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A better class of talk

LISTENING TO CHILDREN THINK: EXPLORING TALK IN THE EARLY YEARS Edited by Nigel Hall and Julie Martello Hodder Stoughton Pounds 10.99.

Mary Jane Drummond looks at how children use fantasy. Are you worrying about the DFEE Desirable Outcomes document? Are you fretting about the SCAA Baseline Assessment proposals? Are you wondering whether you are the only educator left on the planet with a proper respect for young children's intellectual and emotional powers? This book will cheer you up.

Carol Fox's chapter, for example, makes an eloquent case for the importance of children's imaginative play. Fox revisits one of the remarkable oral stories that were the subject of her wonderful book At the Very Edge of the Forest and demonstrates the richness of the imaginative world the child, Sundari, has created in words.

Fox spells out the implications of this richness for the early years curriculum: "Sundari's outer world is a mean place compared to her inner one." This challenging assertion is used to show how early years educators must recognise the importance of imaginative play in children's cognitive development. The task is to harness the energy that children put into their creative play and to help them reflect on it and develop it. These responsibilities are all the more urgent, Fox concludes, because four-year-olds are increasingly being educated, in primary schools and reception classes, as if they were five.

Another exciting chapter, "The alligator as narrator", by Sue Freeman, a primary teacher in Sussex, describes her literary discussions with her class of six and seven-year-olds. Her detailed analysis reveals the extent of her children's literary abilities, the complexity of their thinking, their enthusiasm and passion for storytelling, reasoning and argument. She is convincingly contemptuous of the "limited and inadequate" aspects of literacy that SCAA asks her to assess.

Two other encouraging chapters are 'Assessing a bilingual child's talk' and 'Debating punctuation'; a lively description of a small group of six-year-olds getting to grips with commas, inverted commas and exclamation marks. (Researcher: "Why have we got an exclamation mark at the end?" Child: "Cos she really means it.") Other contributions are less nourishing; there are plenty of illustrations of the wonderful ways that children have with words, but there's more to understanding children's talk than a sense of awe.

Martin Coles's introductory chapter is strangely out of tune with the rest. Coles goes back over 25 years of research, citing Douglas Barnes and M A K Halliday in a testy denunciation of persistent bad practice. "The fundamental authoritarianism of the elementary tradition . . . persists"; "the dominant pattern of instruction is still teacher-centred and the dominant mode of classroom organisation is still teacher talk."

He squeezes out one little drop of optimism in order to end on a more cheerful note, but it's clear that Coles believes that many classrooms leave much to be desired. Perhaps they do, but other contributors make it abundantly clear that there are plenty of ways of making the world a better place, plenty of ways for teachers to put time, energy and respect into their work with children.

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