Can teaching speaking and listening change behaviour in secondary classes?
Posted by Sally Melvin
Speaking and listening is one of those things that comes naturally to us all isn’t it? Perhaps that’s true but for me the important questions are how well do we do it and can we learn to use it more effectively? My answers to those questions would be ‘not very well’ and ‘yes we can.’ For many years education experts have been championing the importance of ‘talk’ in the classroom. Robin Alexander and Neil Mercer for example have spent considerable years researching the impact of dialogic talk on children’s learning. A recent conference in the US has provided evidence that effective classroom talk raises student attainment. The latest Ofsted framework calls for evidence of discussion and enquiry in all curriculum subjects. The DfE’s new Teachers’ Standards require all teachers to promote articulacy in their subject areas.
So why is there so little talk going on in secondary classrooms? Perhaps it’s the pressure of achieving exam grades; the sheer weight of information that needs to be imparted; the extra planning required to organise effective talk activities; the fear that students will use talk time to ‘mess around’; teachers’ lack of confidence to teach the skills needed to enable meaningful talk. These are all good reasons. However, I believe we need to persuade schools to invest time and effort into teaching young people to speak and listen better. The effect this can have on student’s confidence and attitudes towards their learning is evident in our interviews with the students from Brighton. Below they reflect on their changes in attitude and how this has impacted on their behaviour in the classroom:
“I’ve enjoyed stuff in class the most. We could all speak, and we all knew when to speak whereas we’d all shout out normally. Before I just found it (English) really boring and didn’t get along with Miss, but now I do.”
“My confidence has really grown, I’m not afraid to speak or put my hand up in class…I don’t know how but I’m just really happy that I can do this. Normally I would just hide when teachers ask someone to read or give answers. Now I’m like Miss, pick me pick me!”
“I’ve got more confidence and I’ve started to work better with people. I learnt to listen to others and not just take control. We now take it in turns and I’ve got on a lot better with other people. Before we did the project when everyone would put their hands up I used to ‘snap’ and just shout out. Since we’ve done the project I wait for Miss to finish talking.”
“I join in with group sessions. I never really used to like talk much but now I’ve started taking the lead and talking.”
“Now I’m not afraid to get an answer wrong and I just keep trying.”
“I think it’s helped our school. We get on better in English. When we’re working with Miss we knuckle down and get on with our work – we get on better.”
Words for Work offers an innovative way for schools and businesses to join forces and address the nation’s employability through partnering schools and local business volunteers. It also opens the door to enabling effective talk in the classroom through teaching speaking and listening skills and provides a structured framework for young people to use. The benefits of these students actively learning how to work together, listening to each other and feeling positive about their contributions is extensive and significant. So how can schools spread this good practice across all subjects and into all secondary classrooms?
At the National Literacy Trust we are working to address this issue and find ways of supporting schools to implement good speaking and listening practice across the curriculum. A speaking and listening audit, which provides a starting point for assessing current practice and areas for development, is available for schools who are members of our network. As a follow on schools can buy our Speaking and Listening Strategy workshop designed to help senior leaders to create a whole school improvement plan for speaking and listening. We are holding a conference in March 2013, ‘Communication, Empowerment and Impact’ bringing together leaders from Education, Ofsted and Business. It will look at why speaking and listening is so important and offer practical ideas for implementing talk in secondary classrooms. Find out more.
Our findings have shown that when young people are empowered with better speaking and listening skills their behaviour in class is more positive and their achievements increase. In my opinion these are compelling arguments for schools to work at embedding effective talk in all secondary subjects. This won’t necessarily be an easy process but surely it’s worth the effort for the reward it offers?
 ‘Socializing Intelligence Through Academic Talk and Dialogue’, AERA research conference, 2011
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