It's what you say and the way that you say it

24th October 2003 at 01:00
Diane Hofkins is soothed by advice about how to nurture oracy skills

When the Government told schools they had to follow a rigid routine for teaching literacy, enforced by the Office for Standards in Education, most teachers believed them. So it is baffling that most teachers do not believe them now that the message has changed, we have a kinder, gentler chief inspector, and ministers, officials and government reports are all saying that flexibility and innovation are good.

Why their disbelief? One reason is league tables but it is more than that.

Another problem is that, for some, the structure has turned into a safety blanket. Fear of failure, especially public failure, keeps people on the straight and narrow.

It could also be that, since the Government still does not trust teachers, despite the improved rhetoric, teachers wonder why they should trust the Government.

So although messages are coming from the centre that speaking and listening are crucial in developing children's literacy and social skills, and these messages are to be followed shortly by detailed guidance from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, teachers are still having trouble believing they are "allowed" to take the necessary time for this incredibly necessary activity.

"I feel guilty if I give time to talk, and guilty if I don't," said a primary teacher quoted in Literacy: What Works? by Sue Palmer and Pie Corbett.

In fact, guilt was the number one problem cited by hundreds of teachers when asked "What are the main problems in teaching speaking and listening?"

Teachers told Ms Palmer and Mr Corbett, who have just completed a series of teacher conferences, that oracy was seen as a low-status activity, not valued by parents and children, and often not by teachers of older children or by heads. Their message is that teachers know how essential these skills are in helping children to think, to prepare to write, and to succeed in life, so they should do what they believe is right.

To help teachers, their 100-page book provides a mixture of well-organised advice, commentary on the impact of government policy and a bit of polemic.

Changes in society have meant that many children are talked to and sung to far less than in the past. Sue Palmer points out that, rather than soothing a fractious child by sitting them on one's knee and singing a nursery rhyme - so that a feeling of being nurtured is linked with language patterns in the child's mind - we are now more likely to sit them in front of the TV. It is probably a fact of life that, when it comes to developing children's oracy, teachers need to compensate for society's flaws. This is especially true for children who are not read to regularly at home.

Reading aloud helps not only to foster listening, but also to put literary language in children's mouths. Sue Palmer and Pie Corbett believe that in reception and Year 1, children should be read to five or six times a day.

In our stimulus-filled world, some children need extra help to activate their imaginations. This can begin by learning stories and poems by heart, which is not such a difficult, old-fashioned idea. Every child who is read to at home develops a particular favourite, driving their parents crazy by asking for it over and over, and reciting it word-perfect with no trouble at all.

Then, suggests Mr Corbett, they can move on to substituting details (change the three little pigs to badgers), then to greater alterations, then to invention. But they need a storehouse of knowledge about stories before they have the tools to invent their own.

"When reading stories to children in key stage 1, the teacher should identify favourites which can then be read on many occasions," says the book.

"Children should increasingly be encouraged to join in until they know the whole book. The teacher gradually withdraws from saying the words so that the children internalise the patterns for themselves."

Learning stories and verse has many benefits for children. "Every child deserves a repertoire of poetry in their head," says Sue Palmer.

Pie Corbett adds that hearing poetry read aloud "has to do with the human spirit and how you cherish it".

Literacy: what works? by Sue Palmer and Pie Corbett, pound;12.95, Nelson Thornes

Ten steps to listening

1 Teach rules for listening

2 Practise regularly in circle time

3 Read aloud to children

4 Do lots of musical activities

5 Develop auditory memory

6 Develop imaging skills

7 Use tapes, CDs and internet audio

8 Use oral assessment methods

9 Use visual channels for some information

10 Introduce structured oral work in the early years

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