Why should we teach Speaking and Listening in the classroom?

by Lyn Dawes

This is the first in a series of two posts:

Children learn to speak by listening. Teachers offer children a different model for spoken language than their friends, relations, things they encounter on screens, or their other conversational experiences. Teachers extend the types of talk children can take part in; part of this involves teaching oracy skills directly. Teaching speaking skills can make a huge difference to a child’s confidence and capability.

When you’re speaking to someone or to a group, you are on trial. You will be judged on clarity, volume, vocabulary and pace of delivery; your accent will identify your origins; dialect will pin you down even further. The way you speak may well influence your listeners.

Your ideas will be offered to others who may or may not understand the way you put things, who might like or dislike what you say, or who will not even hear you because their thoughts are full of other things. Even if they started off listening, they may stop. Are you interesting enough to maintain attention; are you are sticking to the point? Do you actually make sense?

Listeners will judge how articulate you are at the same time as noting how well you are attending to their speech. There is no doubt that speaking may not achieve clear communication. Opportunities for misunderstanding are many and varied.

Dancing Bears

The surprising thing is that most of us humans speak readily, and are not discouraged by how limited our speech may be when compared to what we really want to say.

‘… human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.’

Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary

Flaubert’s haunting description of speech demonstrates the advantage of writing; you can think twice about what you write, edit it to polish it up, and hand it over to your audience in a form that you’re satisfied with. Flaubert writes beautiful sentences. He reported himself as searching tirelessly for ‘the right word’ and sometimes spending a week completing one page.

You can see how effective this revision is for the meaning he wants to convey, by comparing the quotation above with the same sentence from another source:

‘Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.’

A brief comparison:

Flaubert 1. Flaubert 2.
human speech language
like a (simile) is a (metaphor)
tap crude rhythms beat out
make music tunes
melt the stars move the stars to pity

I believe that version 2 is less powerful because the words convey diminished images. You may disagree. We could spend some time considering what distinguishes ‘human speech’ from ‘language’, ‘music’ from ‘tunes’ and so on.

But as a writer you can consider such fine shades of understanding, and adjust things to make sure that what you write is as near as possible to what you meant (and of course the original text is in French, so neither version might do for Flaubert). Such editing is only possible in scripted speech, not usually in conversation or discussion.

Flaubert thought that none of us ever express exactly what we feel or think through speech.

‘The truth is that fullness of soul can sometimes overflow in utter vapidity of language, for none of us can ever express the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows’

Speech limits us with the very things that make it a good way to communicate – the rapidity of response; the way that barely considered thoughts, shaped in seconds and offered in moments, generate ephemeral utterances.

But perhaps we make so much effort to talk because we know that the impact of what we say has an immediate effect on those we are talking to; and we know that ultimately what we say may last and last, even when speech remains unrecorded. The mind absorbs speech and may well be changed by it.

Image: Pixabay

Brandy Snaps

Here is an example of spoken language in which the speaker reflects on her capacity to express herself as she wishes.

Channel 4 Great British Bake Off Series 5 Episode 1

Context: Lizzie has previously been criticised for her use of language, e.g. describing her cooking as ‘claggy’; she is now talking about the judges’ response to the brandy snaps she’s made.

‘…flavour’s good; they liked the clagginess, which is what I was after;
maybe I should work… I need a vocabulary so I can…not a vocabulary…what’s it, a dictiona…thesaurus, I need a thesaurus. 
Won’t just expand my baking, expand my mind.’

Liz has already been confronted with the negative impact of her spoken language on the judges’ perception of her baking. She wants to succeed in the competition and is now aware that this may not be possible, despite the high quality of her baking, if she continues to use the ‘wrong’ words.

Obviously this is unfair since what she says should have no impact on flavour or appearance. But the judges have pointed out that her spoken descriptions of her baking do affect their judgement. That is, that spoken language changes minds; speech has a discernible impact. In this case, their judgement is that the words are wrong therefore the baking is wrong; her chosen words make the baking seem less appetising.

It’s good that judges are so explicit about this, but whether they are right to assess baking on the words used to describe it, is for others to decide.

Liz, being an open-minded and intelligent soul, decides to view all this as a learning opportunity. She realises that her speech, that is each word she uses naturally, matters and can affect her perceived performance as a baker. She thinks of a good way to resolve what, in this context, is a problem for her; she goes on to do well.

It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it

If you think about it, the idea of ‘teaching children to speak’ almost inevitably brings to mind the socially problematic aspects of talk such as elocution, diction, accent, dialect, choice of vocabulary, rhetorical techniques, voice projection; ‘correct’ pronunciation and intonation and the black holes for discussion that are Received Pronunciation and Standard English.
A useful resource can be found at The Conversation.

Such aspects of oracy are worth considering. Is it important to change the tone of your voice and diminish your accent? It really can work and people do it to achieve their own ends; Margaret Thatcher used a voice coach during her time as Prime Minister to lower her voice tone and characterise herself as the epitome of authority and power.

Non-native speakers of English may note that their job prospects are hampered by their accent. They are probably right, unfortunately. Those with northern English accents, accents from the countryside, accents deemed amusing or impenetrable by their colleagues, may find they hit a ‘sound ceiling’ at work when their aptitude or intelligence is judged on how they speak. Judgements about accent may be profoundly influenced by the way the listener speaks themselves.

In teaching the speaking skills to promote oracy development, we cannot forget all this; we must be aware of what we are doing, and what others might be doing, and why. The social pressures around the perception of spoken language are real and powerful. We need to take account of the ways in which people’s identities are bound up with how they speak.

But we can acknowledge the pitfalls and put these things aside; they are presentational details. Icing on the cake. Instead, since we know what is important for learning, and what isn’t, we can work on specific and useful spoken language skills.

Children should not have to ‘lose their accent’ to become effective users of spoken language. When children speak clearly and say interesting, creative and useful things, the social problems associated with accent and dialect are diminished.

As teachers, what we are looking for in a child’s speech is an indication that they are confident, that what they say is as close to what they mean as possible, and that in their speech we can hear reasoning, explanation, elaboration, description and questioning, that we can hear understanding and learning, links to what others have said, and indications of what are the next steps for them. These are the important things. Luckily, we can easily teach the skills for every child to become an accomplished speaker.

A note on words meaning ‘easy to talk to’

There isn’t an adjective that means ‘easy to talk to’, although words such as ‘affable’ and ‘approachable’ convey something of the meaning. There is also a difference between a person being easy to start a conversation with and someone who is adept at continuing conversation.

There are lots of websites with tips for how to talk to others. Advice seems to boil down to the idea that if you are good at listening, people find you easy to talk to. That implies that your own voice is simply a steady prompt for others, which isn’t quite right.

In addition, it seems that talk is easier once you’ve realised that people like talking about themselves. Neuroscience tells us that people are their own favourite subject: talking about the self is intrinsically rewarding, even if no one is listening.

Being a good listener is crucial, and being able to express yourself in speech just as important. You may have heard conversations in which each speaker is conducting a kind of monologue in parallel with another person; are these useful conversations?

It may be enjoyable and satisfying to talk when someone else is encouraging you by simply letting you, not questioning or interacting with your ‘story’, but taking turns to tell their own. In learning conversations, there must be a balance between speaking and listening if joint understanding is to be achieved.

Types of talk in classroom discussion

Learning conversations are what we want in class, discussions in which everyone listens and has a say, reasons are asked for, given and considered, and the group works towards joint understanding. This type of talk is exploratory talk.  But commonly we might hear children being overly careless about outcomes, agreeable with one another, but monosyllabic and thoughtlessly affirmative. This is cumulative talk. Or perhaps worse, they may be curt, competitive and dismissive of one another, rejecting any ideas that they hear and considering others in the group as inferior or unnecessary. This is disputational talk. The pressure to teach the skills of speaking comes from knowing that without such skills, Exploratory talk is not possible. That means that each individual is educationally disadvantaged because group work is ineffective.

The table summarises some thought patterns of these three types of talk, using criteria highlighted as necessary for speaking in class from the Cambridge Oracy Framework.

cumulative Exploratory disputational
Listening actively and responding appropriately I hear I hear and I consider I refuse to hear
Maintaining focus on task I go along with things I reflect and respond appropriately I am alone
Giving reasons to support views I agree I ask for and offer reasons there are no reasons
Critically examining ideas and views expressed I still agree I evaluate my own reasons and those of others I am right, you are wrong
Guiding or managing, interactions; turn-taking I await your input I ask for ideas and know that I will be asked for my ideas and reasons me first
Building on the views of others every idea is a good idea joint thinking is a fabric of threads to follow

and weave

my idea is all
Seeking information and clarification through questions  say that again could you explain, elaborate, give me a reason can you shut up


we are done here and we got on nicely the essence of our discussion might be put…
I understand you and your ideas better
we are done here

and I don’t like you


Sharing information gained through personal experience is most useful when it is not just transmitted but understood by everyone. The value of thinking together aloud lies in the joint construction of knowledge through speaking and listening.

Such conversations created shared memories, enable groups to work together to solve problems, and distribute the task of furthering learning by making everyone aware of ideas, reasons, explanations, queries and suggestions. In the classroom, speaking skills enable individual children to ask questions, to offer information, and to say if they do or do not understand.

The classroom can be the child’s most important environment for learning how to express their own ideas and to hear the ideas of others. Types of talk can be identified which help us to teach children to recognise the type of talk they are aiming for. Teaching speaking skills may matter more than almost anything else you teach.

We may be confined to a cracked kettle to tap on, but we can certainly aim to tune it up a little and beat a reasonable rhythm.

In the next post, I will consider how we can teach Speaking and Listening in the classroom.


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