Learning to talk in schools

by Lyn Dawes |

Children develop oral language by listening to others and creatively copying and using what they hear to form their own words for their own purposes.  Once a child can talk, their thoughts are shaped by language, and language shapes how they express their thoughts. There is a clear and obvious link between talking and reading. The sounds of speech are encapsulated in written words; the symbols of the English language represent sounds. Reading is what happens when sounds are put back into texts, so that even silent reading may involve ‘saying’ words to ourselves. In effect, we literally or metaphorically breathe life into written words by reading them, aloud or silently. Although deaf children can learn to read and write fluently, for most English-speaking children reading and speaking are inextricably linked, and their capacity to read is profoundly dependent on their capacity to speak and listen.

For children who have developed good spoken language skills, reading skills may also be readily learned. For children whose speech is not so well developed, who cannot focus on what they hear, or who have had a less rich spoken language experience outside school, reading is made more difficult.  In school, we teach reading very carefully, knowing that it is the key to educational success and personal achievement. We teach collectively but children learn to read individually, each one making the creative and imaginative leaps that help them to decode text, make meaning from print, and add in the intonation and liveliness that good reading requires.  Children mainly learn to read in school, and are taught assiduously by means of phonics, story, poetry, rhyme, rhythm, look and say, whole book teaching; every child is carefully taught to read, for very good reasons.

In contrast the learning of spoken language is usually informal, casual, or oblique; it is untaught, in fact. Children do learn new ways to talk in school, but they are rarely taught how talk works with the same priority as that given to the teaching of reading. The direct teaching of speaking and listening is for many children their only opportunity to get to grips with the complexities of oral language use, to be shown what words can do, to be accorded insight into the ways people work with words to communicate, or to accumulate a working vocabulary in a range of topics. For every child, the chance to be taught to listen, taught to ask questions, to ask for and give reasons, to explain, elaborate, negotiate, summarise and present hypothetical or more established ideas, must be seen as an essential element of their early education.  Lucky the child that receives such tuition in a school classroom. The essential aims of such teaching are to ensure that every child is provided with the skills and understanding they need in order to become an articulate speaker, an active listener, and through these capacities, a fluent reader and thoughtful writer.

Children learn to talk in school – if they can. Whether they like talking, whether anyone ever listens to them, or examines their thoughts aloud with them, has immediate influence on their learning of how to talk effectively. Their starting vocabulary and their ability to join in with a group who is talking, taking turns and accepting challenge without feeling personally threatened, may stand them in good stead as learners of talk, or may be obstacles to their learning.  In addition, a child’s awareness of the value of talk for their own thinking and that of others affects how readily they contribute and gain from talking with others. Unless their awareness is raised, a child many never understand the link between talking and thinking, and the value of talk with others for their own learning and individual development.  It is regretful to have to admit that the title of this blog is inaccurate, and should instead be, ‘Only some children learn to talk in school’. Those who do, already can. A neglect of the teaching of oracy – the effective use of spoken language – is a recipe for continuing inequality and consolidating disadvantage. Most teachers know this. But the single most important influence preventing the teaching of speaking and listening in English schools is the bureaucratic drive for ‘evidence’. Teachers must teach things that produce immediate, written evidence which can be marked according to criteria of what is measurable, such as spelling, elements of grammar and punctuation, right and wrong answers. Instead of helping every child towards oral language competence, teachers are compelled to teach using arcane and divisive programmes that are used to measure, grade and demoralise their students. Because oracy is difficult to record, observe and assess, it never gets the attention that it deserves. In the interests of all our children, this situation needs to change.

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