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The last word: communication

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By John CoeInformation Officer for the National Association for Primary Education

Young children listen to us talking all the time. But how much do they understand?

John Coe

We communicate in so many ways with the children whose lives we share. A frown across the classroom, a finger pointing out a spelling mistake so egregious that correction must be made immediately, a nod signalling approval, a little cough to send a message that the squabble over a pencil case must stop. But what we say remains the most important of all. Our all-singing, all-dancing whiteboards may encourage children to do things for themselves rather than merely watch, but without us and our words to direct the proceedings, there would be little point in the technology.

The gift of the gab

We teachers are good with words. Having the gift of the gab may well be one of the skills which led us into teaching. Yet, this is a danger because we might too readily assume that our words have power and meaning for our young listeners who, often in defiance of their attentive appearance, are in a world of their own. The word ‘delivery’, invented alongside the National Curriculum, has increased the danger. Delivery so often implies a lot of talking. How many times have I heard myself saying, ‘I’ve told them and I’ve told them, and I’ve told them but they still don’t…’.

We might too readily assume that our words have power and meaning

Sounds in the air

I remember an 11-year-old boy, in a class taught by a young teacher, who certainly had a flair for words. It was an RE lesson and the teacher had told the parable of the Prodigal Son. The children were totally absorbed, living every part of the story, spoken with dramatic force by the teacher in his own words. It was a marvellous piece of storytelling, perhaps prompted just a touch by the presence of the local inspector.

After the story, the children busied themselves – some reading the parable, others drawing a storyboard, adding just a few words. Some were challenged to write the story. I found David, a bright boy, (Level 5 at least, although this was before the days of government levels) writing fluently. He as much as anyone would have understood the teacher’s words. I asked him, ‘What did it mean when your teacher said that the Prodigal Son had ‘come to himself’? Confronted by this question from a stranger, David struggled for an answer and after a long pause, he said, ‘I know, it must have meant he’d finishing undressing.’ Well you do, don’t you – when you’ve finished undressing, you come to yourself, (first you come to your jumper, then your shirt and then yourself). In a search for the meaning of the words – the sounds in the air that are abstractions – David had turned, as all children do instinctively, to personal experience to provide meaning.

An important lesson

David taught me that for a teacher’s words to carry meaning for young children (and perhaps the not so young) they should be rooted in the reality of the children’s world. Or at least we must start there, as we move forward to the subtleties of communication, the meaning between the words, which they will need as adults. Words alone are not enough. As always, the best way to learn is to live.