Word Up

“If men do not keep on speaking terms with children, they cease to be men,
and become merely machines for eating and for earning money.”
John Updike

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to go to the House of Lords, for the launch of the Oracy Network, a group working to promote the development of speaking and listening skills in children and young people. The event also marked the launch of two publications on oracy: The State of Speaking in our Schools, written by Will Millard and Loic Menzies from LKMCo and Speaking Frankly, a series of essays on the subject. We were treated to an entertaining speech from Paul Boateng that made us laugh, and a speech by a student from School 21 about refugees that made me cry. And, perhaps best of all, I got to chat to some Year 4 children, who had me spellbound with tales of a chocolate bar project they did in Year 3, inspired by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Listening to children talk about their take on the world is a great way to remind yourself what education is actually about. Give children something that they’re interested in to talk about, and someone who is interested in what they’re saying to listen to them, and you can go an awfully long way.

“Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.”
Maggie Smith

It’s tempting to think of ‘oracy’ as being about public speaking and debating, using formal, Standard English – the oracy of politics, reason, rationality (the kind of speaking that gets you a job as a lawyer or a politician when you’re older). But actually this is only a tiny part of how we use speech, language and communication in our day-to-day lives. The speech that made me cry at the launch on Tuesday didn’t make me cry because of the facts or the vocabulary that the speaker included, it made me cry because she touched my heart. Children need to learn to express themselves through talk, not because it is a way to help them earn more money or have more power when they’re older (even if it is), but because speaking is how we form and maintain relationships – it is how we express ourselves. In his blog about the LKMco report on oracy, Michael Fordham says that “fluency is, at least in part, a consequence of having deep, domain-specific knowledge”. The “knowledge narrative” suggests that, in order to be able to speak (or read, or write) fluently, children need lots of information to speak about, and lots of vocabulary to speak with.

“I should not talk so much about myself
if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.”

Henry David Thoreau

If you listen to children talk together, especially young children, you might notice that they have an openness to their world. Their talk is about exploring, and negotiating, and questioning, and feeling – they learn what they think about life by hearing themselves talk about it. This is why I’m a fan of approaches like Philosophy for Children. Not because of how many months progress a trial might say it adds to their SATs scores, but because it helps them build and shape their own ideas and decide what they personally think about a subject. And if you want to find the one subject that children can always talk about, the one where they have “deep knowledge” even when they are tiny, then just ask them about themselves. Their opinions, their views, their ideas, their emotions, their ‘take’ on how they see the world. I have heard it said that it is hard to see learning, but actually learning is quite easy to see if you ask children to talk about what is in their minds. When we listen to what children say, it lets us in on the secret of what they are actually thinking.

“As a matter of fact, have you never noticed that most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of a witness?”
Margaret Millar

In early year settings, speaking and listening (and its buddy, non verbal communication) are the mediums in which practitioners and children work. Pretty much all the learning that goes on has talk at the heart of it. It is thrilling to see the development of language at this age – from the reticent speech of a two year old who has just started at our setting, to the much more fluent talk of a four year old who is just about to leave us and set off on the journey that is schooling. One of the things that we have to be really careful about is that we don’t spend the whole time talking over our children. If we jump in quickly to guide their play, they don’t get to develop their imaginative thinking. If we don’t tune in properly to what they are saying, we can’t tell what they are actually thinking. We might make all kinds of assumptions about their understanding that don’t hold water, if we talk too much and listen too little. As children get older, you can check their thinking by giving them a test or asking them to write about what they learned. But when you work with kids who can’t yet read or write this is not an option. The chapter that I wrote for Speaking Frankly was on a technique used in the early years, called “sustained shared thinking”. I describe it as the “polar opposite of direct instruction in a teacher-led classroom”. Rather than sitting the child down in a seat and passing on knowledge, you help the child build understanding by having a conversation. It is dialogue, at work, to create learning.

“Free speech means the right to shout ‘theatre’ in a crowded fire.”
Abbie Hoffman

Sometimes oracy is presented mainly as something that children simply must learn to do properly in class, because they do it so very badly outside of it. This idea is often placed alongside a ‘closing the gap’ narrative, where the way to get some families to have as much money as others is to get them to ‘speak properly’. The drive is then on to teach children how to use formal language and correct grammar to let them ‘code switch’ as the situation requires. Obviously it’s helpful for children to learn how to do this, but this approach does tend to sideline any kind of talk that doesn’t fit into the standardised box. The logical end point of presenting talk as something you either do properly or not properly, is that you end up trying to control as much of the children’s talk as you possibly can. From a teaching perspective, one of the ‘problems’ with talk is that it is harder to control at a whole class level than reading, writing or listening. In a class where children are having discussions in groups, it is impossible for the teacher to monitor everything that is going on. Group work gets characterised as the enemy – as a format in which children will immediately go ‘off task’ and start to talk about what they are doing at the weekend. But without some kind of group work, oracy is basically impossible to achieve.

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.
If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
Albert Einstein

Oracy (and oratory) is not restricted to the factual, it is of course very much about the fictional as well (as we have seen from some of the political speeches of 2016). Speaking and listening is, perhaps, more about the unreal than the real. Nursery rhymes and songs, poetry, popular music, drama, plays and stories read out loud – all of these give us reason to lift up our voices and want to be heard. When something touches us deeply, we say that we are “lost for words” – it is the drive to express the inexpressible which is at the heart of all artistic endeavour. All day long, since I heard the news of Leonard Cohen’s death, I’ve had the words of the song Hallelujah stuck in my mind. If you read his songs, most of them don’t seem to make an awful lot of sense, at least not in the rational, factual meaning of the word. And yet, at the same time, they make all the sense in the world. This, then, is the true power of speech, and its vital counterpart, silence. The way it touches our emotions. The way it allows us to speak in our own voices. And the way it reaches out and reminds us to shed a tear, in remembrance of those who have passed.

“There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah.”

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This entry was posted in Children, Communication, Early Years, Listening, Speaking, Talk. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Word Up

  1. An enlightening post, sounds like you were exposed to a lot of food for thought at the House of Lords. Very envious! I think today’s teaching in school provides a lot more opportunity for classroom discussion and exchange of ideas, when delivering the curriculum. What I find hard is motivating those children who do not speak up and express themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jill Berry says:

    This post touched my heart, Sue. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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