Government education advisers have asked the subject teaching associations to investigate the new "use of language" requirement in Sir Ron Dearing's revised national curriculum Orders. Pupils will have to be taught to express themselves clearly in both speech and writing, and to develop their reading skills. As the associations prepare their advice for the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Jonathan Croall investigates how teachers are interpreting the new requirement.
I don't think geography teachers have yet quite appreciated the point that the post-Dearing curriculum is about a minimum entitlement - that putting the flesh on it is very much up to them."
Eleanor Rawling, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's (SCAA) professional officer for geography, believes the new language requirement offers teachers a good opportunity to try out different approaches within the slimmed-down curriculum, in a way that will be of benefit to both them and their pupils.
She suggests it will give pupils a real opportunity to develop and reinforce their language skills; that geography is a particularly good vehicle for this as it already involves a wide range of activities and many different forms of writing.
She also believes that activities such as role-playing, group work, field work and talking about the subject can open up the way to quality teaching in geography. "SCAA is saying these activities are very relevant, they're not ruled out just because subject knowledge is important."
The authority has now commissioned the Geographical Association (GA) to come up with ideas about how the requirement can be effectively implemented.
Two university-based research- ers are looking separately at the different implications for primary and secondary schools.
Roger Carter, chairman of the GA's education steering committee, says: "The exercise is not just about enhancing pupils' literacy, but enhancing their geography through literacy. There are some shining examples of children being encouraged to talk about issues and conflicts. But geography teachers' confidence in this area is rather restricted."
The new language requirement in the art Order could have a major effect on the way the subject is taught, according to David Jones, assistant general secretary of the National Society for Education in Art and Design (NSEAD).
"The most important aspect is that it will encourage teachers and pupils to talk about art from their own experience," he says.
"The emphasis used to be on practical work and presenting set ideas.
"A lot of art teachers found that they didn't have the freedom to get children to talk about their work. Now they may need to consider taking a new approach. "
The NSEAD is one of two bodies involved in providing advice to SCAA as to what it should say or do to ensure the new requirement is implemented.
The other is the Association of Advisers of Art and Design, which is looking particularly at the classroom implications.
Margaret Tallboys, SCAA's professional officer for art, says the language requirement reflects the move in recent years towards encouraging critical studies within art, a shift evident in the Order for key stage 3 that "pupils should express ideas and opinions and justify their preferences".
"There's been a heavy emphasis in the past on doing it, and most parents still see art as a 'doing' subject," she says. "But now there's much more talk and exchange of views, with pupils looking at how something came to be made, and why, and what the influences are. There's a greater recognition of how hand and mind reinforce each other."
One area where teachers say pupils have difficulty, she says, is with having to state preferences. "There's the question of peer pressure, and wanting to conform, and even pressure from teachers. Children often have fixed ideas about what is and isn't art. I think this will help them to look at different ideas."
One of the key issues in relating language to science teaching is the question of what an appropriate vocabulary for the subject is, and how to ensure that pupils understand it.
"We recognise the importance of this issue," says David Moore, general secretary of the Association for Science Education (ASE). "When young people meet some of the words outside the classroom, they have a slightly different meaning. We want to make sure that the language of science is understood. "
The ASE has responded to SCAA's invitation by commissioning a local authority language worker and an academic to put together proposals for providing advice to science teachers. Roland Gifford, team leader of the county language support service in Kent, is working on those aimed at primary teachers.
"Science is quite a technical subject, and many teachers need quite a lot of help on the language issue," he says.
"We have to ask whether the curriculum is equally accessible to all children, whether the language used in science teaching is appropriate - or whether it's sometimes a hindrance."
He believes that science is a rich area for children to express themselves in descriptive language. "But when assessment rears its ugly head, there's too much emphasis on the written element, and not enough on the spoken," he says.
Gerry Wellington, reader in education at the University of Sheffield, is identifying the key issues for secondary teachers - such as how pupils read and write - and considering practical ideas that could be followed up in the classroom.
One of these is a word bank of "problem" words that pupils find difficult in science, an idea originally put forward in the Bullock report 20 years ago.
Another is the use in the classroom of newspaper articles on science issues, encouraging teachers to get pupils to do more active reading.