English - The road to perdition

20th January 2012 at 00:00
How to make speaking and listening easier on the ears

In my schooldays (some years ago, when Boudicca was mustering her troops), speaking and listening in English lessons went like this: the teacher spoke, the pupils listened.

Now, through key stages 3 and 4, speaking and listening forms a significant assessed part of English, with "individual presentations" in particular sometimes taking several weeks. And there are an enormous range of abilities. Some pupils can present you with the highlight of the term: articulate Year 11s who deliver seamless, first-class presentations that have you drafting your resignation letter. But then there's the bottom-set Year 8 who mumbles through Rihanna's biography, hot off the Wikipedia press, screening their blushes by positioning the sheet fully in front of their face. Meanwhile, their classmates, save the loyal few, are all but asleep.

To reduce the chances of us all suffering the pain of the latter, I now introduce individual presentations with a demonstration of how not to do it. Under the title "What Miss is doing wrong", pupils assess me while I read verbatim from a crumpled sheet in fast-forward mode, interrupting myself to scratch my armpit, chew gum and inject regular "ers" and "ums". Afterwards, the pupils are keen to point out how bad I was and why.

To fulfil the "listening" criteria - often tricky - we revise the difference between open and closed questions. Then the listeners jot down ideas for questions during the presentation itself and I record who asks the most inventive open questions of the speaker, which proves they were listening. These pupils earn more marks towards their own speaking and listening grade.

The pupils plan their questions and record two "smiley" points and a "frownie" point based on elements of each pupil's presentation. They also use these towards an evaluative homework task: "10 ways to make your speech the best" or "10 sure-fire ways to bore your classmates to perdition".

For the drama task, my favourite speaking and learning activity for more able pupils is one based on characters from the class novel, play or poem. It is called "group therapy". In teams of five or six, with a confident pupil playing the therapist, each pupil acts as one of the characters. They respond to the therapist's questions, such as: "What happened in your childhood to make you act as you do?" When this works well, characters begin responding to the questions and the session takes on a life of its own.

At times like this, and when speaking and learning goes well (with not even a hint of Rihanna or Wikipedia), it all feels worth it.

Fran Hill teaches English in a Warwickshire secondary school and is a freelance writer and performer

What else?

Recreate the buzz of a newsroom with TES English's newspaper speaking and listening task.

Check out an animation from curriculumbits.com providing advice for nervous speakers.

For pupil-friendly speaking and listening level descriptors, try hodeng's levels 2-8 handouts.

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