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When more really does mean less

As I read my son's report card this year, I was unaccountably reminded of an incident from my own time in Primary 7. We were reading round the class - as you did in those days. The passage concerned was an excerpt from Dickens's Pickwick Papers (yes, really!) and involved a conversation between Mr Weller and, possibly, Mr Pickwick. I can't recall exactly because it was Mr Weller who fascinated me.

"Be wery careful o'vidders all your life." The phonetic rendering of Sam's speech impediment (the first time I'd come across such a thing) meant his voice was as real to me as the voice of the girl who shared my desk, except that, in my absorption, I'd forgotten she even existed. So when it came to my turn to read, it was Sam's voice that came out of my mouth - accent, tone, the lot. I didn't even know I'd done it until I heard someone behind me snigger.

I was mortified, a mortification which only deepened when I looked up to see the teacher smile. Miss MacDougall was not given to smiling. "Children should be seen and not heard." Her habitual demeanour said it all and I was convinced that this unwitting expression of my own personality would count against me - eventually. What else could the smile imply?

What a relief those days are over. In today's classroom oral communication is rated alongside reading, writing and listening. The only downside is that when I receive yet another report card telling me my children don't speak out enough in class (as every report for either child always has), I recognise that I must be at fault for producing children with so little self-confidence.

But for some reason the memory of Miss MacDougall and my erupting "personality" has changed all that. Hang on a minute, I found myself thinking, what does "enough" mean? Are we talking quantity or quality here? I checked back. Every report emphasised "more", so quantity was certainly implied. I struggled to be fair. Frequency of utterance clearly did matter. Having regular opportunities to talk in an environment where people listen attentively to what you have to say is a great confidence booster and practice makes perfect, as we all know. But is frequency enough? Do I want a child who thinks it sufficient to say something as opposed to something worthwhile?

More than that, how about the skill with which the child has made his point (regardless of how infrequent his utterances might have been)? And lastly, if something is being assessed, shouldn't that imply "something" has been taught? In terms of writing, we would no doubt feel a teacher was falling down on his or her duty if he failed to convey some idea of punctuation, paragraphing or sentence structure. What are the equivalent pedagogic objectives in terms of speech?

As luck would have it, I had just received BT's publication TalkWorks, a book which claims to tell us how to get more out of life through conversing better. As I read, it seemed to me that much of its content could be applied to the business of improving children's oral communication. Topics included creating the right sort of climate for conversations to grow; how to be a good storyteller (a dozen different ways to help you get your point across); how to become skilled at understanding what other people have said; how to tell people things they might not want to hear; and how to be more assertive. It suggests useful exercises to develop such skills (many of which could surely be adapted for classroom use) while there are references throughout to recordings, available via free-phone numbers, which help illustrate the points being made.

Now, of course, it may be that teachers are already doing all of the above - in which case, all I want to know, as a parent, is why I'm not being told about it. Why don't school reports say "James needs to be more concise in what he says" or "Jane has become much more assertive this term"?

Without that degree of rigorous analysis "more" talk really could mean very little indeed.

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