Talking points

10th October 2003 at 01:00
Sue Palmer examines ways of measuring children's skills in speaking and listening

At last, the Government has come to understand how important speaking and listening are for children's language development. This previously neglected area is now an official priority.

But how can teachers assess these skills? Speech is so transitory, so mixed up with every other aspect of learning, so lacking in "evidence" that can be studied and marked. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's long-awaited "multimedia pack" for the teaching of speaking and listening, now expected next month, may give us the answers.

Meanwhile, the English Speaking Board has been assessing children's oracy for 50 years. Lesley Cook, chief examiner for the ESB, agrees that it is probably impossible to assess oracy through everyday classroom talk. "Most speech in class is conversational, dependent on the context of the moment," she says. "Children don't need to use explicit language - they can just point, and talk in pronouns: 'Do this' or 'It goes like that'. Often they'll be talking in parallel - engaged in overlapping personal narratives about what they're doing, with lots of irrelevant comments and umming and erring."

In schools following ESB's programme, children from Year 3 upwards have an annual assessment with an ESB examiner. Each child presents a prepared talk (with visual aids) on a subject of personal interest, a reading from a book of their own choice, and a memorised recitation - poetry, prose or drama.

The rest of the group act as audience, and listening is assessed through their behaviour during their peers' presentations and the quality of the questions they ask after these.

Preparing a short talk, and engaging in sustained, uninterrupted speech can initially be challenging for children. But it gives them an opportunity to think about what they want to say, to extend their vocabulary and to experiment with slightly more formal language than they would normally use.

All this gives them greater control of English, which should inform not only their speech but their writing as well.

"Listening is vital, too," says Lesley Cook. "Every talk needs an audience, because the key to good presentation is communication, fulfilling one's listeners' needs. Meanwhile, the audience practises and refines listening skills - and learns about speaking by analysing how others perform." She believes that the structure of ESB assessments is important in this respect. "Every child in the audience knows they'll get their turn to talk, so they can concentrate on active listening - and their interest generates good questions to ask at the end."

The examiner models this good listening - attentively nodding, smiling, indicating interest through tone of voice and depth of questioning - but also by giving children space to talk. "We try not to butt in and 'help'

unless it becomes painfully obvious the child has lost the thread," Lesley Cook explains. "Children don't often get that 'wait time' in class, because the teacher is under pressure to move on. Speaking well takes time."

Sue Palmer is an independent teacher-trainer and writer, and a former primary teacher.English Speaking Board:


Content and organisation

* Is the child interested and knowledgeable about the chosen topic?

* Do the opening words engage the audience's interest and introduce clearly what is to come?

* Is the main body of the talk clearly and logically structured?

* Do the concluding remarks "tie a bow around the package"?


* Does the speaker look at the audience?

* Is the speaking slow, clear and loud enough for the audience to follow it easily?

* Is the use of language natural to the speaker?

* Does the speaker look confident and in control?

* Does the speaker engage with the audience ? (An older speaker might backtrack to explain something the audience doesn't seem to understand.) LISTENING

* Does the listener look at the speaker and concentrate on what he or she has to say?

* Is it active listening, resulting in questions that reveal a genuine interest and require a considered response, not just a one-word answer?

* Is the listener supportive, for example requesting a clarification in a helpful way if the speaker has missed something out?

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