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Quiet man fans sparks

Diane Hofkins looks at the long-awaited guidance on how to boost pupils' speaking and listening

Star teachers tend to be good at pyrotechnics. Many of the winners of the teaching awards last month were larger-than- life characters, who whirled through their schools setting off sparklers as they passed. The chemistry teacher literally created explosions in his class; the drama teacher commanded the stage.

But what is so interesting about one of the top teachers on the Government's new speaking and listening video, is that he doesn't perform at all. This low-key young Year 4 teacher gently asks open-ended questions and draws out ideas with a quiet intelligence. The sparklers come from the children. They do all the work. Although the video does not tell us, the teacher is Paul Laycock from Ralph Butterfield primary in York.

The lesson aims "to use and reflect on some ground rules for dialogue". One child in each group poses questions, while another acts as observer, evaluating how effective the others are in the discussion. Are they speaking clearly, taking turns, acknowledging the possibility of different views, making longer contributions and responding to other speakers? They have already talked about these criteria and why they are important.

The subject is history, and four groups of children have been researching different aspects of Celtic life. One group discusses the good and bad points about the old Celtic religion. One girl is against human sacrifice.

"They sacrificed people to the gods and the gods weren't real, really, so they just killed people for nothing, really."

The teacher seeks a divergent view. "I disagree a little bit," says a boy, "because they really thought that these gods did live underground and under water. Because they might have been. Because we worship God and Jesus now."

"I don't really know," says another girl, "because people don't really believe in gods, and people do believe in God."

Another boy points out that sacrifice was "one of their traditions".

"And was it a good thing?" asks the teacher.

"They thought it was," the boy responds politicly.

At the end of the session, the observers, who have been using tick-lists, tell their groups how they performed.

One reads back from his sheet: "They made lots of longer contributions.

They had eye contact with the speaker. One person talked at a time - quite a lot of that, too. Using good vocabulary and responding to the speakers.

Everybody having a turn was ticked as well. Speaking in a clear voice and being clear about what they meant," he concludes.

"Did you notice anything in particular from anybody?" asks the teacher.

"Did you make any notes?"

"Yes, I have, actually," he responds cheerfully. "I made quite a lot of notes. Joshua in particular was making very long contributions and being very clear on what he meant."

In another group the observer's verdict is more mixed. "They weren't very good at eye contact," she reports. "They were really, really good at one thing at a time. They didn't use that much vocabulary. They used 'thingybob' and 'muddy stuff', and stuff. And they were, like, mumbling.

Sophie had the clearest voice."

The teacher asks Sophie how she will improve. "I am going to use better vocabulary so they know what you're talking about."

On, then, to role play, with the teacher keen to stimulate discussion with open questions. The teacher plays the Roman emperor seeking the advice of his countrymen - the pupils - on whether to invade Britain, and what difficulties might arise. "So we could take over and make them worship our gods," the teacher responds to a point made by one. "Would that be OK?"

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Guidance on speaking and listening from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Primary National Strategy, delayed for two years, is finally going to schools.

The materials include the video showing lessons for Years 1 to 6; objectives for speaking, listening, group discussion and drama - and sample teaching ideas; a handbook setting out broad advice and principles; a poster on progression and smash-and-grab leaflets on each area.

It is a hefty package, packed with detail. Sue Horner, principal consultant for English at the QCA, suggests schools should take up one area at a time.

They should ask "what are our priorities for our kids? What strand do we want to get a more co-ordinated approach to?" She adds: "We're not expecting everyone to do everything at once. It's a helpful structure, not a set of rules."

Teachers may want to weave in bits of other strands. Those with older classes may have to backtrack a bit and look at the suggestions for earlier years to prepare their classes.

The documents are coy about how much of the timetable speaking and listening should take up, but much of the work is cross-curricular. The video segment described above is a history lesson, for instance. Another segment shows a Year 2 PE class, which focuses on listening skills, as children have to discuss, re-state in their own words and then play games devised by other pupils. It entails giving clear instructions, and attentive listening. Children also get to ask the inventor questions about the rules as they try out his game.

The materials describe what progression in the four strands looks like. In speaking, for instance:

* five to seven-year-olds should be able to convey simple information showing awareness of what the listener needs to know and speak clearly and audibly to a large group;

* seven to nine-year-olds should be able to take a long turn spontaneously and give a clear account which is sustained and complete;

* nine to 11-year-olds should be able to organise and shape a talk, making connections between ideas and drawing on different points of view and to use persuasive techniques deliberately to influence the listener.

Copies from They can be downloaded, with additional teaching sequences, from primary

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