These words were meant for speaking

10th January 2003 at 00:00
The National Literacy Strategy proscribed reading out loud, but it is one of the most powerful learning tools available for reading and writing, says Sue Palmer.

I keep dreaming about babies and bath water. One of the traditional teaching practices proscribed five years ago by the national literacy strategy was "reading round the group".

For NLS, guided reading in key stage 1 should be about teaching rather than "hearing" reading; in later KS2, it is an opportunity for talking about and around that week's guided text. Which all sounds fine, but right from the beginning I have felt slightly edgy about it.

Finally, after five years' working on children's writing, including several stints of consultancy for NLS, I have worked out what is bothering me. It isn't rocket science - in fact, it is glaringly obvious - so obvious that it was easy to overlook. Encouraging children to read aloud (as well as listening to others, such as teacher or peers) is a simple, effective way of familiarising them with the patterns and rhythms of written language.

Written language is different from the spoken version. Speech is interactive - we bat words and phrases back and forth - and produced within a shared context, so it's fragmented, disorganised and a great deal of meaning goes by on the nod.

In fact, you can get by in speech without ever forming a sentence, or at least only very simple ones.

Writing, on the other hand, is produced for an unknown, unseen audience, who may have no background knowledge at all about the subject. It is therefore explicit, complex, crafted, requiring a wider vocabulary than speech and organisation into sentences for clarity.

The sentences become increasingly complex as the writer expresses ever-more complex ideas, and require a wide range of "connectives" to show how these ideas relate to each other.

Writing has long been the problem area of literacy. We now know that early phonics is an important requisite, and fluent handwriting obviously helps, but it is also clear that to write well children need to grow familiar with written language patterns.

This familiarity also helps them to think as it provides the types of language construction that facilitate abstract thought. Over time, it also feeds into their speech - a truly literate person can "talk like a book". Indeed, in daily life, this is probably much more important than being able to write a book.

The NLS has so far tackled the aspect of written composition through shared writing, involving increased attention to grammatical construction. However, another, and certainly more natural way to pick up linguistic patterns and rhythms, is through speaking and hearing them.

Reading aloud gives children the chance to hear literate language patterns produced from their own mouths, to know how standard English and sophisticated vocabulary feels, to respond physically to the ebb and flow of well-constructed sentences, learning incidentally how punctuation guides meaning and expression.

I am sure it is no coincidence that education in the past laid so much emphasis on the skills of rhetoric - reciting and declaiming texts. The teachers of old must have realised that these activities train pupils'

auditory memory, teaching them the music of language.

Rhetoric may also have an important role in the education in the future. The information and communications technology expert, Chris Yapp, who advises the Government on the skills students will need in 20 years, is keen that children should learn to read and recite clearly, with good articulation.

As he points out, when the keyboard is eventually overtaken by voice-activated software (probably in 10 years' time) the skills of clear, fluent speech will be at a premium.

So, instead of proscribing "reading round the group" we should be encouraging it, not necessarily to the teacher during guided reading, but perhaps to a classroom assistant, a parent helper or a tape-recorder.

We should also be looking throughout the curriculum for other opportunities for children to read decent texts aloud, and encouraging other rhetorical exercises such as reciting poetry, learning scripts and declaiming speeches.

There is a pay-off to be had in both speech and writing when we let accomplished authors put words into our pupils' mouths.

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