Teaching students how to talk

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Schools can make great strides in tackling underachievement by improving students’ spoken language skills across the curriculum. Jean Gross, the former government Communication Champion for children, reports on some of the great practice she has seen.

We don’t need communication skills in my lessons,” said one maths teacher to me during my time as Communication Champion. I think he was missing a trick, when research consistently shows that activities which develop spoken language skills make a significant contribution to attainment. 

They also make a huge difference to employability; 47 per cent of employers report that they cannot get recruits with the oral language ability they need in an age when high-level business jobs require teamwork and presentation skills, and where today’s 16-year-old school-leaver is much less likely to go to work in a shipyard or factory than a shop, coffee bar or call centre – all of which require good communication skills.

The new professional standards for all teachers reflect this by requiring that they are able to promote pupils’ “articulacy”. Similarly, the proposed new national curriculum demands that “teachers should develop pupils’ spoken language, reading and writing as integral aspects of the teaching of every subject”.

What works in teaching talking?

One great idea that works in any subject is to extend the types of questions we ask children, so as to get them to use language for a wider range of purposes – to justify their ideas, persuade others, evaluate, compare, give feedback and ask their own questions. There are some ideas on teacher questions that prompt this wider repertoire in the chart below, and more in my book Time to Talk (Routledge, 2013).

“Talk frames” on cards can be used to help students structure their responses. These provide children with a scaffold of sentence starter or structure appropriate to the particular language purpose – “The evidence/facts lead us to the conclusion that…” or “Taking everything in to account, it looks as if…” for deduction, for example. 

Teaching vocabulary

Another great idea is to have a consistent way of teaching vocabulary across all subject areas. Research shows that teachers typically introduce a new word and explain it just once – whereas children actually need to hear a word around six times in a range of contexts, if they are to remember it. 

Some children need even more support. Using the metaphor of a football net, if you have a good net of words, you can easily catch all the new words you will learn, just by hearing them.

If you have lots of holes in your net, like many children in disadvantaged areas, you will not be able to pick up the vocabulary from a brief exposure. It will have to be taught more systematically.

Teachers can do this by helping students build a rich set of links in the brain, based on what the new word sounds like, its meaning, the words it goes with and links to the child’s own experience. 

They can use a series of whiteboard slides that ask the class to build a shared mind-map for the word, contributing answers to questions like: What sound does the word begin/end with? How many syllables? What category does it belong to? Where would you find it? What would you do with it? What other words does it make you think of? How is it similar to and different from related words – like the difference between benevolent and generous, for example? 

It is important not just to do this for subject-specific technical vocabulary, but for ordinary words that children may well not fully understand. 

So, in the text “He was a wool merchant, and his business required that he travelled often”, a history or English teacher might well teach the word merchant, but might also need to focus on “required”. Words often used in exams, such as “discuss”, “outline”, “compare” or “prioritise” are especially important to teach across the curriculum.

Teaching children to work in groups

Put children to work in groups and what often happens is that they argue, cut across each other, meander, dominate, split off into pairs to chat, or simply give up. Not too different from the average staff meeting, really! 

Even as adults, few of us are skilled in the difficult business of how to use talk collaboratively to achieve a goal. Yet if we can develop these skills in pupils, we can raise standards. 

A scheme called “Thinking together” (see further information), for example, which explicitly develops the ability to hold a reasoned discussion, has been rigorously evaluated by Cambridge University using experimental and control groups. The researchers found a marked impact on attainment in science and maths (the subjects in which it was implemented), and in non-verbal-reasoning. 

Teaching listening skills

Actively teaching listening skills is another area where I saw great practice. Most pupils, if asked, say that being a good listener means sitting still and taking in what teachers are telling them. 

Most teachers, too, tend to assume that listening is a passive process and children automatically know how to listen. One of the most interesting things I learned in my role was that both of these are myths. Listening is an active skill, and one that can be taught. Students can be taught specific listening strategies:

  • Repeating an instruction to yourself – silent rehearsal.

  • Identifying the key words in an instruction.

  • Drawing mind-maps to link ideas and words together.

  • Saying if you did not understand.

I was struck by how important this last point – saying if you don’t understand – is for learning, and saw many examples of teachers who took pains to create an “asking” environment where children felt comfortable to ask for repetition or explanation.

They did this by praising children who asked for clarification, giving children practice in deciding whether instructions or requests made sense, and modelling “asking” language.

Help is at hand

There are an increasing number of programmes to support the development of students’ communication skills. Secondary Language Link, for example, is an interesting new online scheme that can be used to screen an entire year group to identify those who need extra help with language comprehension and provide video-based and interactive intervention. 

ICAN’s Secondary Talk allows departments or individuals to choose a focus, then undertake a short self-study module (like “Tweaking teacher talk”, or “Making homework more effective”), before making and reviewing small changes to their classroom practice – as at Preston Manor High School (see case study, below).

The programme is a coaching and mentoring model, rather than training, and that is what makes it effective, according to an external evaluation by the University of Sheffield. The majority of school staff taking part were independently observed to make positive changes to their classroom practice by using more appropriate teacher talk, and actively helping pupils learn new vocabulary. They reported major improvements in learning and behaviour as a result.

BT is another source of great resources – all free – like the online Talk Gym self-assessment resources for students to access via Facebook, and All Talk, a complete communication course which simultaneously supports the study of spoken language for GCSE English language and the development of pupils’ own speaking and listening skills.

So help is at hand. Maybe it is time to seize the moment, recognise the vital contribution that spoken language makes to learning, and try out some of these approaches in school? 

Case study: Preston Manor High School

Preston Manor in north London is an award-winning school, recognised for its work on developing students’ communication skills. It has worked with the charity ICAN on its Secondary Talk programme. 

One initiative has been to introduce whole-class Talk Targets in English lessons, such as “challenging other people’s opinions gently without starting an argument” or “knowing when not to add anything else to the conversation”.

At the end of the lesson, pupils discuss whether they have met the target, and where they still need to improve. 

The school has also put in place speaking and listening lessons for all year 7 and 8 students within their English studies, and devised new citizenship lessons for year 7 on the unwritten rules of communication, constructive criticism, and negotiation and compromise. 

Small group interventions have been developed for expressive language strategies, vocabulary enrichment and social skills. The school has a targeted groups working party and a booklet for staff that communicates what groups are available for students.

  • Jean Gross CBE is an educationalist who has expertise in improving the learning, attainment and wellbeing of disadvantaged children and those with SEN. She was until recently the government’s Communication Champion for children and before this headed a charity responsible for the successful Every Child a Reader and Every Child Counts one-to-one tuition programmes. Her book Time to Talk: Implementing outstanding practice in speech, language and communication is out now.

Further information


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