Mind their language, please

It is not only reading and writing that enable children to learn - they must also be taught how to talk and listen. By Peter Lloyd and Ian Peers
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The Independent Online
WHEN MOST children start school it is assumed that they do not have to be taught how to speak and how to listen. But how true is this? There is increasing anecdotal evidence to the contrary reported from teachers of children arriving at school with very limited communication skills because their parents or carers have not spent time talking to them. On top of this, a recent large-scale study we carried out, of nearly 1,200 English and Italian children's oral communication skills, indicates that the ability to speak and listen effectively develops only slowly after starting school and is a problem for many children throughout the primary school years.

In our study*, only one in 10 children could accurately describe a familiar picture at the age of five and around one in three still couldn't do it when they were 11. The Italian children were better at it than the English**. This may reflect the widening gap between the performance of children educated in Continental Europe and those in the United Kingdom. This has been put down in large part to the type of preparation that is provided in the pre-school years, including a strong emphasis on spoken language, and delaying formal schooling until children are ready for it.

Research over the past 30 years has shown that it is one thing to have acquired the language system, but quite another to use this system effectively.

Take this example. You show a five-year-old a set of disparate objects on a tray and say that you are thinking of one of these objects. The child's job is to find out, by asking, which is the selected object. The youngster will not find this difficult as long as a supportive adult plays the game and responds to the questions.

Now, suppose the objects on the tray are similar, all toy cars. They differ only in size, colour and whether or not they have a driver inside. Assuming the child is not allowed to point, the questions that have to be asked are more demanding. It is not enough to say "Is it a car?" - it is now necessary to discriminate critical features of the array of objects and ask about them. So the question "Is it a big car?" might yield the response "No". The inference must then be that it is a small car.

But can children make this inference, and can they also go on to find out whether the car is red or blue and has or has not a person inside? The answer to these questions is that, as long as the adult is supportive enough, such problems can be solved. But suppose that the adult is not supportive because he or she is too busy? The archetypal context where this is likely to be the case is the school classroom. In a class of 30 children it is impossible to provide the type of verbal support that children are used to in the home, typically a one-to-one situation.

Much language in the classroom is not of the kind that ensues in the home. The discussion does not take place in a familiar context about familiar routines (meals, bathtime, games), but frequently requires an evaluation of what is said.

To be successful in the learning environment, children must ask themselves about what they hear: Did I understand that? Was that clear? Did that make sense? Did that follow from what was said earlier? And if they suspect that there was some ambiguity or inconsistency in what they heard (or that they simply were not attentive at the time), they must be prepared to ask relevant questions to help clear up the comprehension problem. And they should ask similar questions about what they themselves say. Was that clear, consistent, accurate and so on?

Our study used tasks not dissimilar from the tray-with-cars example referred to earlier. We found that, as speakers, children only slowly were able to describe one of a series of familiar pictures sufficiently accurately so that another could identify the target.

The picture for listener skill was very similar, but it was not a listening problem in itself. The real difficulty was in detecting problems in what was heard; in recognising that a message was inadequate in some way. When it was understood that not enough information had been provided, it was then necessary to be able to ask the sort of questions that would resolve the ambiguity.

For many children, this skill was still insecure in the later years of primary school. Children are expected to be efficient in spoken language and they are also expected to listen for relatively long periods, for example, in assembly, story-time, and during class instructions. On these occasions, they are not always encouraged to engage in dialogue when they do not understand. Ambiguity in teacher-talk can easily lead to comprehension difficulties and, unlike reading material, text of a verbal instruction is not available for re-inspection. Children with only partial competency in speaking and listening are likely to have difficulty in comprehending verbal information presented at the level and pace of much classroom discourse.

This is no doubt why oracy is recognised in the national curriculum. Speaking and listening is given a place at all the key stages. Nevertheless, there appears to be a widespread belief in many classrooms that verbal communication skills will automatically develop as long as speaking and listening are a part of the daily fare of children.

In the main, therefore, there is no assessment of speaking and listening in the way that there is assessment of reading, writing and mathematics. We suggest that this is necessary, and the standardised test that is being developed from our research offers one approach to assessment***. It is also possible to offer remedial treatment to children who are particularly slow to acquire these skills. Our study showed that children from less advantaged social backgrounds were significantly poorer as both speakers and listeners.

We are developing intervention procedures of two kinds. One is directed at children and aims to encourage reflection on language; the other approach is to look at the principle source of oral information in the classroom - the teachers.

It would be neither possible nor desirable to eradicate all problematic verbal communication on the part of teachers. Communication failures are simply a part of life. The important thing is to know how to recognise and resolve them.

Research has shown that if children are consistently picked up when they say something that is unclear - I don't know what you mean; I didn't understand that, can you say it again? - the impact on their speaking and listening skills is profound. Teachers can also model good examples of clear speech, and demonstrate ways in which problematic discourse can be unpacked and remedied.

It is important, therefore, not to neglect the role played by speaking and listening, since the ability to handle verbal information is a vital feature of educational success.

We should not delay in giving a much more prominent role to the fourth R - oracy - in the school curriculum, as well as bringing it to the attention of parents who have such an important role to play.

Peter Lloyd is senior lecturer in Developmental Psychology, Department of Psychology, Manchester University; Ian Peers is lecturer in Language Development, Department of Human Communication Sciences, Sheffield University

*Lloyd, P, Mann, S, and Peers, I. The growth of speaker and listener skills from five to 11 years. `First Language', 1998.

**Camaioni, L, Ercolani, AP, and Lloyd, P. Learning to talk and learning to process verbal information are not the same thing: The growth of referential communication in the elementary school years. `Current Psychology of Cognition', 1998.

***Lloyd, P, and Peers, I. `The Language Test'. To be published by The Psychological Corporation, London, UK