Talk, talk, talk…

I usually write about ‘professional’ issues rather than curriculum matters but I was recently given a set of books about English to review and made me reflect on issues around ‘professional autonomy’ and how different that once was.

As a primary teacher who did an MA in ‘English in Education’ at London University’s Institute for Education nearly thirty years ago, I read these booklets with some interest. They reminded me of the halcyon days when I felt truly inspired to teach. I would turn up for two hours twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, over two years – each time absolutely knackered from a full day’s teaching in a tough Hackney classroom – but within minutes, find myself drinking at a fountain of knowledge poured by the likes of Harold Rosen, Margaret Meek (Spencer), Tony Burgess and Jane Miller.

These books remind me of those sessions. I’m going to summarise them – all too crudely. But here’s the first one I read on Talk.

The spoken language is the mode from which competence in all the other aspects of language springs. Literacy – that foundation of the ‘civilized’ world – could not have come into being without the prior existence of speech.

The learning of spoken language is not merely an act of imitation for young children, but is far more powerful – it is a generalising act in which they perform, infer patterns and rules from the raw material of the language they hear – and then apply inferences to utterances arranged in certain orders and in some cases varying their form according to context – even when they have never heard it before.

Speech is the essential means by which children and young people learn. As a teacher you have a crucial role in guiding children’s use of the spoken language and creating contexts in which children can practise and extend their competence.

To be productive though, ‘group talk’ of whatever size needs a clear structure and purpose. That structure and purpose may be very simple: for example, you could set one single, open question with a time limit. Or you may set a more complex structure involving a series of questions or tasks. Sometimes you will be an active participant in the talk and sometimes just an observer. A key aspect of a teacher’s skill is in setting tasks for children that make demands at the edge of – but not beyond – the reach of a child’s existing state of knowledge or grasp.

Group talk may well involve reading and writing but it shouldn’t be an automatic preliminary to those. Talk should be regarded as an activity in its own right with equivalent status and seriousness to other kinds of language work.

It should embrace a range of purposes and take a range of forms, from exploratory – such as ‘thinking aloud’ or putting together hypotheses – through to the more presentational – like stating arguments or debating – from the tentative to the declaratory and from collaborative group situations through to the individual child becoming a confident speaker in front of an audience.

In the best classrooms, the culture and routines of ‘talk’ is a valid form of ‘work’. The most successful schools have broadly agreed policies on the important principles relating spoken language to learning and in my view, one such principle is that the use of properly managed talk is that it is respected and admired throughout. Quiet classrooms are not necessarily an indication of a working classroom.

Some 17% of the UK school population is bi- or multilingual. These children often outperform their monolingual English-only peers. Teaching multilingual children is not a different kind of teaching, just an adapted one, and recognizes children’s access to a variety of linguistic competence – like the way good teachers recognize a variety of ‘Englishes’ other than just Standard English. Good teachers respect the language of the child’s culture and community. They compare and contrast standard equivalents of non-standard forms that children use in everyday speech. This in itself is a fascinating study of language.

In my view, the government’s new legal requirements for spoken language are insufficiently detailed in the primary years and over-preoccupied with formal and presentational uses of the spoken language in the secondary years. Sadly it seems, the government’s true estimation of the value talk in schools is to be seen in the fact that achievement in the spoken language now does not count towards a student’s main grade at GCSE English Language.

To me that’s a retrograde step – both for English as a ‘subject’ and for teachers’ professional autonomy.

I recommend reading John Richmond’s English, Language and Literacy 3 to 19: Talk – it proposes an alternative National Curriculum for English, giving proper and balanced recognition to the role of the spoken language in learning at the Early Years Foundation Stage and throughout Key Stages 1 to 4.

It is available from the United Kingdom Literacy Association at http://www.ukla.org/publications/shop/, price £12 (£11 to UKLA members).    

Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk. His book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

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