Find your voice and look after it

The way teachers speak has implications for their effectiveness in class – as well as their general health. Darren Evans reports
15th June 2012, 1:00am


Find your voice and look after it

The concept of “pupil voice” is well-established in schools, the thinking being that if pupils are listened to they are more likely to feel engaged with the learning process. But the most important voice of all in the classroom is one that’s often overlooked - that of the teacher.

For effective learning to take place a teacher has to create the right atmosphere, and the main tool for doing that is the teacher’s own voice.

Getting the tone right can spark enthusiasm, passion and focus, but getting it wrong can result in boredom, disrespect and bad behaviour. And subject knowledge is not enough; if a teacher has vocal problems, pupils can’t listen and won’t learn.

Vocal instruction has gone in and out of fashion in pedagogy over recent decades, but now it is poised for a comeback, at least in England. Charlie Taylor, adviser to Westminster education secretary Michael Gove, is keen for such instruction to be included as part of initial teacher education courses to boost confidence among new entrants to the profession and help them to reduce behavioural problems.

Mr Taylor is particularly interested in the work of the Thames Primary Consortium, a teacher training group based in Essex that runs a successful voice training programme.

Course director Jo Palmer-Tweed says the renewed focus on the subject is long overdue. Like Mr Taylor, she is keen to see it included in ITE. “As teachers we are professional voice users, but we don’t have any formal training as a matter of course,” she says. “My voice is my tool. If I break my leg I can still teach but if I lose my voice I can’t.”

Lesley Hendy, a former trustee of the Voice Care Network who delivers the course, agrees. “It’s the elephant in the room, the one skill that teachers really need to know, but very few are lucky enough to have training,” she says.

Ms Palmer-Tweed started the course six years ago after noticing that the teachers in the consortium who were getting the best results and had the fewest behaviour problems were those who were using their voice most effectively.

It started with a short course on voice care and protection, but she soon realised pitch and tone were also important, as was knowing what type of voice to use in what context. “We looked at what are the voices teachers will need and how do you teach them to produce those voices,” she says.

It was from there that the programme in which Mr Taylor is particularly interested, Five Main Voices for Effective Teaching, developed. As the name suggests, it explores the five voices teachers are most likely to use in a classroom situation.

The five voices

“The most used and most important is the `centred neutral’ voice,” Dr Hendy says. “It gives teachers credibility and makes them sound as if they are in control. For children that’s really important; it means the person standing in front of them is in charge and they don’t have to worry. Then there is the `encouraging’ voice, which is useful for general motivation in group work and discussion, the `advisorycomforting’ voice, and the `firm’ and `extra firm’ voices.”

Ms Palmer-Tweed adds: “It is critical for a teacher to find where their neutral is. You find that there are quite a lot of over-pitched teachers. It’s your squeaky voice - people tend to raise it when talking to young children, but children don’t respond to that because it stops them being able to process what’s being said.”

Dr Hendy says that if teachers know how to use the five voices effectively, they can encourage classes to behave better. But she says there are pitfalls to using the technique, and that even trained teachers can find it hard switching between voices.

“Teaching is one of the few professions where you might have to go from your centred neutral or encouraging voice to your firm voice within a short space of time. But too much firm voice and children feel you don’t like them as much. Firm and extra firm should be used rarely,” Dr Hendy says.

“One of the areas in which teachers go wrong is when they are asking somebody to do something. Instead of immediately going into the firm voice, they say it in a centred neutral voice. The first time you ask it’s a request, then the second time it’s a demand. That simple thing makes all the difference.”

A firm voice can convey authority, but used excessively it can seem fake. At the other end of the scale, a voice that is too warm and high-pitched can sound overly maternal, and a high-pitched but firm voice can make the speaker sound edgy and nervous. All these can serve to undermine the teacher in the eyes (and ears) of their class.

The health aspect

Vocal training for educators is important not just for teaching and learning, but for health and economic reasons, too.

In 2008, a survey by the ATL education union showed that 68 per cent of teachers in English primary schools reported voice problems that they felt had been caused by their job. A study by the Royal National Institute for the Deaf similarly found that teachers in 59 per cent of schools had complained of voice problems. According to the charity, 73,000 teaching days were lost in British primary schools in one year alone due to voice strain. And a 2009 study by the international Occupational Voice Symposium suggested that voice loss costs British primary schools pound;15 million a year on average.

Research also shows that when a teacher’s voice is suffering, pupils pay less attention to what’s being said. In a 2005 study by an NHS speech therapist, children were played recordings of teachers’ voices, then asked questions about what they had heard. Those who had been listening to teachers with hoarse voices remembered less of what they had been told. It stands to reason, therefore, that teachers should do everything in their power to look after their voices.

According to Ms Palmer-Tweed and Dr Hendy, the biggest problem is hydration. “Teachers tend not to drink during lessons and then they go and have a coffee or two during their break, which is dehydrating,” says Ms Palmer-Tweed.

“Teachers need to be sipping water quite frequently and not forcing themselves to continue when their voices are impaired in some way.”

The Thames Primary Consortium’s six-day course is proving successful. In a survey last year, 93 per cent of trainees said it had been very useful in helping them to use their voice effectively in the classroom and in managing behaviour. None said that it had been unhelpful. There was also a clear impact on their ability to deliver phonics successfully.

In a recent interview, Mr Taylor said: “I’m not saying everyone has to have Margaret Thatcher voice-deepening training but . some of these practical skills are incredibly important.”

So keep a glass of water on standby and start practising your different teaching voices. Just don’t think you need to sound like the Iron Lady.

Visit And for the Five Voices, see

Tips from Lesley Hendy

Develop good breathing habits

If breath is consistently only taken into the upper region of the lung (known as clavicular breathing), the foundation support needed to expel the air will be insufficient. This leads to constrictions in the throat that will inhibit the voice.

- Tension in the chest and neck creates insufficient support from the breath and can constrict the vocal tract. A further lack of understanding of pitch or resonant quality can cause an individual to habitually speak a note above their optimum pitch. Consequently, some voices can be thin or monotonous, others sharp and shrill; all quite inadequate for the work your voice has to do.

Hone your vocal delivery

Insufficient experience in speaking to large groups can lead to a rapid delivery or speaking too fast, which contributes to a lack of clarity in expressing ideas and putting over information. Instructions, explanations and story reading may well be dull and monotonous, lacking in vitality. This is not necessarily caused by a lack of imagination on your part; it may result from the absence of physical techniques to make the voice work in the required manner.

Seek professional help

You cannot learn proper voice techniques from a self-help manual. That could end up doing more harm than good. You need to work with a voice coach. Every singer has a vocal coach, and as a professional vocalist, so should every teacher. The voice is like an instrument; it requires proper training, patience and hard work to get the best out of it.

- You need to think of voice training in the same way as you do physical training, like doing yoga or pilates or going to the gym. It is painless and it is fun. Good voice training includes relaxation techniques, development of good posture, breathing exercises that help the centring of the breath and work on pitch, resonance and tone.

Maintain a healthy voice

- Stay hydrated throughout the day. Take regular sips of water while teaching, but don’t gulp it or you will need to use the toilet.

- Try not to drink coffee, as it dehydrates.

- Avoid eating spicy foods late at night.

- Get the best from your voice with a morning warm-up.

- Don’t teach if you have a sore throat or if you have lost your voice - you will make it worse.

- Steam your voice if you have a sore throat, using a steam inhaler or holding your head over a bowl of steaming water.

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