Language skills are the building block

18th August 2006 at 01:00
A modern curriculum should ensure that children are heard as well as seen, says Bill Boyd

ne of the significant themes of the Scottish curriculum re-view, and one of the biggest challenges of A Curriculum for Excellence, is that all teachers, regardless of training or subject background, will have responsibility for the development of the four "capacities" in every youngster. This is an easy statement to make, but far more difficult to turn into reality because there are many secondary teachers who still regard themselves first, foremost and in some cases exclusively as teachers of subjects rather than teachers of children.

In many ways we are still training them to play their role in what John MacBeath described as "the egg-box curriculum". Yet if we are to bring about the cultural and social changes expected of the school curriculum in these early years of the new century, and improve the linguistic skills of all our pupils regardless of their starting point, it is these very teachers who must be persuaded to step outside their comfort zone.

But first we have to consider what "responsibility for the development of the four capacities" actually means in terms of the day-to day contact that a teacher has with a pupil, as it has yet to be spelt out. For a start, I would suggest that a prerequisite of becoming a more successful learner or confident individual or responsible citizen or an effective contributor is the development of language skills - the ability to listen to and consider the views of others, to articulate one's thoughts and to communicate them successfully, in speech or in writing.

Sadly, two recent reports published in England have confirmed what a battle against the odds this is likely to be, especially in the case of socially disadvantaged youngsters. In the first of these, a study called Talk to Me, conducted by the Basic Skills Agency, it was found that verbal skills are "declining year on year", and that the greatest impact is among disadvantaged families.

Among the reasons cited by the report's author, Sue Palmer, are too much television, long working hours, the splintering of families into separate rooms in the house, with children as young as four watching television alone in their bedrooms, and even forward-looking "buggies" which make communication between baby and parent less frequent.

At more or less the same time as the Talk to Me report was being published, a study by the Institute of Education at London University found that, when measured against "traditional teaching methods", the use of group working in primary schools led to "significant improvement" in performance in maths, reading and science; in secondary schools, teachers reported improvements in higher level conceptual understanding.

Additionally, pupils involved in the project were more actively engaged in their own learning and better able to think through arguments than those whose learning was more passive.

Fortunately, there are positive and encouraging developments north of the border, where schools involved in the Assessment is for Learning initiative have reported improved relationships between teachers and pupils. Schemes such as the Listening and Talking for Learning project, being led in Inverclyde by Fiona Norris and Jess Carrol, aim to encourage the development of language in youngsters through a supportive framework, linked to the development of thinking skills. Based on the principles of dialogic teaching, one of the key features of the Inverclyde scheme is that it allows all children, even the most reticent, to articulate their ideas without fear of embarrassment, and teaches them to be better listeners.

This is a big step in the right direction, but the next challenge will be to expand the "project" into a way of life, to see it replicated across the country. This will mean carrying it forward from the primary school into the traditionally content-driven secondary sector where, if teachers are to be convinced that it is the "how" rather than the "what" that matters, it is vital the approach is reflected in the system of assessment and certification.

For those of us who have been involved in writing "language across the curriculum" policies in their various manifestations over the years, only to see them gather dust on staffroom shelves, A Curriculum for Excellence provides the opportunity to say it again with conviction - the responsibility for the development of language skills lies with every teacher.

It is almost 30 years since Brian Boyd's radical publication, Beginning Group Work in S1, caused a stir in English departments throughout Scotland, suggesting as it did that pupils should not only be allowed to talk but need to be taught how to do so in a purposeful and structured way.

But we've moved on a long way since then, haven't we? Now you're talking.

Bill Boyd is on secondment to Learning and Teaching Scotland, and writes in a personal capacity.

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