Waiting for call to join the permissive society

Diane Hofkins

Just get speaking and listening skills right - then wait to reap the rewards

Advice from Ofsted and an array of other official bodies all stresses the importance of speaking and listening in the early years. But many teachers - as Beth Crocker (above) found - are still waiting for "permission" to concentrate on these skills before launching into reading and writing.

Among those striving to create this permissive society are Sue Palmer and Ros Bayley, literacy and early childhood specialists who developed Foundations of Literacy (Network Education Press). "There can be little doubt that, in terms of literacy, and perhaps all school-based education, the most fundamental skill of all is listening," the book says. "Unless children can listen, discriminatively and with growing attention, they will be slow to understand and to slow to talk."

They suggest games, such as listening walks, where children notice sounds such as cars and birds, and Spot the Sound, in which they have to close their eyes and identify where a noise, such as a ticking clock, is coming from.

It is all the more necessary because of concerns that youngsters are not spoken to and listened to enough before they reach school. There has been an increase in the number of schemes which work with families of young children to boost their speech and language skills. One of the first was the Peers Early Education Partnership on Oxford's Blackbird Leys estate, which helps young mums to relate to their infants.

It has been followed by schemes such as the National Literacy Trust's Talk to Your Baby and East Brighton's Talking and Learning Together project, which works with babies from nine months old and their families.

These skills are also embedded in the Government's guidelines for working with under-threes, which will become a legal requirement under the new childcare bill.

Birth to Three Matters, to be merged with the foundation-stage guidelines for three to five year olds, is built around four "aspects". The Government says these "celebrate the skill and competence of babies and young children and highlight the interrelationship between growth, learning, development and the environment in which they are cared for and educated".

One aspects is being a skilful communicator. It focuses on sociability and conversation and the building of relationships. It stresses the development of friendship and sharing emotions. It is broken down into being together, finding a voice, listening and responding and making meaning. Being together has to do with being a sociable and effective communicator. It ranges from gaining attention and making contact to encouraging conversation.

Finding a voice is about becoming confident and competent with language - from having an impulse to communicate up to sharing thoughts, feelings and ideas, and taking in exploring, experimenting, labelling, describing, questioning and predicting.

Then there is listening and responding - making playful and serious responses, enjoying and sharing stories, songs, rhymes and games and learning about words and meanings. Finally, making meaning includes negotiating and making choices and understanding each other.

The guidance says: "Babies and young children do not merely begin to make sense of what is going on around them and express themselves, they start to learn about 'conversation'." So, perhaps more emphasis on speaking and listening will not only lead to better readers, it will also result in fewer Asbos, as people talk more and lash out less.

write to primary@tes.co.uk

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Diane Hofkins

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