A couple of years ago, I taught a top set year 11 class. By the end of year 10, we had completed all their controlled assessments, and spent hours prepping and assessing their Speaking and Listening pieces, which would contribute to their final grade. We arrived back at school in September, ready to spend year 11 prepping for the exam.
And then it happened. An announcement was made that Speaking and Listening would no longer count as part of their final grade. The last time it would count would be in the November of that year. A decision had to be made, put them in in November so they could include their Speaking and Listening marks, or put them in the Summer when they would be given a separate mark for and it wouldn’t make up part of their English GCSE. So, I did what any teacher worth their salt would do, I asked them what they wanted to do; it was their qualification and they should be allowed to have an opinion. They decided to sit the exam in the November so that all their hard work completing the 3 tasks would count for something in their final grade. They were wonderfully opinionated and articulate young people anyway, so they had done really well and wanted the tasks to be included in their final grade.
But they were angry. They were angry that a government (and in particular, this annoyance was planted firmly towards Mr Gove) could decide literally overnight to take away a part of their qualification that they were particularly good at. But they were also angry that, to them, it felt like what they had to say was not considered worthy of inclusion, they almost thought that they were being told, ‘we don’t care what you have to say, just do as you are told.’
One of that class went as far as to write a strongly worded, but very beautifully written letter to Michael Gove. She received a letter back from his secretary, thanking her for a letter and a pen. No comment was given on what she had to say. Her annoyance lasted for several months…That class, by the way aced that November exam and that student? She’s just won a place to read English at Cambridge, so yeah, I’m proud of them.
But why should Speaking and Listening be included in a qualification? It’s still there, but as a separate qualification; one that almost feels a bit ‘tacked on’. English departments across the country are having to think about where they can fit it in without it impacting on the important exam grades that they will be judged on. But surely, the ability to speak coherently, clearly and with flair, can impact on written work too? And, not only that, but how much better do you feel when you are able to verbally express yourself in a clear and coherent way?
The best writers create such a clear voice in their writing, that you can almost hear them speaking, and you know full well that a conversation with them would be much the same. When I read blogs, the best blogs that I read, are from people whose voice comes gliding through the written word, in particular, I admire bloggers like @JamesTheo and @Positivteacha; whether you agree with some of their ideas or not, they create a voice that you can feel exists in their spoken word.
Then there are people whose work relies on them being able to speak, but they seem unable to come across as coherent individuals. I watch the Apprentice every year and cringe at the ineptitude of these people to not only present their ideas in front of top business people, but to be able to debate and hold intelligent discussion amongst themselves. We all see that as teachers, the students who have good ideas, or know what they want to say, but lack the skills to do it. Surely we, as teachers of any subject, have a duty to support our students and encourage them to articulate what they want to say. Giving them the vocabulary to do that, always sees to me one of the best ways to do that. Once they have the have the vocabulary to express themselves, it comes across not only in their spoken word, but in their written work too, something brilliantly shown by Caroline Spalding @HeadofEnglish, at TLT15, where she demonstrated the effect of word wealth on an individual student’s analytical skills.
Years ago, one of the pieces of English coursework was able to be verbally assessed, something that greatly benefited lower ability students, and those with literacy issues such as dyslexia. It gave them the confidence to express themselves in a way other than the written word, which they knew they were never able to do in the same way, and gave them a chance to really explore characters and themes in a way that they couldn’t do when having to write it down on a piece of paper. Of course, I’m not advocating that an entire English GCSE should be assessed verbally, but I always felt that for some students, it gave them an extra push.
But ultimately, talking and listening to others is what is going to help get our young people further in life. They will need to talk themselves into jobs, universities, relationships, promotions; to lovers, to friends, to bosses, to therapists. And they need to know how to do it, they need to practice these skills. We can model it all we like, and teachers across the land offer constant feedback of, ‘what is a better way of saying this?’ ‘What exactly do you mean by that?’, but ultimately, being in a situation where you have to present and articulate your ideas in front of a class full of your peers, or you have to debate ideas with others, taking on their point of view, without offending them, can only serve to aid in a million different situations in the future.
So I guess for me, THAT is the point of Speaking and Listening.