A+ Advice for Parents

Guide Your Teens as They Learn Art of Conversation

Q: My two teen girls chatter with their peers, but they haven't learned the art of adult conversation. They never ask good questions or push a topic along. Do schools cover this? Are there any tricks I can use to teach them?

A: Schools do teach this, but not nearly enough, say two California educators, Marie Crawford and Jeff Zwiers. They train teachers to help students learn the skills essential for dialogue -- conversations in which we share different perspectives, build ideas and solve problems. They outline many strategies in their useful book, "Academic Conversations" (Stenhouse Publishers, 2011).

Crawford and Zwiers say students should develop five core skills to hold more complex conversations: (BEGIN ITALS)elaborating and clarifying, supporting ideas with evidence, building on or challenging ideas, paraphrasing and synthesizing.(END ITALS)

You can model these with your teens using topics they raise. For example, your daughter says, "Using hashtags on Facebook is so annoying. I mean, who does that?" You might say, "That's such an interesting observation. Please tell me why you think that." And a dialogue begins.

Do this consistently and your teens will reap academic benefits way beyond becoming interesting conversationalists. Academic conversation builds vocabulary and grammar; critical thinking such as persuasion, interpretation and evaluation; literacy skills such as predicting, summarizing and understanding abstract concepts, such as irony; and respect for each other's ideas and voices.

Learning to ask useful questions is important. "Questions linger, push and energize thinking; they open up the mind rather than shut it down," say Crawford and Zwiers. Questions help kids become "creative, empathic, hypothetical and humble." These are all qualities we want teens to develop.

Crawford teaches students how to ask several kinds of questions. You'll find them easy to model.

-- Questions that sustain conversations: These clarify and focus. Some examples are: (BEGIN ITALS)"What do you mean by ...?" "What is that important?" "What do others think?"(END ITALS)

-- Questions that explore meaning: We ask students to memorize meanings, says Crawford, but rarely to come up with their own definitions for concepts they're studying, such as democracy and freedom. For example, if discussing Occupy Wall Street, you might probe, "What does being 'middle class' mean? What has it meant for people at other times in our history?"

-- Questions that linger: Pondering leads to more focused problem-solving, says Zwiers. Encourage students to write down questions of interest. For example, "Is college worth the cost?" Suggest people they can talk with. Encourage them to research answers on their own. Come back to the question over time as their understanding deepens.

-- Questions that inspire "higher order" thinking: These ask for answers that go beyond recall and memorization. For example, if your daughters are into the "Twilight" series, ask questions such as, "Is Bella right or wrong in her decision?" "What did the author do to get readers to feel a certain way?" "How are the books and movies the same? Different?" and so on.

If you apply these techniques to topics your girls care about, and you are genuinely interested in what they think, they'll walk the walk as conversationalists!

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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