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Listen hear

Children need to learn to listen before they can listen to learn, says Sue Palmer

Recent media coverage of "the daily grunt" has alerted the wider world to what primary teachers have known for two decades - that cultural and environmental changes, especially the availability of all-day TV and video, are leading to a steady deterioration in children's language skills.

Educational gurus have also woken up to the problem. Revised guidelines on speaking and listening are due out from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority later this year, and we are already seeing increased emphasis on spoken language activities from Ofsted and the National Literacy Strategy.

However, for most teachers, rather more pressing than speaking is the question of pupils' listening skills. The teachers I meet on in-service training courses are universally concerned about children's decreasing ability to pay attention in class. After all, speech acquisition depends on the ability to listen. And poor listening skills can lead to problems in all areas of learning, particularly literacy, as well as a host of behavioural difficulties.

The suggestions below all provide opportunities to focus on development of listening skills. They are child-friendly and easy to organise, and it should be possible to integrate them into a normal school day without needing too much extra time.

10 ways to help your pupils learn to listen

1 Teach rules for listening

Children who haven't learned to listen naturally need help in understanding what listening actually involves. For instance, many are unable to concentrate on what a speaker is saying because they're too easily distracted by other things that are going on around them. They simply aren't aware that listening means cutting oneself off from those distractions.

Make a poster listing the main rules and teach them explicitly as part of English work or PSHE. If possible, involve the children in working out the rules, but try to end up with something like the following list. A good listener:

* looks at the speaker

* tries to keep still

* concentrates on what the speaker is saying

* thinks about what the speaker is saying

* asks questions if they don't understand

* values what the speaker has to say

* tries to remember what the speaker has said.

Focus on one rule at a time. Discuss what it means and why it's important.

Put it into practice immediately by giving a paired task (for example:

"Take turns to ask your partner what she or he did last weekend") and asking some children to report back to the class. This could be integrated with circle time activities (see 7).

2 Model how to be a good listener

In class and group discussion, and when talking with children individually, demonstrate how a good listener behaves. This isn't always easy, because there are so many other demands on your attention, so if possible off-load "crowd control" duties to a classroom assistant, or employ visual behavioural cues (see 10).

The video Thinking Allowed, produced by the Queen's Primary School in Richmond-upon-Thames (pound;25; tel: 020 8940 3580), shows teachers leading class discussions, with commentary on the skills and techniques involved. It also provides ideas for organising small-group discussion, to develop not only speaking and listening but thinking skills across the curriculum.

3 Play listening games

Many traditional games, like "Simon Says" and "Chinese Whispers", rely on discriminative listening skills. As well as filling in the odd 10 minutes, listening games provide an enjoyable opportunity to upgrade the status of listening and remind children of your rules.

For nursery and reception children, Helping Young Children to Listen, by Ros Bayley and Lynn Broadbent (pound;12.50, Lawrence Educational Publishing, tel: 01922 643833), gives a wide selection of games to encourage early listening skills, supervised by a cuddly leopard cub called Lola. For listening games that specifically develop phonemic awareness try Phonemic Awareness in Young Children by Marilyn Jager Adams et al (pound;21, tel: 020 7833 2307, Jessica Kingsley Publishers).

4 Read to children

From a literacy point of view, reading to children is probably the single most important thing you can do. It is, therefore, tragic that the pressures of the national curriculum and other initiatives have led to the abandonment of the time-honoured tradition of storytime in many classrooms.

Now that the powers-that-be are recommending a return to cross-curricular teaching, make sure reading aloud has first claim on time gained from "double accounting". This is a way of motivating children to read, exposing them to well-written language and honing their listening skills, all at the same time.

In key stage 1, avoid reading exclusively from picture books. Children need opportunities to "make the picture in their heads", while listening to a poem or verbal narrative. Today's children, spoon-fed other people's images on TV, often find it difficult to activate their own imaginations. Start with a vivid poem, and talk afterwards about the sort of "pictures" it made them see. Gradually work up to short stories, then short books, such as The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson (pound;4.99, Egmont, tel: 020 7761 3500).

5 Use music and song

Music is fundamental to literacy, since it helps train the brain to patterns and the ear to qualities of sound. Songs are particularly useful, because the melody helps children memorise words, and memorisation aids the development of auditory memory - essential for reading. Action songs, which develop kinaesthetic memory, are especially memorable. Music in Action With Big Books by Gaunt and Dunville (resource book and CD) link musical activities to many popular texts (pound;15 +pamp;p, Lovely Music, tel: 01937 832946). Teachers who don't feel confident about teaching music can always use audio resources (see 8). A amp; C Black produce a variety of tapes and CDs that are easy for the non-specialist to use, including tapes of popular collections such as Okki-Tokki-Unga and Apusskidu.

6 Train auditory memory

Acquisition of literacy skills (and, arguably, all learning) relies on auditory memory, so the more we practise this particular mental muscle, the greater the eventual payoff. Encourage children throughout school to learn the words of songs, rhymes and poems. Organise a recitation competition, with heats in each class (you could provide sheets of appropriate poems for children to choose from if they don't have a favourite).

For early years, Time to Talk, by Alison Schroeder (pound;19.95, LDA, tel: 01945 463441), is a speaking skills course which provides a rhyme a week for learning and reciting. And don't begrudge hymn practice. At a time when musical activities and poetry recital are often crowded out of the curriculum, this is the only time many children ever learn how to commit words to memory.

7 Develop circle time

Circle time automatically involves the development and deployment of good listening skills and is widely used as part of schools' PHSE policy. Lucky Duck Publishing (tel: 0117 973 2881) produce many useful materials, including an introductory video, Coming Round to Circle Time (pound;37.60), and the book Developing Circle Time (pound;9), which contain a wealth of practical ideas.

Strategies introduced in circle time can then be brought into play across the curriculum. For instance, during paired or group discussion, children still learning the art of turn-taking find it helpful to have a symbolic object for the speaker to hold (such as the conch in Lord of the Flies).

8 Use tapes and CDs

As well as music, there are many audio resources featuring the spoken word.

Using tapes and CDs brings other voices into the classroom, providing a professionally-made listening experience. The BBC produces a wide range of taped material at very reasonable prices, including the justly popular Let's Move (pound;2.53+pound;3.99 (notes)) for KS1 and Just Poetry (pound;2.53, teacher's book, pound;14.99), comprehensive coverage of the poetry requirements of the National Literacy Strategy for KS2 (for a full list consult the BBC Education catalogue, tel: 0870 830 8000). Lucky Duck (see above) produces a CD called Guided Imagery for Circle Time (pound;10+VAT), which is an excellent resource for PHSE and helps develop children's capacity to imagine.

Try sometimes telling the class beforehand that you are not going to rewind the tape. In a "rewind culture", many children don't bother attending carefully the first time. Again, they need their awareness raised to help them concentrate. (Indeed, before starting, what about issuing a warning:

"Listen very carefully. I shall say this only once.") To encourage listening out of school, urge parents to use book tapes on long car journeys and at bedtime. A disturbing number of children now have televisions in their bedrooms, when intellectual development - and very probably social, emotional and behavioural development too - would be better served by a tape-recorder and a well-read book.

Explain this to parents and, if you really want to help, start a library of talking books to borrow from school (Talking Bookshop, tel: 020 7491 4117).

9 Use dictation

Used with discretion, dictation helps in teaching and assessing phonics, spelling and handwriting. It allows children to focus purely on transcriptional skills - hearing the words and transforming them into symbols on the page - without the added distraction of thinking up what to say and how to say it. It is also an occasion when listening skills are at a premium.

To maximise effectiveness, dictations should be short, occasional and delivered with an established routine: teacher reads the whole piece, re-reads in short clear chunks while pupils write, then reads the whole piece again at the end for checking.

If you haven't time to make up your own, weekly spelling-practice dictations are provided as part of Big Book Spelling which I co-wrote with Michaela Morgan (pound;190 each (Lower + Upper Junior) Ginn, tel: 01865 888000).

10 Make lessons worth listening to

A major problem in teaching is that there are so many different reasons for using your voice. As well as when needing to impart facts, teachers also talk for organisational reasons, in social interaction with pupils, and to establish and maintain appropriate standards of behaviour. With so much exposure to the same voice, it's not surprising that pupils sometimes switch off - there's a fair chance what you're saying is not relevant to them.

This is a good reason for using audio resources, encouraging children's contributions to lessons and using the voices of other adults who may be around.

Perhaps a teaching assistant can help you deliver the lesson, turning some of it into dialogue, a question-and-answer session or a mini-performance.

Look also for ways of substituting other modes of communication wherever possible: * Instead of using your voice to call the class to order, devise a physical signal such as holding one arm in the air, and train pupils to respond by sitting quietly and signalling back to you.

* If there are classroom routines or rules that you frequently need to repeat, make a poster of them so you can just point to it.

* For pupils who constantly need reminding about how to behave, make visual cue cards with simple pictures that a teaching assistant can hold up - for instance, a face in profile with an arrow coming from the eye and a caption saying "Look at the teacher"; child sitting with folded arms and a caption saying "Sit still and quietly"; an arm raised to answer a question with a caption saying, "Put up your hand to answer".

Sue Palmer is main presenter of the National Literacy Trust primary conference, entitled "Listen, Speak, Write", to be held in London, Birmingham and York during March. Tel: 020 7828 2435 for details. Online booking

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