Silence is deadly

Teachers should spend less time telling children to be quiet and more encouraging them to speak.

Today's quest to embrace modern technology in schools means that our education system places more emphasis than ever on the written rather than the spoken word. It's good to talk? The message seems to be that it's much better to tap away at a keyboard.

Increasingly, youngsters lack the confidence to speak openly. When they do talk, it is hesitant and without assurance. The child who struggles with writing invariably receives assistance, but not so the child who finds it difficult to speak fluently, or who says little in class.

Written skills may be the key to success in examinations but there is increasing evidence that it is oral abilities and interpersonal skills which bring advancement in the workplace. Schools that do not empower their children vocally are doing them a serious disservice.

English GCSE now contains a small component of oral assessment, but often this consists of judging pupils on their existing oral abilities, rather than nurturing their vocal talents through practice and tuition.

Perhaps this isn't surprising. Every year hundreds of teachers experience problems with their own voices, many having to take time off work because of sore throats or damaged vocal cords. Few teachers understand how the voice works. They have never been taught the essentials of the vocal mechanism - the importance of breath, posture and relaxation.

It is difficult, then, for them to identify vocal problems in their pupils. Too often the assumption is made that if a child is quiet that is because it is by nature a quiet child. But nature doesn't work like that. All babies and toddlers make noise, plenty of it, and love to communicate. Somewhere along the way this instinct must have been stifled.

When the breath and muscles that produce the voice are working freely our thoughts are effortlessly translated into sound. Such spontaneity, however, is not always desirable. People who say whatever comes into their head are deemed rude, especially if the are children. Often a child's desire to make noise is inhibited by commands to "be quiet" or "shut up". Peer-pressure and teasing can also make children self-conscious about the way they speak. Any of these factors inhibits the instinct to vocalise freely.

Inhibition becomes a habit and the very mechanism of speech grows rusty. Before long a child can reach the stage where thoughts are rarely translated into speech. The less the speech muscles are used, the less they respond instinctively, or effectively. Freeing the voice often liberates the personality behind the voice. For many children, a simple programme of vocal exercises can unleash personality and potential. It is amazing how the "quiet" child can become vibrant and expressive once the voice is released.

Unfortunately, the classroom often reinforces vocal repression. Teachers spend more time telling children to be quiet than encouraging them to speak. Pupils who do speak often push themselves forward competitively at the expense of others, while a "hands-up" situation stifles spontaneity.

The answer must be more "old-fashioned" oral activities such as reciting, debating, reading aloud and regular oral assessment of work. Above all, we should offer genuine help to those who lack vocal confidence.

It is good that old notions of elocution have largely been abandoned and that regional accents are no longer steamrollered into featureless Received Pronunciation. Perhaps the time has come to look at a new form of elocution, based not on social snobbery but on freedom of expression. Children could explore the way their voices work and learn what a wonderful tool the voice can be.

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