The Essential Speaking and Listening
Talk for Learning at Key Stage 2
By Lyn Dawes
David Fulton Publishers – 2008 – 154 pages
David Fulton Publishers – 2008 – 154 pages
Talk is the medium through which children learn; and yet children may not realise why their contributions to classroom talk are so important. This book provides teachers with resources for developing children's understanding of speaking and listening, and their skills in using talk for learning.
The Essential Speaking and Listening will:
The inclusive and accessible activities are designed to increase children's engagement and motivation and help raise their achievement. Children will be guided to make the links between speaking, listening, thinking and learning and through the activities they will also be learning important skills for future life.
Teachers, education students and teacher educators will find a tried-and-tested approach that makes a difference to children's understanding of talk and how to use it to learn.
Education Consultant, former English subject adviser at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority
In principle, the rationale is sound: to help teachers understand and manage whole class discussion. The realization of this aim – on the basis of the material for review – seems less successful. I can find very little address of the whole class dynamic, in the mode of dialogic teaching, in the lessons outlined for Chapter 1, where a series of pair and larger group activities are described. Crucially missing is an appraisal of the role of the teacher in using whole class work in ways distinct from ‘ordinary’ effective teaching strategies against a background of devoting more space to exploratory work around the use of spoken language. It is questionable if this proposed book offers an advance on Mercer et al (2002), Thinking Together: Activities for Key Stage 2 children and teachers, despite the claims made that it switches attention from group to whole-class talk.
(b) Do you think teaching children to speak and listen will help their thinking and learning?
Yes. There is ample evidence to support the view that developing children’s speaking and listening with help their thinking and learning. A recent large-scale study of pre-school children’s language experiences conducted by the London Institute of Education (Blatchford et al), confirmed that later school achievement was closely linked with the amount of active engagement children had with the vocabulary and concepts of spoken language by the age of 3. Other work in Australia carried out by researchers at Macquarie University in NSW in the 90’s (Hasan and Cloran et al; Williams et al), also showed a significant qualitative difference in attainment in literacy depending on the quality and range of verbal interactions children engaged with in their homes with adult carers. The essential point of these and similar studies is that what matters is not just talking to children, but talking with them as active conversational partners.
Definitely: the close tie-up between the requirements of the statutory curriculum and the PNS guidance makes expectations about teaching far more explicit than previously.
The renewed PNS framework has adopted the same strands as the English national curriculum, placing Speaking and Listening as the first programme of study. Speaking and listening in the new PNS framework is likewise organised around the 4 main strands of the English national curriculum and the learning objectives for each year group are very little changed from those published in the QCA/DfES materials: Speaking, Listening, Learning: Working with children in Key Stages 1 and 2. London: HMSO.
It is notable that the author of the proposed book makes cross references to some of the teaching objectives in these materials, but without explanation of why the selection is made, or whether there is any progression implied in making the links. Only passing reference seems to be made to the new framework which has been available in draft form for nearly a year. These are shortcomings for a book aimed at a primary teachers. An expectation, especially for an apparently experienced author in the field, would be a demonstrable acquaintance with the ‘official’ materials already available to schools. I note in addition that the author has a rather outdated idea of how primary classrooms are structured: it is not at all common for 6 lessons a day to follow the 3-part structure first introduced by the strategies in the 90’s.
Teachers do need help in teaching talk - and also in teaching about it and through it. There may be a market for some aspects of this book, but it will be one of many other forms of support and guidance on talk coming out for teachers over the next year or two. Government agencies such as the PNS and QCA are actively working on classroom materials to run alongside the new framework. These will include teaching sequences additional to those already published as part of Speaking, Listening, Learning (referred to above) with the new feature of linking to ongoing teacher assessment.
4. Do you know what a ‘dialogic’ teaching style is? Does this book help you understand this term? Would you want this term to be used in the book? If not, why not?
My knowledge of ‘dialogic’ teaching style stems from acquaintance with the work of Robin Alexander (2004) Towards Dialogic Teaching: rethinking classroom talk.
The concept is a useful and challenging one: it presupposes a fundamental shift in teaching style, and in pupil-teacher relationships, stemming from the practice of giving a single child the role of spokesperson for many as he/she engages in an extended conversation (‘dialogue’) with the teacher. The idea has a place in a book about speaking and listening designed to move practice on. However, the proposed book offers a more limited account of the term than found in Alexander’s research, and comes to rest on more general notions of talk and assertions about its value: ‘Dialogue is talk in which everyone’s ideas are openly shared, and discussed respectfully. Dialogue has a real impact on learning; such talk helps children to articulate their own ideas, hear new ideas, and so move on in their thinking’. The definition of ‘dialogic teaching’ is similarly informal: ‘Dialogic teaching means using talk most effectively for carrying out teaching and learning. Through dialogue, teachers can find out what children think, engage with their developing ideas and help them to overcome misunderstandings. When children are given opportunities to contribute to classroom dialogue in extended and varied ways, they can explore the limits of their own understanding. At the same time they can practice new ways of using language as a tool for constructing knowledge’.
This is all true as far as it goes, but does not seem to me to warrant the term ‘dialogic’ in the sense used by Alexander. The emphasis seems to fall more on what the teacher does than on seeking to expand ideas about what teacher and pupils need to do together to make effective dialogue. For example, the author offers an account of teacher’s role that does not appear different from everyday expectations of most teachers when she suggests that ‘by engaging children in dialogue, teachers can:
Accessible style, appropriate for a ‘tips for teachers’ type of book. Not able to engage with deeper issues. For example, there is a cursory and rather patronizing mention under ‘language-disadvantaged children’ of children not speaking English as a home language. This strikes a discordant note and does not play well against current inclusive practices around different modes of communication, and appears to take little account of the cognitive advantages frequently demonstrated by multilingual speakers.
5. What do you think of the book’s contents (the chapters)? Are the topics meaningful? Is their order sensible?
Not easy to generalise from the one sample chapter. On balance, my view is that content is light and not enough for a book.
6. Please read the sample chapter included (this will be chapter 1 in the book). Are the concepts explained well? What do you think of the sessions? Is the activity set out well? Would you be able to follow one of the sessions in a classroom?
The suggestions for doing things with talk in the classroom are all plausible and potentially fun. Beginning with a resume of children’s perceptions about talk is an engaging opening, followed by an explanation of how a teacher might use the same approach to get started. The main strength here is in making talk visible as a tool for representing thoughts and feelings. As a concept this comes across clearly, although no mention is made of what type of language children will actually use in the process of the work.
The sessions are described clearly and in a practical way, in each case linked with simple resources or to children’s own experiences. In addition to the lack of specificity about the language likely to be used, a weakness of the approach is the lack of connection to what else might be planned in the curriculum or any hint as to what year groups these activities are best suited to. There are no suggestions about how long any of these activities might take or what might come after having done them in any given year group (progression?). Hence they appear more as a set of bright ideas for things to do, offered in a free-floating way that does not chime with the way most primary classrooms are organized.
7. Are you aware of other books on the market that focus on dialogic teaching?
Robin Alexander’s original international research published as a book, and subsequent articles written by him. Within Speaking, Listening and Learning there is a strand of work devoted to developing dialogic uses of language from Y1 to Y6. Also, there is a DVD entitled ‘Opening up Talk’ (QCA 2005), which demonstrates dialogic talk in the context of classroom teaching in KS2.
As noted above, there are useful ideas about getting talk going in the classroom, which if not particularly novel, are practically based and clearly explained. There is an absence of wider curriculum reference and little detailed attention to the nature of the language needed in carrying out the proposed activities. The suggestions may be found helpful in some classrooms.
For a proposed book on speaking and listening, there is surprisingly little attention to language. This weakens the central claim made by the author about filling a gap in the market: there are many ‘tips for teachers’ about talk in the classroom but very few which engage in detail with the nature of the language needed for talk to be a strong and progressive part of learning in all areas of the curriculum. There is similarly little explicit attention to the changing role of the teacher in effective whole-class work in the sample materials provided. On balance, the positive features appear to be more along the lines of ‘things to do’ in the short term, rather than offering a serious challenge to alleged shortcomings in current practice.
Teacher, Lingwood First School, Norfolk
1. It is true that although there has been much interest and development in developing children’s abilities to communicate more effectively in a range of functional talk forms, there is little recognition of the importance of talk for learning and how many children may need substantial support to participate more fully in classroom learning dialogues and hence further their own learning and that of their peers. The author’s rationale is supported by substantial learning theory that points to how dialogue between a child and a more skilled person, in the form of the teacher, has the powerful potential to extend their pupils learning. What the author is attempting to provide are practical suggestions about how teachers can scaffold and extend children’s participation in these learning dialogues. Accordingly, I would certainly agree with the author’s rationale.
2. The new literacy framework has certainly raised the profile of speaking and listening by its explicit inclusion in the actual framework itself rather than its former appendage in separate documents of speaking and listening guidance.
3. I think there is certainly a market for a well-written book that addresses the need to build up teacher’s understanding of how important it is to actively teach the skills that enable children to participate productively in classroom discussions. At the present time there seems to a flood of ‘bright ideas’ books for teachers that give suggestions for activities but do not provide any theoretical background for these ideas or show the importance of modelling and making explicit how children should talk together in learning conversations. I think teachers would appreciate some kind of theoretical ‘meat’ that would be the basis for in-school staff discussions as well as some well-thought-out material that could be adapted to meet the needs of ongoing curriculum work.
4. In the course of my own research I do know what a ‘dialogic’ teaching style is in terms of reading Robin Alexander’s work, but I pretty sure most of my teaching colleagues do not. I think it is appropriate to talk about dialogic teaching but I think the author’s definition is sparse and would benefit from some more description of what dialogic teaching actually looks like. Robin Alexander’s booklet (in her references) is actually clear to read and it might be useful if she used some of his examples to convey what is special about this form of teaching e.g. its interactive focus with much modelling.
5. The author’s style is clear and generally accessible and I feel that most class teachers or trainee teacher would understand its main message. It does have rather a prescriptive tone that experienced teachers might find a bit restrictive e.g. the lesson plans are a bit script-like and don’t leave much scope for individual teacher interpretation. I do think teachers can respond to a bit of theory and the idea of ‘theoretical boxes’ are a good idea.
Introduction 1. Class Talk Skills 2. Talking Points 3. Listening 4. Dialogic Teaching 5. Group Work 6. Speaking 7. Assessment 8. Summary: The Educated Child
Lyn Dawes is Senior Lecturer in Education at Northampton University, a visiting lecturer at Cambridge University and an experienced teacher. Her work on speaking and listening has been included in guidance for teachers by the National Strategies.