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Speaking, Listening and the Curriculum Proposals: A tale of two game shows

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In this article, Tracy Parvin considers the importance of language and the fundamental role it plays in children’s cognitive development. She asks whether the lack of a Programme of Study for Speaking and Listening in the recently presented National Curriculum proposals might herald the return to a more traditional approach to teaching and learning.

children with fingers to lips shushimgWhilst watching the ‘2013 Grand Final of Mastermind’, I was enthralled by one particular contestant who appeared to display a phenomenal knowledge of a specified period of Roman British history. His speed of recall when answering questions was remarkable and one could only admire his apparent understanding of this particular time in our country’s past. Sadly, his knowledge of general facts, did not match that of his area of study. Perhaps, I idly wondered, he was only able to speedily recall information which he had recently studied. This thought raised a further question; did this gentleman simply undertake an exercise in the rote learning of specific facts regarding events, names and dates, or did he actually have an understanding of the cause and effects of such events?

Compare this programme, where individual contestants are fired questions which demand a rapid recall with another, Scrapheap Challenge. Here, teams are encouraged to collaborate, drawing on their combined knowledge and, importantly, understanding of scientific and engineering concepts to design and build items such as catapults, rockets and diving bells from items found on a scrapheap.  In this programme, the teams brainstorm and plan, discuss their ideas, justify their suggestions and evaluate their developing product. What is crucial is that in order for the teams to be successful in their endeavours, these contestants, each bringing their own particular skill and understanding to the project, need to communicate with each other.

As Douglas Barnes (2008) observes, programmes such as Mastermind offer a vision of a traditional education which is dominated by a rapid recall of facts and getting the answer right; we aren’t required to think, simply to know. It might look impressive, but it could be seen as a shallow approach to learning. Barnes’ work of the 1980’s, along with that of his successors, Robin Alexander and Neil Mercer, considers the important role that exploratory talk plays in encouraging children’s thinking skills and how this, supported by the teacher’s interactions, could lead to a deeper level of learning and understanding. Their work focused on approaches which encouraged children to explore, hypothesise, predict, question, interpret and reinterpret. Teaching strategies in which questioning stimulated and extended thinking through discussion were advocated rather than those which ask for the simple recall of facts. These methods are evident in the present National Curriculum, not only in the Programmes of Study for Speaking and Listening, but throughout all of the curriculum subjects.

With the plethora of research which has focused on the important role that oracy plays in children’s cognitive development, along with its inclusion in the present curriculum, it is difficult to understand why Speaking and Listening does not feature in the Programmes of Study of the 2013 National Curriculum proposals. Instead, on page 13, what is being offered is this: Spoken Language. The National Curriculum for English reflects the importance of spoken language in pupils’ development across the whole curriculum – cognitively, socially and linguistically.’ There then follows a short paragraph of worthy words which highlight that teachers should encourage children’s confidence and competence in spoken language; ensuring that they develop the capacity to explain their thinking and also understand the conventions for discussion and debate. The inference, in the opening statement, is that Speaking and Listening will be embedded in the Curriculum and that opportunities for children to explain their thinking permeate throughout. If that is the case, certain words and phrases associated with cognitive development through Speaking and Listening would be evident throughout the document, words such as: hypothesise, predict, explain, express, infer, deduce, discuss, investigate, question, justify, explore, compare, evaluate, and communicate.

However, a brief search yielded the following findings: ‘hypothesise’ and ‘infer’ = 0; ‘investigate’ and ‘predict’ = 5, 4 of these instance are associated with Science investigations and the fifth in Design and Technology and Computing. ‘Question’ is included 14 times, but this is generally associated with punctuation: question marks.  There is little sense of explorations through questioning; rather children are to ask questions to confirm their understanding. ‘Discussions’ are mentioned six times, but here the teacher is in control as these references allude to either whole class, one to one or, as in Key Stage 3, structured discussions. Similarly, even the use of ‘discuss’ appears to insinuate teacher directed discussions. With references to the relatively passive act of ‘listening’ totalling 36, and with ‘knowledge’ featuring 113 times, referring mainly to grammatical knowledge and the acquisition of core knowledge, this could be viewed as a seemingly grim and fact based curriculum; a school version of Mastermind.

Michael Gove’s admiration for the work of Hirsch, his ideologies and the Core Knowledge Curriculum which stems from these, is widely documented and it is probably no surprise that core knowledge is mentioned twice in his Curriculum proposal. Civitas have already developed a Core Knowledge Curriculum for British schools. In this curriculum, Speaking and Listening does have a designated space (for Years 1, 2 and 3 only). There is, however, a subtle difference in as much that the two words have been transposed and what is offered instead is Listening and Speaking. A misleading comment precedes the main Listening and Speaking guidelines; ‘Traditional literacy teaching has typically accorded little, if any, attention to the on-going development of children’s listening and speaking abilities.’  There is no recognition of the research work of Barnes et al. or the attention that has been paid to the development of oral communication. That the ultimate focus is on children listening, rather than speaking, is evident in the following:

“Classroom Discussion

  • Participate in age-appropriate activities for Year 1 involving listening and speaking.
  • Speak clearly with volume appropriate to the setting.
  • Use agreed-upon rules for group discussions. For example: look at and listen to the speaker, raise hand to speak, take turns, say ‘excuse me’ or ‘please,’ etc.
  • Ask questions to clarify conversations, directions, exercises and/or classroom routines”

These are guidelines for classroom etiquette, not guidance to promote children’s thinking and development through discussion.

In both the Core Knowledge Curriculum and the present Curriculum proposals, despite the worthy claims in the aims, there is little evidence of the value of children’s cognitive development through Speaking and Listening. Prominence instead is given to reading and writing and the acquisition of facts. Whilst I am aware that experienced teachers are able to critically analyse and interpret statutory documents in order to create a curriculum which will include Speaking and Listening  opportunities to support children’s cognitive development and progress, this might be hampered when the accountability measures are finally introduced into the mix.

With the current Curriculum proposals aimed at local authority schools and Civitas robustly promoting its Core Knowledge curriculum to free schools and academies, the possibility of the replication of traditional didactic teaching, where children are seen but rarely heard, could be relatively high. As Robin Alexander has stated on the draft national curriculum, these ‘proposals for spoken language are fundamentally misconceived’.

The apparently deft tossing of Speaking and Listening onto the curriculum scrapheap could present teachers with a real challenge. It will therefore be necessary for them to discuss and collaborate in order to construct a coherent dialogic curriculum from the discarded remnants. They should continue to strive to create opportunities for exploration, justification and communication leading to the possibility of a greater depth of knowledge and understanding. If they do not, these curricula might well ensure our children are prepared merely for the rapid recall of shallow Mastermind facts.


Alexander, R.J. (2008) Essays on Pedagogy, London Routledge, (especially pp 72-172 and 184-191).
Alexander, R.J. (2013) NC Consultation response, available at http://alisonpeacock.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/CPRT-National-Curriculum-Consultation-Response-April-20131.pdf
Barnes, D (2008) Exploratory Talk for Learning in Mercer, N. and Hodgkinson, S. (2008) Exploring Talk in School London Sage
Mercer, N. and Hodgkinson, S. (2008) Exploring Talk in School London Sage


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One Response to Speaking, Listening and the Curriculum Proposals: A tale of two game shows

  1. Mike Blamires
    Mike Blamires Wednesday, 24 April 2013 at 12:42 #

    I think Charles Dickens might agree with you:

    “So, Mr. M’Choakumchild began in his best manner. He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters, had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs. He had been put through an immense variety of paces, and had answered volumes of head-breaking questions. Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and leveling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers.

    He had worked his stony way into Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council’s Schedule B, and had taken the bloom off the higher branches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin, and Greek. He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two and thirty points of the compass.

    Ah,rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!

    He went to work in this preparatory lesson, not unlike Morgiana in the Forty Thieves: looking into all the vessels ranged before him, one after another, to see what they contained.

    Say, good M’Choakumchild. When from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim him and distort him!” Hard Times(1.2.48-49)