Thinking as a Communication Skill
Dr. S. P. Dhanavel
Professor and Head
Department of English
Anna University, Chennai-600 025
Key Words: communication skill, thinking, listening, speaking, reading, writing
Traditionally, communication skills in general and language skills in particular refer to listening, speaking, reading and writing. Years of teaching and learning these skills from school level to college and university level show that there is always scope for further improvement in the students. Recently with the boom in the ITES sector, the lack of communication skills in students has been brought to the fore by the companies as they keep on telling the educational institutions that the students passing out from most universities and colleges in most fields of study, especially engineering and technology, do not have the necessary communication skills when they go to colleges for recruitment. As a result, companies themselves and a number of private institutions have started training students not only in communication skills but also in soft skills. A careful analysis of the situation reveals that students do not get adequate training in thinking in relation to communication skills, though a few experts have emphasized that language skills are, in fact, thinking skills. Therefore, the present paper aims at examining thinking as a communication skill and suggests that thinking should be developed in students along with the four traditional communication skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing for development of effective communication skills.
Traditionally, communication skills in general and language skills in particular refer to listening, speaking, reading and writing. Years of teaching and learning these skills from school level to college and university level show that there is always scope for further improvement in the students. Recently with the boom in the ITES sector, the lack of communication skills in students has been brought to the fore by the companies, as they keep on telling the educational institutions that the students passing out from most universities and colleges in most fields of study, especially engineering and technology, do not have the necessary communication skills when they go to colleges for recruitment. As a result, companies themselves and a number of private institutions have started training students not only in communication skills but also in soft skills. A careful analysis of the situation reveals that students do not get adequate training in thinking in relation to communication skills, though a few experts have emphasized that language skills are, in fact, thinking skills. Therefore, the present paper aims at examining thinking as a communication skill and suggests that thinking should be developed in students along with the four traditional communication skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing for development of effective communication skills.
Communication and Thinking
Joseph A DeVito (1994) defines communication as a process that “refers to the act, by one or more persons, of sending and receiving messages that are distorted by noise, occur within a context, have some effect and provide some opportunity for feedback.” This may be verbal and non-verbal and the verbal may be oral and written. Oral includes listening and speaking, and written comprises reading and writing. However, in all these forms of communication, thinking skill is embedded inextricably. James S O’Rourke IV and Anubha Singh (2006) have written a book Management Communication based on two assumptions. i) “Communication is a skill that can be learned, taught and improved.” and ii) “Writing, speaking, listening, and other communication behaviors are the end products of a process that begins with critical thinking.” Therefore, for any effective communication to take place some amount of good thinking is vital.
Language and Thinking
The medium of communication for humans is language, although the language may vary from people to people. Whatever language one may use, every one has to use thinking while communicating. Hence, many scholars have observed the strong connection between language and thinking. John Chaffee (1985) asserts that “using language is a thinking process” and strongly believes that there is a “reciprocal and dynamic relationship between language and thinking.” He argues that both reading and writing are thinking processes involving cognitive and metacognitive skills. Some of the cognitive skills which he finds in reading skill are “classification, cause and effect, comparison and contrast, analogy, and inferring or deducing conclusions based on supporting reasons.” Two important metacognitive skills that he identifies are problem solving and critical reflection. Moreover, he maintains that these basic skills are “needed for reading, writing, speaking and academic life in general.” According to Joseph Ponnaih (2007), “Learning a language is a thinking process that allows learners to grow and shape their personalities.” He adds that thinking skill is an important component of education in today’s world of fast developments in all areas of life. Hence, he states convincingly that thinking “affects all forms of communication, including listening, speaking, reading and writing.” If thinking is an essential aspect of all the four language skills, it is necessary to look at language skills individually in relation to thinking in the proper evolutionary order of listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
What is Listening?
For the most part of human life, listening is used often but it is the most neglected skill in the educational process. While making a case for an oral curriculum which will take care of listening and speaking skills, Marilyn H Buckly unwittingly points to the significant connection between language skills and thinking. She bemoans: “Unfortunately, these teachers were not educated to think that listening, speaking, reading, and writing are the verbal thinking processes by which students come to know geography, history, and most other content areas.” Then she remarks that “listening is thinking and the better a teacher develops the students’ natural abilities, the better they think.” Obviously, it is the job of the teacher to provide for training in listening to students with a focus on listening as a thinking skill.
In an email dialogue on “Listening, Juggling, and Traveling the Philosophical Space,” Karin Murris answers Joanna Haynes’s question regarding listening thus: “listening does require considerable effort; listening costs the listener; and children do not find listening harder than adults.” She also claims that “listening is not just a necessary condition for thinking, but listening IS thinking.” Haynes and Murris’s chief interest is in exploring a philosophy of listening, which can be useful to teachers and students in the production and dissemination of knowledge. Nevertheless, their argument that listening is thinking is worth considering in the context of developing real communication skills among students.
What is Speaking?
John Adair (1998) identifies six key principles of effective speaking: i) clarity, ii) preparedness, iii) simplicity, iv) vividness, v) conciseness, and vi) naturalness. He explains that “clarity is the cardinal principle of power or effectiveness in both speech and writing.” Further, he asserts that “clear thinking issues in clear utterance.” He adds that “the intellectual skills of analyzing, synthesizing, and valuing” are required for clear speaking. In the same way, a public speaking tutorial on the Internet categorically states that “speaking is thinking.” The public speaker has to know his specific audience, select the main ideas for his audience, identify what is good and useful for them, and examine the subject of speech thoroughly. All these cannot be done without adequate thinking.
What is Reading?
If listening and speaking are thinking processes required for all human beings, reading and writing skills are of paramount importance for all educated human beings. Emmet A Bettes (1967) argues that reading is thinking. To quote Beaty’s summary of Bettes, “Reading is not verbalism, but a process of arriving at conclusions. Reading is thinking. It is a process of problem solving, abstracting, generalizing to form concepts, judging, and drawing conclusions.” According to Vivian Franz (2004), reading is a process, “a thinking process.” Further, she adds that “no one will ever read better than he or she who can think.” For her, it is not enough to recognize words and pronounce them. Hence, she emphasizes the importance of reading comprehension as a skill for all students and for all subjects. To read means to read words; to read words means to understand the meaning of words. Thus, she stresses the value of extensive vocabulary development through extensive reading, which can be better performed with an understanding that reading is thinking.
For a person to be called literate and educated is to have learnt the skills of reading and writing. Then, word building is essential. When students read and write, they read and write words. Readingpage.com states: “Reading is thinking and reasoning – not merely recall of facts. Classroom instruction that supports students in linking ideas and making connections strengthens their ability to think and reason.” While arguing for a new paradigm of reading, Sally Rings (1993) points to the fact that much of the reading process involves thinking. To support her point, she cites E. L. Thorndike’s view that “reading is thinking.” She also resorts to the cognitive view of reading as an interactive, holistic, and problem solving process. Further, she makes use of the concept of strategic reading, formulated by N Collins and C Smith. Above all, she relies on Neilson’s notion of reading as an “organic world view.” Thus, Rings proves beyond doubt that thinking has a crucial role in reading.
What is Writing?
In the context of literary criticism, Bonnie Marranca (1985) says, “To live fully is to live it as an act of criticism. Writing is thinking and thought is language, and to choose words is to imagine worlds. One reason to live is to have the luxury to know writing.” Similarly, in his review of Craig Seligman’s Sontag and Kael, Pradeep Sebastian (2004) quotes from a critic who observed that “writing is not a conduit to thinking, writing IS thinking.” Writing as thinking is the highest form of communication, that too at the creative and critical spheres.
Even at the level of the mundane world, writing is considered to be thinking. According to the mind quest academy, “Thinking and writing are interdependent processes; they depend on each other. We think to write and we write to think.” The academy supports its view with a quotation from Donald Murray, a professor of writing at the University of New Hampshire: “writing is thinking.” Andrea Shen (2001) reports that a four year study undertaken by Nancy Sommers and her colleagues of Harvard University Expository Writing Program has come out with the conclusion that “writing is learning, that writing is thinking.” Finding that even the so-called good students at schools lack required writing abilities at the college level, the team went on to observe the writing needs of the college students over a four year period and concluded that effective writing results from clear thinking. In fact, the Write Source training program guide observes that writing is a life skill and proceeds to add that “developing writing skills means developing thinking skills.” The students who attend this program are expected to “develop their thinking skills by learning how to choose and develop their own topics, find information, evaluate the quality of sources, think through relevant issues, formulate a thesis, support an argument, and draw logical conclusions.” Writing is thus seen as a thinking skill in both creative life and day-to-day life.
Ian J Quitadamo and Martha J Kurtz (2007) provide a quite contrasting picture of the relationship between writing and thinking in their research. They argue that writing improves students’ ability to think critically. Such a critical thinking skill is the need of the hour in the US. Hence, they have undertaken an experimental study to prove that writing can be used to enhance the critical thinking skills of students. Whether writing is used for developing thinking or thinking for writing, it is clear that writing and thinking are intimately interrelated.
Thinking and Communication Skill
The interrelationship between language and thought is an abiding source of interest for philosophers, linguists and scholars of various disciplines. But no conclusive study has come out. Peter Mosenthal (1975) mentions five approaches to this issue: i) Thinking is identical to speaking; ii) language is different from both speaking and thinking, iii) speaking decides how one thinks; iv) thinking decides how one speaks; and v) a combination of mutual influence between thinking and speaking. These various approaches indicate that thinking is closely related to language, especially speaking. To develop thinking skills is, then, to develop language and communications skills.
According to the British National Curriculum, the six key skills required for all children are: i) communication, ii) application of number, iii) information technology, iv) working with others, v) improving own learning and performance, and vi) problem solving. The curriculum also emphasizes thinking skills such as information processing skills, reasoning skills, enquiry skills, creative thinking skills, and evaluation skills. What is important to note is the interconnection among various skills, particularly among language, thinking, and communication skills, as observed by Carol Miller.
Thinking as the Primary Communication Skill
If listening, speaking, reading and writing are thinking processes, it is obvious that thinking is the most important skill that every student must develop in order to become an effective communicator. Sadly, however, it is not recognized by language teachers. It is high time that steps were taken to include thinking skills as part of the language curriculum right from school to college. According to an article on “Direct of Teaching of Thinking,” Barry Beyer believes that thinking skills can be taught directly in the class. The skills he taught include classifying, comparing, evaluating, hypothesizing, sequencing, summarizing, decision making and problem solving. In the case of the US, educators and administrators are convinced about the need for including thinking skills in the school and college curriculum and they have been doing a good job. On the other hand, in the UK, opponents of thinking skills in the curriculum are more powerful than the supporters. Hence, the progress in this direction is slow in the UK. However, Higgins and Baumfield (1998) have offered a powerful defense of teaching general thinking skills, which every educator should consider. In the case of India, there is no question of a debate on the subject. Language teachers, not only of English but also of all Indian languages, are obliged to teach thinking skills, both creative and critical, to the teeming millions of youth in the country. If thinking is taught, then, all other skills can easily be learnt. Hence, thinking is the primary communication skill today.
The discussion of thinking as a communication skill has touched upon various thinking skills such as classification, cause and effect, comparison and contrast, analogy, inferring or deducing meanings conclusions, problem solving, critical reflection, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, abstracting, generalizing to form concepts, judgment, hypothesizing, sequencing, summarizing, decision making, working with others, and improving own learning.
Benjamin Bloom has classified these into a taxonomy of educational objectives under six heads: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. The British National Curriculum has also identified five major thinking skills: information processing, reasoning, enquiry, creative thinking, and evaluation. Each of these skills is further spelled out in detail. The first, information processing skill, refers to finding relevant information, sorting, classifying, and sequencing information, comparing and contrasting information, and identifying and analyzing relationships. The second, reasoning, comprises skills like giving reasons for opinions and actions, inferring, making deductions, making informed judgments and decisions, and using precise language to reason. The third, enquiry, covers skills like asking questions, defining questions for enquiry, planning research, predicting outcomes, anticipating consequences, and drawing conclusions. The fourth, creative thinking, comprises the skills of generating ideas, developing ideas, hypothesizing, applying imagination, and seeking innovative alternatives. The last, evaluation, includes the skills of developing evaluation criteria, applying evaluation and judging the value of information and ideas.
John Butterworth and Geoff Thwaites (2006) have discussed most thinking skills under two broad categories in their book Thinking Skills. The first category is called critical thinking and it includes skills like logical reasoning (argument), inference, explanation, evaluation, analysis and synthesis. The second category refers to problem solving skills which encompass such skills as selecting information, processing data, identifying problems, finding solutions, recognizing patterns, choice and decision, and using imagination. This book is meant as textbook for teaching thinking skills at the higher education level. It is possible to include all these skills in the language curriculum at college and university stages to impart thinking skills to the students.
Thus, Bloom’s taxonomy, the National Curriculum thinking skills, Butterworth and Thwaites’s textbook point to the general and specific thinking skills which are in more than one way related to the language skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Therefore, it is not surprising to consider thinking a communication skill of natural and immediate importance.
The Hand of Communication Skills
To understand the importance of all communication skills, particularly that of thinking, the hand with its five fingers may be imagined. If the little finger is listening, if the ring finger is speaking, if the middle finger is reading, and if the pointing finger is writing, then the thumb is thinking. All the four fingers can be effectively used only when the thumb is present. If there is no thumb, the four fingers are useless. In the same way, all the four language skills which are generally taught to the students are useless without the thumb of thinking skill. Incidentally, thumb in its upward position represents victory non-verbally. Without the thumb, students do not get victory in their life. Similarly, without thinking, students do not acquire adequate proficiency in communication skills. Consequently, it is imperative to develop thinking as a communication skill in students, if they have to become successful in their chosen life.
To conclude, communication skills in general and the four language skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing in particular are essentially thinking skills, including cognitive and metacognitive skills. A sample review of literature reveals that listening is thinking, speaking is thinking, reading is thinking, and writing is thinking. It can be safely assumed that any attempt to develop communication skills without developing thinking skills is bound to meet with failure. It may be argued that developing communication skills can develop thinking skills. However, decades of teaching language skills in isolation have proved that students do not acquire true communication skills not only in India but also in the US and the UK. The latter countries woke up to this reality long ago and they have successfully implemented a program on critical skills for their students. It is of utmost importance to include and inculcate thinking skills for Indian students if India has to compete in the international scenario in every walk of life.
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