Speech therapists who normally help only pupils with language problems are being used to teach entire classes how to listen to teacher properly
The only pupils who usually get to spend time with speech therapists are those with impediments or noticeable language difficulties. But headteachers in Redditch, Worcestershire, have found that specialist support can help entire classes deal with a common problem: not listening to their teachers properly.
This discovery may alter the way schools across Britain cope with pupils' short attention spans.
Liz Spooner and Jacqui Woodcock, speech therapists with the Wyre Forest primary care trust, devised a series of classroom games after heads contacted them about pupils' inability to concentrate.
Trials on 363 pupils showed a marked effect in just six weeks. Now heads around Worcestershire are snapping the scheme up.
Teachers in the seven schools that piloted the games started by scoring children in four key aspects of listening: sitting still; looking at the person who is talking; staying quiet; and listening to all the words.
By the end of the scheme, pupils' scores were found to have increased by 20 per cent on average. And the 91 children with the most severe problems saw a rise of 50 per cent.
Many of the games are quite simple (see panel). Max Chorley, a six-year-old pupil at Millfields First School in Bromsgrove, said: "We played a game where you time a toy bomb and you have to find it by listening. That was quite easy. Once you've done it, then you might get a stamp, and if you've done really good work you might get two."
The pound;1,000 programme is funded by pooling money earmarked for extended services, and is now being run in a further 10 schools in Bromsgrove.
Mrs Spooner said the schools had been good at referring speech problems, but this was new territory.
"Listening isn't a language problem, it's about being able to concentrate," she said. "If you sat down one-to-one at a language assessment, these children would be reasonably ok. But their listening is so poor it's preventing them from learning.
"We ran the trial in 14 classes and only one rated as having a majority of children who are adequate listeners. Usually about one-third or one-quarter of pupils were rated by teachers as having adequate listening skills.
"The biggest issue is that children have very little insight into their own listening behaviour. They don't understand what good listening is, so saying, 'Listen to me' is no use."
Mrs Spooner recommended the scheme for Years 1 or 2, but said it could be used for older children.
I Can, the communication charity, estimates that as many as half of all children enter primary school without the speech and language skills they need to learn, make friends and achieve. And one in 10 has a communication disability.
Concerns about speaking and listening skills have been growing over the past 10 years. In 2001, 75 per cent of primary heads thought there had been a decline in speaking and listening skills among new entrants, according to a National Literacy Trust and National Association of Head Teachers survey.
By 2003, David Bell, then head of Ofsted, said the verbal skills of five-year-olds were at an all-time low. When the primary national strategy was launched that year, its first publication was about improving speaking and listening.
Liz Attenborough, director of the Talk to Your Baby campaign, said: "There are multiple reasons for children not speaking and listening properly: a lack of imaginative play; television; not having family meal times; older siblings going off to their own rooms. Nobody knows quite why. But young children need someone to talk to them and someone to listen to them if they are to learn how to make conversation."
Alison Dowling, head of Millfields, said: "When I heard about the project in Redditch, I would have done almost anything to get involved. We have 210 pupils and I think all could be helped in some way. About 10 per cent have quite significant difficulties in listening.
"The children love it, they've really enjoyed the sessions. My whole staff are being trained in the techniques. Everyone now uses the same terminology about what is good listening, whether children are in class or the dinner hall. That strengthens the message."
Her pupils also seem to recognise the benefits of the scheme. Emily Bibby, aged six, said: "It is important because if you don't listen, you might not know what to do. And when the teacher tells you what to do twice, she gets really annoyed."
For more information, contact Liz Spooner, firstname.lastname@example.org
HEAR, HEAR: HOW TO GRAB THEIR ATTENTION
To teach sitting still:
One child is given the fidget monitor badge and leaves the room. Another is given the fidget card, which they hide. The "fidget" is allowed to move around, but everyone else tries to sit still. The fidget monitor returns and tries to work out who is hiding the card.
To teach listening to all the words:
The group listens to a series of clues and carries out an action if the clues apply to them. This can be more fun with props. For example: "If you are a boy and wearing blue, put on a hat."
To teach looking at the speaker:
One child is the detective and hides his eyes. Another child is given an emotion picture and makes that face. Everyone else makes a happy face. The detective has to find out which child is feeling different and how they feel.
To teach being quiet:
One child goes out of the room. A noise-maker, such as a radio, is hidden in the room. The child returns and has to locate the sound. Everyone else must stay quiet to help the child listen.