Talk first then write

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
THE ARTICULATE CLASSROOM: Talking and learning in the primary school. Edited by Prue Goodwin. THE WRITING CLASSROOM: Aspects of writing and the primary child 3-11. Edited by Janet Evans. David Fulton, pound;15 each.

Speaking is a vital part of learning. Sue Palmer considers books that promote basic classroom skills.

Hands up all those primary teachers who feel guilty about Speaking and Listening. If you're anything like me, you believe passionately that children's talk underpins all learning - especially literacy - but because speaking skills are difficult to quantify, plan for and measure, you find they're too often overshadowed by other aspects of the curriculum.

The Articulate Classroom should be a great help in this respect: it contains a wealth of starting points for teachers who want to move beyond paying lipservice to the development of children's spoken language skills. In her introduction, Prue Goodwin defines the articulate classroom as one where talk is valued for both social and cognitive reasons - as a means of communication, but also as a highly significant tool for learning.

The chapters that follow develop both those themes, building on the requirements of Curriculum 2000 and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's useful document Speaking and Listening at Key Stages 1 and 2. There is a rich mixture of practical and theoretical material, ranging from the familiar (such as Carol Smith's excellent chapter on Circle Time, which makes you want to rush into a classroom and do it) to groundbreaking material, for example, Lyn Dawes's chapter on Interthinking, with its clear directions for teaching talking skills and exciting new ways of using IT to develop them.

Given the present national emphasis o the teaching of writing, several chapters focus on the significance of talk in underpinning children's development as writers. Michael Lockwood provides intriguing and practical ideas on using computer spelling and grammar checkers as a focus for talking about language, and Joy McCormick shows how talk can be harnessed to help children structure their ideas prior to writing. For non-fiction writing, she recommends talk about preliminary diagrams or pictures as a way of helping children rehearse the content and organise the structure in advance.

Several contributors to the book's companion volume, The Writing Classroom, also take up the theme of preliminary organisation for writing. Steve Moline's chapter on "Using graphic organisers to write information texts" provides powerful arguments for teaching children how to represent their understanding in a variety of diagrammatic forms; Bobbie Neate urges us to teach the skills of note-making; Maureen Lewis demonstrates how story-mapping can lead to huge improvements in children's fiction writing and, in another chapter co-written with David Wray, provides an update on the uses of writing frames. In all these chapters, theory is skilfully interwoven with practical suggestions.

The book as a whole, however, seems less down-to-earth than The Articulate Classroom, perhaps because it is intended as an antidote to the remorseless practicality of the National Literacy Strategy. In her introduction, Janet Evans takes a "whole language" approach to writing which is sometimes at odds with current orthodoxy, and this is reflected in her choice of contributors, particularly in the field of grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Sue Palmer is a freelance writer and INSETprovider

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