`Speaking skills are a moral issue'

11th April 2014 at 01:00
Focus on talk would wipe out `grunting teens', headteacher says

Schools need to banish the "myth of the grunting, monosyllabic teenager" by putting speaking skills at the heart of the curriculum, according to a headteacher who was once a speechwriter for former UK prime minister Tony Blair.

Learning to speak eloquently was now "a moral issue" as it was key to how young people found their way in the world, said Peter Hyman, who is headteacher of a London free school.

Talk, he claimed, was "an undervalued area of literacy" that wrongly received far less time in the curriculum than reading and writing. Mr Hyman also criticised the decision made last year to remove the speaking and listening mark from the final grade in GCSE English, pointing out that oral exams were still regarded as intrinsic to foreign language qualifications.

Mr Hyman, who leads School 21 in the deprived borough of Newham, told TES: "Speaking eloquently is a moral issue, because to find your voice both literally and metaphorically and be able to communicate your ideas and your passions is crucial to how [students] are going to be a success in the world.

"But it's also the number one issue that employers put in all their surveys: they want good oral communication. We've got to dispel the myth of the grunting teenager, the monosyllabic teenager that makes employers say, `I've got this person who I know on paper is quite good but they can't string a sentence together.'"

Despite the importance of effective speaking and communication, Mr Hyman said most schools were moving further away from encouraging students to develop these skills.

"Speaking aids thinking, speaking aids depth of knowledge, speaking aids writing," he said. "I think some people out there think the silent classroom is the good classroom, but the silent classroom is the death of learning, unless there's a particular reason for it."

Mr Hyman said he wanted to hear children at his all-through school talking to each other, discussing, debating and questioning. "High-quality talk" was at the centre of the school day, from morning assembly to class discussions, he explained, adding that the spoken word was "built into the DNA of the school".

Calling for a "bigger debate" around the issue, he said: "There's too much of a fashion now of saying `the quieter the better - that shows you've got behaviour under control'. I think that is completely the wrong way to go and we've got to put speaking up there on an equal footing with reading and writing."

He agreed that assessment was more challenging for speaking skills than for written work, but said it was "not beyond us".

Mr Hyman's school is halfway through a pilot project with the University of Cambridge aimed at creating and testing a range of ways in which teachers can boost and assess students' spoken language skills.

Professor Neil Mercer, director of the project, argued that policymakers would take speech more seriously as a subject if it could be formally assessed. "The government has tended to blow hot and cold on talk in schools," he said. "It tends to be taken for granted, but it's important to children's development in so many ways.

"Speaking and listening is included in the primary curriculum now, but in secondary it is there in a token way and not nearly enough to develop children's life skills."

The 2009 Cambridge Primary Review, led by Professor Robin Alexander, also pointed out the importance of speaking. "Talk is education at its most elemental and potent," it said. "It is the aspect of teaching which has arguably the greatest purchase on learning. Yet it is also the most resistant to genuine transformation."

Numerous initiatives are attempting to improve young people's skills in debating, public speaking and other areas of speech. The English-Speaking Union has run 50 workshops in schools as part of its Discover Your Voice scheme. Janine Ryan, the union's speech and debate team leader, said: "If young people are silent it doesn't mean they don't have anything to say.It can be that no one has ever asked for their opinions before."

Look who's talking

Create a helpful wall display offering guidance on how to behave during speaking and listening activities.

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This mini unit of work gets students writing and delivering individual presentations.


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