The average number of words used in response to a question asked by a teacher in some classrooms? Four, I was told. Now, I know what you must be thinking when you read this statement masquerading as a statistic – teenagers have always been surly and unresponsive, right? Teenagers aren’t supposed to actually talk to adults – look at Harry Enfield’s ‘Kevin’ caricature. That’s pretty close to reality, right? We don’t need to worry about this issue.
The Rose Review, published in 2006, made clear the links between the ability to speak and listen effectively, stating that “Speaking and Listening, together with reading and writing, are central to children’s intellectual, social and emotional development.” I am aware that the National Literacy Trust, an organisation in which I have absolute faith, has been trying to address the issue of articulacy for years. Their ‘Talk To Your Baby’ campaign was practical and dealt in its entirety with the concept that unless very young children have the ability to express themselves, serious problems will occur later on in their education. In my time as an English teacher, I have seen the skills of speaking and listening dealt with really well and, as you may expect, also really badly. The idea that teaching a child how to be articulate is extremely important isn’t new but it remains an afterthought in some teaching.
For many in education, it comes down to this: can a child give me the answer – in four words or fewer, it doesn’t matter – or can they explain how they got to that answer? In the current climate, league tables create pressure to raise levels of attainment, which means that all too often, the skill of articulating an opinion or thought is left to one side. It is entirely understandable, but incredibly frustrating. We want to develop those skills, but in limited timeframes, with modular exams bearing down on us and changes to coursework now adding to the treadmill of assessment, often the choice has to be made to do things quickly instead of well.
Recently, it has been made horribly clear that you can have a GCSE or two and still not be able to get a job. Sky News interviewed masked youths, apparently involved in looting in London, who said that they had their qualifications and still didn’t have jobs. It seems that both Boris Johnson and I agree on one thing: developing literacy skills is the best tool we have in our belt against the kind of civil unrest we have seen this month. What Boris doesn’t understand is that is not just reading that creates citizens who can engage in society; it is being able to explain what they have read and how that relates to their own experiences. It is the ability to formulate complex sentences in speech and writing. Explicitly teaching the skills of speaking and listening is just as important as delivering front line reading recovery.
In all of this, it can be argued that there is a direct link between the lack of ability to articulate oneself and the perceived lack of opportunity in society. People don’t give jobs to those who can’t construct a sentence, verbally or in writing. People who can express themselves clearly and with reason are listened to, those who shout or stumble over their words, often not – it is a harsh reality, but we would be naive to ignore this uncomfortable truth. If you aren’t confident enough in your own ability to explain your qualifications and skills in an interview, or to interact with colleagues, or to present in public, what are the chances that you are going to try and find a job in the first place?
Over and over again, recently, I have heard the rioter’s refrain: “We’re not being listened to!” and while I imagine that is true, the matter of whether you are listened to or not involves deep-seated ideas about language and speech.
Whether we like it or not, people are judged on their ability to speak and listen effectively, especially in a public forum. The training for a life of being listened to begins in our classrooms. This year, the exam board introduced a spoken language study as part of the English Language GCSE course – and watching students confront their own language idiosyncrasies was fascinating. They understood the superfluous nature of sentence fillers and how that makes you sound unsure, or hesitant in certain situations. They also understood that using conventional – and by that I mean, socially acceptable – language ensures that you can be part of a wider society. Speaking in a highly localised dialect means that you choose to alienate some listeners, who may not understand certain words or phrases used by teenagers speaking what they call ‘Hackney’.
What does this mean for speaking and listening in schools? Unfortunately, the concept is often only dealt with by English Departments, who by the very nature of the curriculum develop those skills – sometimes inadvertently. Then they remember two months before the exam that speaking and listening coursework needs to be completed and artificial scenarios are used to tick that exam board box. The issue becomes speculative because there are very few schools in which there is a real and relentless focus on developing children’s abilities to speak and listen in all contexts, in all subjects and in all situations. What if the expectation was that Science, Maths and IT teachers also taught speaking and listening skills? What if we all said that we wanted more than four words in response to a question? What if we asked better questions that meant that students had to develop responses?
For my students, so much of their confidence is related to whether they feel they can make themselves heard and express what they mean. Inevitably, so many behaviour issues stem from those students’ lack of verbal skills. Schools need to begin questioning themselves as to whether they have a policy on the development of oracy and how it relates to every subject taught. Children are asking to be listened to; let’s give them the skills they need to make themselves heard.