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Listen with curiosity

In my recent post on happiness, I concluded that, rather than focusing on the things that are most important, the national education agenda tends to be driven by the things that can most easily be measured. A consequence of this is that one of the most important things of all, the quality of children’s oral communication, is rarely assessed or reported on.

Last week we were visited by teachers from School 21 in Stratford, a school clearly on a mission to elevate the status of oracy – the fluent, confident, and correct use of spoken language. Their website makes the statement, ‘One of the biggest barriers to young people getting on is a lack of eloquence’. And it’s true. Good communication underpins everything – and how we present ourselves to others can determine our life chances.

This year at Highgate Primary, we have a whole school focus on oracy, with a number of initiatives planned to support all children to develop their communication skills. It feels like we’ve made good progress in this area and our recent School Partnership Review (an initiative where school leaders from local schools offer up a fresh set of eyes) backed this up.

However, on reflection I can see that we may have fallen into the same trap as the DfE – limiting our focus on the things that can be measured. Whilst it’s relatively easy to report back on the quality of children’s oral communication – how children express themselves, the use of standard English, the quality of vocabulary, how they project their voice etc. etc. – it’s much harder to report on the quality of the thing that underpins this: how well children really listen. Sitting still, being quiet and looking in the right direction is not always the best indicator!

I suspect that recent changes in society have contributed to a national decline in the quality of our listening. With social media, the balance of power has certainly shifted towards putting messages out there as opposed to listening to what others have to say. In addition, children are read to less, opportunities for families to talk over meals are fewer and distractions from WhatsApp and Instagram have reduced our collective ability to listen.

Perhaps the best place to start is for all of us to work at providing an excellent model of really good listening. Good listeners clarify what they’ve heard and provide affirmation to the speaker, they ask good questions that build on what has been said and they are non-judgemental, encouraging conversations to grow. They provide good eye contact and nod at the right times. And good listeners ignore distractions, even when it’s the irresistible ping of the Family WhatsApp.

We’re all guilty of half-listening to our children, whether it’s keeping the headphones in, peering at our mobiles or not looking up from whatever it is we’re doing. But listening really is the key. If we fully focus on the child in front of us and consistently show our children what really good listening looks like – they will inevitably do the same and their oracy skills will naturally develop. After all, ‘at Highgate Primary we are successful because we listen to what children say and allow them to dream’.

William