Communication Currents

Communication Skills Training for Elementary School Students

August 1, 2009
Instructional Communication

From the beginning children learn about communication, whether it is looking through a picture book to learn the name of household objects, asking dad for more juice, or negotiating with a sibling about sharing a toy. In other words, communication is a major part of childhood.

Communication training is vitally important for elementary school students. Communication skills help children develop healthy interpersonal relationships, evaluate mediated messages, and learn to present themselves in effective and competent ways to others. The Kids Communicating website offers elementary school teachers easy tips and learning activities to help foster communication training in their classrooms.

Elementary school is an important time for developing effective communication skills. During this time, children are exploring language and message choices, learning about emotions, trying to navigate peer pressure, and building a sense of self. It is often assumed that children will learn communication skills on their own without any formal training. Yet, we know that more formalized instruction about communication is beneficial for children and their futures. Unfortunately, few students in the public school system receive communication skills training.

The importance of providing early training in communication skills grows increasingly evident. Our society has rapidly evolved from a culture which was production- or manufacturing-focused into one in which workers interact with each other, and with information. In this shift toward knowledge-focused work, life and career success will depend more heavily on the development of solid communication competencies. According to national surveys, a variety of communication skills consistently top lists of what employers consider the most desirable personal traits. These skills needed to succeed in the world of work can be cultivated in early education. For the elementary student, communication training can help with a variety of problems. These problems can range from bullying to negative peer pressure, and communication training at an early age can help smaller problems from becoming larger problems in later years. Yet, communication skills are vastly underemphasized in the elementary school curriculum.

The Kids Communicating program created by Chad Edwards and Autumn Edwards helps K-3 teachers implement the integration of basic communication curriculum into their standard grade-level material. Undergraduate and graduate students at Western Michigan University developed much of the program. The Kids Communicating program is based on skills and competencies identified by the National Communication Association (NCA). The three overarching competencies of speaking, listening, and media literacy are highlighted in this program. The Kids Communicating program adopts a twofold approach to realizing this goal. The first is a website,, dedicated to providing K-3 teachers with instructional resources, curricular modules, and a forum for the exchange of best practices related to communication skills training in their classrooms.

The website acts as a clearinghouse for elementary teachers to find information related to communication and a host of topics (for example, leadership, bullying, media literacy, listening, conflict, public speaking). Each of these sections provides learning activities, links to other resources, and suggestions for teaching these topics within specific existing elementary subjects (for example, history, social studies, reading). Eventually, the website will include online videos, podcasts, and printable worksheets that teachers can use in the classroom. Also, the website points to relevant readings and research for teachers seeking best practices in a variety of communication topics.

As a second approach, this program also reaches out into the community to teach communication skills. A group of undergraduate students from Western Michigan University created a coloring book based on the communication competencies for K-3 students. The coloring book teaches children about expressing their emotions, sharing with others, resolving conflict, listening to others, and understanding nonverbal behaviors. This coloring book and related teacher's guide can be found on the Kids Communicating website. Another group of students took the Kids Communicating program to an after-school center to hold a Communication Carnival. At this event, second and third-graders went to various booths to play games related to communication and earned prizes. For example, one booth had children giving speeches pretending they were a president trying to solve a national problem. In another booth, children had a short lesson about listening and then participated in a quiz show. Currently, a speaking festival is being planned for first-graders. First-graders at a local elementary school will write and present speeches about famous historical figures, earn prizes for participation, and receive coaching and mentoring by undergraduate students.

So, what should children in K-3 learn about communication? The National Communication Association's National Project on Speech Communication Competencies Report identifies communication competencies based on grade level.

The kindergartener needs to focus on the basic building blocks of communication: sending and receiving messages. Teachers can have students verbally share experiences, learn about emotions, translate nonverbal messages viewed in pictures, and practice good listening skills.

In the first grade, children should be increasing their awareness of language choices, sharing greater depth in their own stories, reading aloud to classmates, and demonstrating more vocal quality (tone, pitch, rate, and volume).

Second graders should be able to identify the relationships between language choices and roles. For example, these students should learn to role-play difficult situations (such as bullying or negative peer pressure), orally summarize a story, maintain conversations with other children and adults, and respond to another's emotions.

Third graders need to have an understanding of the role communication plays in various cultural settings and small groups. Teachers could have students identify positive and negative characteristics about speeches, discuss gender roles in children's TV programming, practice leading small groups, participate in group discussions, and learn adaptation by telling stories to different audiences.

Elementary school is an important time in the development of children. For many children, this is the first time that they are meeting new friends on their own and learning the rules of social interaction. Communication training at this early age can help the student succeed in school and life. The Kids Communicating website and related programs are just one attempt at helping teachers in these grades implement basic communication training in the classroom.

About the author (s)

Chad Edwards

Western Michigan University


Autumn Edwards

Western Michigan University

Associate Professor