The value of speaking and listening in primary school has gained widespread recognition in recent years, and yet evidence suggests that young children are more inarticulate than ever. It's a worrying phenomenon, with social scientists blaming the breakdown of the family, electronic entertainment and poor integration of immigrant communities. The upside, however, is the spawning of new techniques to improve communication in early learning, and through them a growing awareness of the importance of these skills not only in academic achievement, but in social and personal development too.
The first home-grown intervention programme, Talking Partners (TP), has expanded since its inception in the late 1990s to run in more than 60 schools across the country. Started as an aid for English-as-an-additional-language children in Bradford, it is now used increasingly for any pupils with poor communication, learning difficulties and special needs.
So clearly has TP proved the value to any child of improved speaking and listening, that Education Bradford is next Tuesday (March 28) to launch a new set of teaching materials and strategies called Talk Across the Curriculum to enable teachers to weave communication strategies into every area of teaching.
This tells us two things. One is that there is a huge need for young children to be primed for learning by being given the tools - speaking and listening skills - to process the information they are presented with in class. The other is that when this is done, they usually flourish.
Assessments of children on TP programmes found that, on average, their speech and language skills progressed by more than a year over the 10-week programme, in most cases boosting them from below average for their age, to age appropriate or more. Under the scheme, a teaching assistant works with a group of three children for three 20-minute sessions a week. Activities include games where one child describes an object on their side of a barrier accurately enough for their partner to draw it. In role play games, children pretend to be a character from a period of history they might be studying, while the others quiz them on their story. Alternatively, they might discuss characters from stories they are reading in class. The improvement in written work, too, is startling.
Take Hassan, aged eight, struggling at the beginning of his TP programme to describe a hobbit's house: "The home are in the mountain and the doors are circle as a house because the homes are in a mountain. The pegs were to hang lots of coats and they saw food in the pantry and it smell like food because it was an adventure. Everyone said could I come to the adventure?"
At the end of the scheme, Hassan turns in this new version: "Bilbo was a calm person and he was also polite. He had round doors... He was worried when the dwarves came. Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit, he wears no beard and has leathery feet and has a fat stomach. He doesn't like going on adventures but he had such a lovely time with the dwarves he changed his mind."
"TP is a very powerful tool," says Margaret Hamilton, a teacher at Girlington Primary School in Bradford, where 98 per cent of children have English as an additional language. "Play activities are fun, and less threatening for reluctant speakers. In a small group it's easy to provide good modelling for the children too."
What is interesting is that the intervention benefits not only the most obvious cases, children who cannot express themselves or children of low ability. "The class teacher selects the children who need TP intervention.
It can equally be the child who has to learn to listen," she says. Indeed some schools use the programme to extend gifted children.
At Swain House Primary School, an estate school with mainly white, English first language speakers, the programme has, unexpectedly, been a great success with children in Years 5 and 6. Headteacher Diane Rowbotham says:
"The teaching assistant found ways of delivering the programme, like passing round a microphone to make it attractive to older children. What was amazing was the quality of the relationships forged between the children on the scheme."
Jan Hilditch, one of the original team who set up TP, emphasises its versatility. In Liverpool a TP maths programme has been devised. The strategy is also being put to new uses in tandem with teaching on social issues such as bullying or in nurture programmes and, although not conceived as a special need aid, is being used with deaf and signing pupils.
So the question remains, why is TP not even more widely used? Part of the answer may well be to do with time and staff. Although teaching assistants deliver the sessions, this still means removing them from other activities.
Then there is the planning required to fit sessions in. Many schools may feel that if they don't have "problem" children, the gains do not justify the disruption. TP's results to date suggest this is a short-sighted view.