Talk might be cheap, but it's a valuable resource, says Geoff Barton
You can tell this book was written by someone who used to be, but is no longer, a teacher. The dedication says it all: "To all the pupils I taught, and particularly those very naughty boys, who made teaching so difficult, such a challenge, and such fun."
I've taught my share of naughty boys and girls and "fun" isn't the first word beginning with "f" that springs to mind.
It's easy to plunge into a spiral of gloom when teaching challenging youngsters - we can lose our perspective. That's what's useful about Valerie Coultas's book: she reminds us that one of the temptations with difficult classes is to serve up a diet of worksheets and tedious tasks that give them no opportunity for interaction.
"It seems to be the only way to get the job done," she says. Then, with huge skill and practical savvy, she shows us how, with even our worst classes, we need to build in structured spoken activities.
In such lessons, she reminds us, "the submerged talent of so many pupils is revealed". And thus begins an outstanding, practical guide to developing our pupils' spoken skills in lessons.
Given Ofsted's reminder in its English Review of October 2005 that "Spoken language forms a constraint, a ceiling not only on the ability to comprehend but also on the ability to write, beyond which literacy cannot progress," it is something no teacher can afford to ignore.
What I particularly admire in this book is the blend of research with classroom application. This is what takes it beyond a "tips for teachers"
compendium and gives the author real authority.
She advises how teachers should speak so that pupils listen (a much neglected micro-skill of teaching), and how to manage paired and group talk. She also gives drama ideas for non-specialists, and good advice on teacher training.
I approached this book sceptically. How dare another academic dish out advice to those of us in the classroom? I ranted inwardly. But I immediately warmed to the tone and content.
Instinct tells me that talk is one of the great untapped resources of the classroom and, used skilfully, it could provide a liberating and civilising step forward for most lessons in most schools
Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
Constructive Talk in Challenging Classrooms
By Valerie Coultas