subject knowledge more clearly and effectively so that it is the students who will benefit.
– Caroline on the importance of helping teachers communicate with their students better
Q: If effective communication is not done well, what can go wrong?
We would be short-changing our students if we are not clear as to whether they have really understood what we have taught them despite getting good test or exam grades. The grades may show that they can clear whatever is required of them in assessments. But in my dialogue with teachers, I’ve learned that it may not always be clear to them as to whether students have really processed what they have learned and whether they can apply their learning despite doing well in Math and Science exams.
In the long run, whether they are able to transfer those skills they have acquired even to other contexts and real-life situations, time will tell. In class, we wouldn’t really know if you don’t help them make their thinking visible, if it’s not mediated through the communication in class. We may be fooling ourselves that students may be giving us the so-called “correct” answers, but they have actually not processed and mastered the content for themselves. This is what we need to continue to work on while they are with us in school.