Speaking and listening

1st July 2005 at 01:00
Ask almost anyone in education how important speaking and listening are and the response, give or take a superlative or two, will echo literacy consultant Sue Palmer: "It underpins learning: you cannot learn unless you can express and explore what is in front of you." Surveys show that the more young children are talked to the better they express themselves and the greatertheir achievements in later life. Yet foundation stage teachers complain that the language skills of each fresh intake of children are deteriorating.

Formula for success

A Basic Skills Agency poll in 2003 revealed that half of teachers think children now start school unable to speak audibly, be understood by others or respond to simple instructions. This apparent decline is blamed on many factors, from over-stretched parents to television to forward-facing pushchairs. Whatever the causes, many educationists believe that if we are to see a sustainable improvement in standards, children have to be taught to talk.

"Talk helps children get hold of an idea and understand it. Without that opportunity the information goes straight in one ear and out the other," says literacy author Pie Corbett. "The brain has to have a chance to catch hold of the idea by explaining it to someone else." Mr Corbett, who has written many books on literacy, is convinced there is only one formula for successful early literacy: hear it, say it, read it, write it. But the power of speaking and listening does not end with reading and writing fluency; it has a positive influence throughout education and beyond. Julia Strong, director of the National Literacy Trust, an independent charity "dedicated to building a literate nation", believes that providing a child with oral skills directly affects his or her life chances. "Job interviewers notice those people who can present themselves well and coherently. It is very, very important we give our children these skills."

What can schools do to help?

Speaking and listening features at every stage of the national curriculum but, according to many educationists, does not often receive the attention it deserves and is swamped by the demands of testing and league tables, particularly in primary schools. With the introduction of the foundation stage in 2000 the Government finally signalled that it valued "soft" learning that places play and conversation at the centre of nursery and reception classes. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority guidance expressly states that "the development and use of communication and language is at the heart of young children's learning", but practitioners argue that this should not end with the start of the more formal, test-driven key stage 1.

Reasons to be cheerful

The national primary strategy, introduced in 2003, included a framework for speaking and listening, a feature that had been missing from its forerunner, the national literacy strategy. Secondary English teachers have always needed the skills to teach and assess speaking and listening as it forms 20 per cent of the overall GCSE grade. The introduction of the key stage 3 strategy in 2001 reinforced this need with a specific framework that developed and expanded the work done in primary schools.

"The NLS was massively skewed towards technical literacy, even for infants," says Sue Palmer. "Teachers were fighting to keep up with the myriad objectives and frantically chasing targets; there was no time to get children talking and articulating their ideas. Teachers, conditioned into thinking that such time was 'wasted', felt guilty." But she believes things may be slowly changing with the introduction of the national primary strategy, which promised to create a system that encouraged "education and enjoyment".

Sue Horner, lead consultant for English at the QCA, which published Speaking, Listening, Learning, the first guidance issued under the auspices of the primary strategy in 2003, shares her optimism. She believes the previous lack of a framework for the skills at primary level created problems for teachers. "It became clear that they're lacking in confidence when it comes to incorporating speaking and listening objectives into the curriculum," she says, "so we published the guidance to show how it could be done. It gives teachers an organised and progressive framework to use, which builds on the foundation stage communication strand."

Is the new emphasis affecting standards?

Ms Horner says there is now evidence that the shift in priority is helping to boost achievement across the board. "Where local education authorities have made this a priority it has begun to make a difference to the overall standards of their schools."

One such authority is Southampton. Jan Denholm is deputy head at Shirley Warren, a primary school that caters for children from a large socially deprived estate, nearly half of whom claim free school meals. She is convinced that a new emphasis on speaking and listening is transforming Shirley Warren's standards from foundation up to Year 6 (see case study).

"Our children tend to enter school with very poor speaking and listening skills, but you can't learn to read or write if you can't speak, so we have to work hard at enriching our pupils. This is not just about literacy: science, history, maths have all benefited. It is so important that it has to start in the nursery; it is too late to start thinking about it in Year 5. It needs to be given the highest priority."

Placing speaking and listening at the centre of life at Shirley Warren has inspired not only the pupils, but the staff as well. "The teachers are happy to be using the techniques," says Ms Denholm. "We are also lucky that our English co-ordinator is a drama specialist and keen to pass on her skills. The listening is important for the staff as well; they can now work out how much has been understood before they get to pen and paper."

The school has worked closely with Sue Bence, a primary school adviser, who is helping schools across the city implement similar strategies, with equal success. She believes that the speaking and listening framework, with the primary strategy, has been a huge step forward, giving teachers back flexibility after years under the tight structure of the numeracy and literacy strategies. "It has introduced exciting and engaging ways of working, which is enjoyed by both the children and the staff," says Ms Bence. "The feedback we have had is very, very positive. And although we have no hard statistics as yet, we have seen that children's writing and general achievement has improved."

Ms Bence is now working with her numeracy colleague, Alison Hurrell, to develop speaking and listening maths.

How does it looksound in classrooms?

Lessons to encourage the development of speaking and listening take on all shapes and noise levels but, according to the QCA, the main aims are: to encourage pupils "to speak clearly and to develop and sustain ideas in talk"; to develop "active listening strategies and critical skills of analysis"; to take on "different roles within groups"; and, within drama, to improvise and work in role and to respond to performances.

Within primaries some of the most popular methods include paired talking, where each child has a partner with whom they can share ideas or opinions; "Jigsaw", which uses groups of "expert" children to whom the teacher explains the lesson and who then report back to their home groups (see case study); and listening triangles, in which children take on the roles of a speaker to explain a topic, a questioner to find areas of clarification, and a note-taker who reports back on the success of the first two.

Story time

One of the more innovative schemes that has helped reinforce the importance of speaking and listening in primary schools was the Story Making project.

Run by Pie Corbett and Mary Rose on behalf of the International Learning and Research Council and the DfES, it involved 14 primary schools in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire: 28 teachers and 800 children.

The project in the foundation stage centred on the telling of a story repeatedly, which, says Mr Corbett, allows children to internalise the patterns and connectives, so they no longer just use "and then". By the end of two weeks they can recite the stories almost word for word, and can use them to invent new stories following the structure of the old.

"By letting them hear the stories the children create their own template, which they can empty to replace with their own. They can then start to write their stories as it is impossible to use sentence structure if you haven't heard and repeated it correctly," says Mr Corbett.

"We found that telling is more powerful than reading and that storytelling should be at the heart of the foundation stage."

Although primary schools needed extra help and encouragement to improve the levels of speaking and listening, secondary schools have more of a tradition of utilising and developing these skills in their pupils. A report by Ofsted published this February says English is one of the best taught subjects in schools, thanks in some part to the "interesting and wide ranging schemes of work that provide a clear framework for progression in pupils' learning in reading, writing, speaking and listening".

The best and most innovative schools are now taking speaking and listening out of its English, drama and debating ghetto and applying it across the curriculum with great success, discovering with their primary colleagues that speaking and listening can improve more than just literacy.

So why isn't it universal?

Despite the evident success of schools embracing speaking and listening, Pie Corbett believes that teachers, particularly in primary schools where they have become used to following the tight lines of the various strategies, fear that such flexibility and freedom could lead to anarchy.

"I've found that teachers in the foundation stage are much more open to experimentation - they have been allowed more control - but as soon as you get into Year 1, I constantly hear, 'But I've got to do the Sats. What about our league table position?' The strategies and the tests were intended to help teachers work in a more focused way; instead they are stopping many of them from encouraging genuine learning."

Some teachers also have to overcome parents' belief that real learning is only done in a silent classroom with a pencil clutched in every hand. "When a child comes home and says they've been talking all day, many parents would wonder how much learning had gone on," says Julia Strong. "There are still some areas of the education world that would agree; that want to keep talking in the playground."

But, in Southampton, Sue Bence has not encountered any parental or teaching opposition. "Although some teachers were a little apprehensive at first, all of them have been amazed at how the children have organised themselves.

Some use 'radio gauges' - a cardboard dial they can set to 'whisper' right up to 'playground' - and the children on the whole stick to those restrictions. What we hear is a buzz. A buzz of engaged children working hard." And, as for parents, Ms Bence is convinced that any doubts will disappear as soon as they see the improvement in their children's work .

And what about assessment?

The other main issue that comes up again and again is that speaking and listening is hard to assess, which therefore makes it hard to plot children's progress. Yet secondary schools have assessed GCSE coursework and drama for decades without any difficulty.

Sue Horner at the QCA says the new primary framework should help ease teachers' main concerns about control, progression and assessment. "The materials work on what teachers already do, but help to show how to build up different skills incrementally. The progression can then be more easily assessed. Because it is cumulative, you can tell what's a level 34."

Despite all the concerns about the slow rate of progress and the previous neglect of speaking and listening, teachers, advisers, consultants, children and policy-makers all agree that it should take its place at the vanguard of teaching and hope that its time has now come.


* QCADfES guidance: www.standards.dfes.gov.uknumeracypublicationstargeted_supportspeaking_an d_listening.

* Story-making project: www.standards.dfes.gov.ukinnovation-unitinvestigationteacherresearch2sto rymaking.

* National Literacy Trust: www.literacytrust.org.uk.

* Speaking and Listening book series by Pie Corbett and Ruth Thomson, Chrysalis Children's Education.

Main text: Alison Shepherd

Photographs: Peter Langdown

Additional research: Sarah Jenkins

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