Pass it on

Good speaking and listening skills are a vital basis for writing. Sue Palmer suggests ways to focus children's eyes and ears Illustrations by Andrew Steward

How's your class at listening? Do they sit, eager and attentive, hanging on to your every word? Or are they only half-tuned in, unable to concentrate for long, susceptible to the slightest distraction?

And what about speaking? Is there time to develop pupils' oracy skills, or does fulfilling all those literacy objectives take up every available minute?

The National Literacy Strategy made little mention of speaking and listening in the original framework. Without opportunities to develop these skills, children's written work is built on shaky ground. Fortunately, the NLS is now promoting "Talk for Writing".

They recommend the use of "talking partners" during shared work in the literacy hour so that all children get opportunities both to speak and to listen.

A short, focused task can be provided whenever the opportunity arises:

"Turn to your partner. You have 30 seconds (or two minutes, or whatever) to discuss..." Selected pairs can then retell their deliberations to the class (see box). Pupils particularly benefit from opportunities to talk in this way:

*during reading, when they need to articulate their understanding of ideas, concepts, vocabulary, and linguistic conventions;

* when they are internalising or generating the content for their writing;

* during composition, when it helps to rehearse words, phrases, clauses and sentences orally, before committing them to paper.

There are also many ways to develop these skills as part of your daily routine. The following suggestions can be adapted for any age group.

Games and activities

Listen, imitate, innovate, invent: this four-stage model for speaking and listening is based on the way young children acquire language. Here are some activities for each component:


There are many opportunities in the school day for developing listening skills.

1.Use eye contact sometimes instead of words - "Today, I'm going to choose people to go and get their coats by looking at them." then extend it to "Chloe's going to be the looker today."

2."Make your own picture": ask the children to focus on a blank wall or sheet of paper. While you read a short poem or story, they try to conjure a picture of it. Use longer pieces as their concentration skills grow.

3.Read to children every day. This is one of the best ways to develop their listening skills.

4.When introducing a new topic, display some artefacts. Describe each one, then select a child to pick it out. After a couple of times, choose children to do the descriptions.

5.Record instructions on tape for children to listen to during group work. They have to listen with particular care.

Imitate When learning new language constructions and vocabulary, it helps to imitate an expert. Repetition develops auditory memory skills - important for literacy - and helps with memorisation of facts. Always look for ways of providing linguistic models as part of your teaching.

1.Provide a sentence, preferably with useful vocabulary or a structure you'd like children to internalise. Ask them to say it in a variety of ways:

changing tone of voice (cheeky, snobbish, tired);

changing pitch (soft to loud).

2.Play some variations on "My grandmother went to market and boughtI" The items can be themed - types of fruit, fabric and so on. Or you can turn the activity into a topic revision: "When we studied light we learned about I and I". Children must repeat all earlier contributions and add their own (if necessary, help them improve language constructions before adding to the list).

3.Play Chinese whispers, using themes: pass on instructions, praise or information.

4.During guided work, create a linguistic Mexican wave. Say a sentence and pass it round the group, each child starting as the previous one finishes.

5. Help children create skipping jingles based on cross-curricular topics, spelling rules, and so on. Use these in gym lessons, and encourage their use in the playground.


The next stage is to provide a linguistic starting point or framework from which children can manipulate ideas and language, using constructions they haven't tried before.

1.Circle time is an opportunity for every child to innovate briefly on a theme. Provide a sentence starter or frame: "My favourite place in the world is ... because ...".

2. When reading, collect constructions that might be useful for literacy work. Write them on the board, then erase most words:

*Story-telling language: "Once, long ago, in a far-off land ..."

*Causal language frames: "The reason that I, is that ..."

* Complex sentence frames: "AlthoughI" Ask pupils in pairs to invent sentences to say aloud to the class.

3.At registration, instead of answering "yes", children can complete a starter or frame:

* A word that rhymes with blue is ...

* are green.

* One type of vertebrate mammal is ...

* ... are items commonly found in the kitchens.

4.Provide a selection of sentence starters on the board for pupils to describe items to an alien.

* This is a ...; it is ...; it looks like ...

* In some ways it resembles a ... because ...; however, ...

* You would find it ... ; earth people use it for ...

5.Play "Answer in a sentence". One child is It. The other children fire questions and, to stay "in", It must always answer with a sentence. Questions can be simple ("What colour is grass?" "How old are you?"); or related to cross-curricular work ("Who was Henry VIII's first wife?). They should quickly learn that, to create a sentence, you use some of the words in the question.


Over time, children internalise a growing range of vocabulary and sentence constructions. In order to put these to use they require opportunities for practice. Speaking games, drama, role-play and discussion should be part of all cross-curricular work, for all age groups.

1.In the plenary session, put the class in pairs to explain to each other what they have done. Then ask some children to retell their partner's experience to the class.

2."I'm famous!" - Stick a Post-it note on a child's head to show who they are. The child can ask up to 20 "yesno" questions of the rest of the class to find out.

3.Barrier games - children on either side of a barrier have the same equipment. One carries out a sequence of actions, and gives instructions for the other to follow. At the end they remove the barrier and compare results. Tasks can be:

*specific to a type of language; for example, a picture and counters: "Put the red counter at the bottom of the stairs."

*related to cross-curricular work; for example, a map: "Find a battlefield in square 23A and draw a line going east for four miles."

4.Show and tell - ask each child to choose an object from a cross-curricular display and talk about it for one minute.

5.Hot seating - one child takes on the role of a famous person or fictional character, answering questions from the other children. For children who find this difficult, try puppet hot-seating. Let them place a puppet or soft toy in the hot seat, and answer on their behalf.

With many thanks to all who contributed ideas, including Mary Thorpe, Christine Ashcroft, Fran Sharman, Pie Corbett and the teachers of Portsmouth LEA, with whom I was lucky enough to investigate oracy skills for three brilliant days.


Success depends on training and careful organisation:

*Train children during guided writing time. Choose a child to be your partner and model the behaviour you want, before asking the class to try it. Discuss the point of the exercise with them, and help them to work out what's helpful and what isn't.

*Use snippets of the NLS training videos to show the class how the system works. "Taking a closer look" (the short section at the end of "Scooters" on the Developing Early Writing video) is a good example.

*Make sure children are suitably paired, and are always sitting next to their partner for literacy. Juniors should go immediately to their "literacy seats"; with infants, mark the floor in the literacy corner to show where they should sit.

*Use posters that you can point to as reminders of routines; for example: "Rehearse - say the sentence aloud. Can you improve it?"

"Write - one writes, the other checks."

"Re-read - read your sentence aloud to check it makes sense."


Teaching Speaking and Listening at Key Stage 1 and 2 (QCA00391), QCA publications (01787 884 444).

Helping Young Children to Listen by Ros Bayley and Lynn Broadbent, TTS (0800 318686).

Time to Talk by Alison Schroeder, LDA (01945 463441).Puppet Talk by Lillian Coppock, TTS (0800 318686).

Quality Circle Time in the Primary Classroom by Jenny Mosley, LDA (01945 463441).

A Corner to Learn by Neil Griffiths, Nelson Thornes (01242 267280).

The Articulate Classroom by Prue Goodwin, David Fulton (0207405 5606).

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