Speaking & Listening and the Subordination of Knowledge

I use to be jealous of Maths teachers. Not for the range of stationery they have at their disposable, nor their titanic powers of organisation. No – I was jealous of their curriculum. I was envious of how there seemed to be a discrete number of topics which could easily be organised and worked through logically, whereas in English we were only ever really doing three skills: reading, writing, and speaking & listening. Finding ways to keep teaching these three core skills, selecting the right topics, planning for progression etc. seemed so much more difficult in comparison to the lucky Maths teachers.

My point of view has changed somewhat over the past year. I don’t know much more about the Maths curriculum, which I’ve surely over-simplified or mis-represented (sorry!), but I do think differently about English. Most importantly for me, I think that teaching the three skills I mentioned above cannot and should not be separated from a bank of knowledge. For instance, when I teach my year 7 class Greek Myths, we may at times make comparisons, analyse characters and themes, perhaps even learn and decode new words. But, crucially, we are learning about Greek Myths and the reading skills we practiced were necessarily tied to this.  I now believe that the idea of teaching reading, writing, or speaking and listening as isolated skills, with only shallow links to contexts, is mistaken.

What caused me to consider how my opinion has changed over the past couple of years was a CPD twilight session I attended recently. Attending this session were a number of English teachers from a range of schools, and the beginning of the session provided a forum for us to share how we were developing speaking and listening in our schools. Here are the ideas which were shared. I wrote them in my notebook at the time, and whilst the wording may not be totally accurate, I think it’s a pretty faithful account of the ideas:

  • A speech based around the theme of ‘save my pet’. (I don’t know why the pets were in danger!)
  • A Jeremy Kyle style role play based around the theme of ‘holidays from hell’.
  • A project where students design their own superhero and present back their ideas.
  • Charity leaflet design and accompanying presentation.
  • A presentation on the theme of how teenagers are presented in the media.

I know several of the teachers at this event and have a lot of respect for them. So, with great trepidation and hopefully a good deal of politeness, I’m going to try to explain why these projects might not be the best use of an English teacher’s time, and how I think we might be better off teaching speaking and listening.

Firstly, the majority of these activities or projects seem to stem from the idea that the context for speaking and listening tasks should be something the students are already familiar with or know something about. I know that there are often students in a class who are reluctant to talk, and providing a familiar or fun context might help their confidence. For me though, I see part of my role as exposing students to unfamiliar topics and expanding their subject knowledge. I also believe that when students are comfortable with this new knowledge, they will be just as confident at speaking about it as with something immediately familiar.

I also think these choices of activities stem from a position broadly similar to the one I described in my opening paragraph – that speaking is a transferable skill, and good speakers can easily transfer this skill between topics. Perhaps this helps explain the choice of familiar topics listed above. If I expect students to easily transfer their speaking skill to a Jeremy Kyle style context, which they are already (presumably) familiar with, I don’t have to spend time teaching Jeremy Kyle, we can just get straight on with the project. But if this is the case, am I really teaching them anything new? And what about those students who have never heard of Jeremy Kyle? If teachers focus on what they feel are familiar contexts to students, negating the need for much teacher input, then the students who are not familiar with this context can easily feel lost.

Now even if we presume that speaking is a skill easily transferable between these contexts, I still think there is a danger in these choices. Students will most likely learn what they think most carefully about. So, if we complete the ‘save my pet’ project we are directing students to think about pets and they will probably learn and remember stuff about pets, not necessarily how to develop their oracy.

Finally, if we believe that speaking isn’t a simple transferable skill,  then completing any of these projects must include a commitment to ensuring students have a sound knowledge base about the chosen context. Once again, I have to spend valuable curriculum time teaching my students about pets, or Jeremy Kyle, or what might go wrong on a holiday. And here’s the rub: I only have a limited time with my classes, so I don’t want to teach any of these things, because I don’t think they represent the best use of mine, or my student’s time.

I don’t think I can write a blog about speaking and listening without a short comment on its removal from the GCSE assessed content. When I started my teaching career, speaking and listening was 20% of a student’s English Language GCSE, and the majority of students performed just as well in this element as with written exams or controlled assessments. However, the exam boards had little control over how it was regulated. No assessments were recorded or sent away, and there was little guidance on what constituted acceptable tasks. It just didn’t seem particularly valuable for the students, or dare I say it, particularly rigorous. With this in mind, I don’t see how a level playing field could have been guaranteed across all schools nationally.

I was annoyed when it was taken away from the GCSE assessment, but mostly because of the timing and the fact that we were half way  through the course. I know many English teachers disagree with me, but I wouldn’t want the speaking and listening assessments returned unless there were some significant revisions.

Maybe, if speaking and listening is not going to be assessed at GCSE we need to stop thinking of it as an end in itself, but more of a means towards excellent reading and writing and expanding our students’ thinking. Like literacy across the curriculum, high quality speaking and listening doesn’t need to be a bolt-on project. It can occupy pride of place in any lesson, where students practise to articulate themselves creatively, with clarity and precision – where oracy is the first port of call in helping develop complex thoughts. If we take this approach, we don’t need to create engaging projects with familiar contexts for our students to show off their speaking and listening every few months. Instead, high quality speaking and listening become a long-term commitment, tied to a knowledge rich curriculum and embedded deeply into our every day pedagogy.

For my English lessons, I hope to choose new, unfamiliar contexts – great novels, beautiful poems, inspiring rhetoric. And during these topics I expect my students to listen carefully to each other and to me, and I want them to practice how to express themselves, present ideas and debate with others. Not only will this help them develop their speaking and listening, but hopefully help them think more deeply.

3 thoughts on “Speaking & Listening and the Subordination of Knowledge

  1. I really liked this post. Thank you for sharing it.
    Have you seen this:

    I teach history (and history teachers), and I have long been convinced that if knowledge isn’t the central goal and means, one cannot get very far in history. But I am most interested in English teaching too. I’m fascinated to know what, if any, English-specific ‘skills’ you think should go in the top right-hand quadrant of Michael Fordham’s quadrant in that post (subject-specific skills) and what would distinguish those items from the bottom right-hand quadrant (the generic skills). Is there something English-specific that turns what one does with Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening into ‘English’, as opposed to generic /cross-curricular skills? Is there a better curricular language, perhaps, for talking about them, than those four words? A language that ties them more effectively into the top left quadrant?

  2. Pingback: One Year On – Why I Still Blog. | mrbunkeredu

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