Thank heavens for the talkies
A lot of speaking and listening exercises in school can be very artificial. But working in this way means that children have a real audience and a real outcome," says Richard Gifford, describing his experience of using video cameras to help children's oracy skills.
A peripatetic teacher in north Kent, Richard Gifford spends a lot of time humping video cameras in and out of local primary schools, as he develops the use of video in classroom work. "Children talk more fluently than they write," he says. "By removing the writing hurdle, you can get a glimpse of a higher level of knowledge and understanding. So this kind of work can be very liberating for many children."
Today his first port of call is St Michael's primary school in Chatham. In an empty staffroom he helps half a dozen 11-year-old children to finish a geography project, improving the clarity of their commentary for a video documentary which they've been making about the Farne Islands in Northumbria.
Camealia, oozing confidence, has learnt her section of the video commentary by heart, but is still sounding a touch stilted as she describes the guillemots and cormorants that inhabit the islands. "Don't sound so grown up," says her classmate Tom, who's holding the microphone for her. "Just be normal."
The group is a mixture of confident and quite shy children, with 25 per cent of the pupils having English as a second language.
According to their class teacher, Maddie Murphy, this kind of practical small-group work, taking place over a number of weeks, can be invaluable in enhancing many children's language development. "In school the boys tend to talk about nothing but football, while a lot of the Asian girls are very shy," she says.
She's worked closely with Richard Gifford on a number of video projects of this nature, including one where a science video on the human body was created, and another in which the children compiled a video on "Our School", which was then exchanged with a similar one made by children in Gosforth School in Cumbria.
"The children enjoy getting the chance to succeed," she says. "In a small group like this they can complete the task in hand and they enjoy having the chance to hone what they're doing to perfection. You also find that those children who don't contribute anything in class are happy to be heard in this more intimate setting."
Richard Gifford suggests that working with video can be particularly helpful for language work, in that it gives children instant feedback on their efforts, which in turn stimulates a lot of discussion.
He first used a video camera in a primary classroom in Faversham, Kent, where children looked at film of their own behaviour in class, and then discussed it. "It had the very useful side-effect of allowing oral work to be recorded, reflected upon and displayed," he says. "This was particularly encouraging for children whose written work was less evident."
Nowadays he uses video a great deal with bi-lingual children. Kent is not generally seen as an area with an ethnic-minority population, yet some 50 languages are spoken within the county.
The day's second visit is to South Avenue primary school in Sittingbourne, where a small group of eight-year-olds are using video for story-telling. Two years ago, they recorded stories in English and Bengali; now they're working on their own bi-lingual version of The Wind in the Willows.
The children work enthusiastically, though one or two are still self-conscious when being filmed. Richard asks them how they might avoid looking down at their script, and they come up with the idea of a home-made autocue. "In today's television culture, it's not really surprising to find a high media awareness in even quite young children," he says.
The schools in Kent have been pleased with the outcome of the video work. Richard Gifford has edited some of the children's reports to make complete programmes to show to other classes and to parents. He's also used some of the footage for in-service training.
With the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority currently looking at the various uses of language in the curriculum, oracy looks set to get considerable attention in the coming months. The use of video to enhance it appears to have considerable potential although not all schools have the back-up available in north Kent.