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Talking the text

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By Pie Corbett — poet, author and freelance educational consultant

Use Pie Corbett’s advice to encourage your class to tell stories and recount events aloud, helping improve their writing skills.

once upon a time...

Everyone knows that talking is important but how do you teach it? The new materials provide a framework – but we still have along way to go to discover how this might be taught effectively. What of those children who are new to the English language or the increasingly large number who arrive in Year 3 and whose language lags behind? Perhaps, we need to experiment with modelling language structures and then putting children into situations where they need to use those structures themselves – hence ‘talk the text’. This will improve talk as well as writing.

Many teachers have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to write sentences unless you can speak them – and you cannot speak them, unless you have heard them. Perhaps, the answer to improving writing lies in children becoming more articulate – being able to tell stories, recount events, explain, and discuss with fl uency, power and clarity. Maybe this is the next step that we need to focus upon. After all, in the real world the gift of the gab matters! As the Cornish saying goes ‘The tongueless man gets his land took’.

In this article, I look at each of the four key strands, and offer ways to interpret them into your teaching.

1. Speaking

Talking helps us to both communicate our ideas and deepen our understanding. It is when we put an idea into words that we begin to understand. Brief pauses during lessons to ‘talk about’ ideas and generate new thoughts, or the opportunity to explain points to a partner, are worth building into any cross-curricular activity. After all, without talk, ideas can walk away so easily!

Talk the text type

The simplest way to organise ‘speaking’ is to ‘talk the text type’. So, if you are working on ‘explanations’ make sure that your children have read some examples and then had a chance to orally explain something before writing. For instance, if you were reading an Alex Rider book as the class novel, you could get the children to role play a conversation between Smithers and Alex (Smithers is the ‘Q’ figure who explains to Alex how to use the different spying gadgets). The children can then design their own gadgets, such as exploding toothpaste or walkie-talkie toothbrushes. While the ‘character’ is talking, they have to use explanatory language such as ‘as a result’, ‘because’ and ‘so’.



Storytelling appears in each year groups’ learning objective. Try reading a short traditional tale. Draw it as a story map and retell the story. You do not have to remember the story word for word but the map should help you recall events. Get the children to retell the story a number of times, elaborating each time as they grow in confidence. This could be written up, told to another class, recorded or filmed with a digital camera.

Adapting stories

Once the children know a story fairly well, they could adapt it, creating a new story, using the original as a blueprint. Invite the children to change names and characters, alter settings, update events or add in extra scenes. For instance, ‘Goldilocks’ could be retold as a crime story about a spy who tries to steal secret documents and nearly gets caught! The Three Bears could be mobsters Goldilocks must elude.

2. Listening

I seem to recall that when I started teaching, older teachers used to sit around grumbling about how ‘children nowadays’ don’t listen any more. However, we only listen to things that interest us or we need to know. In the framework, the definition of ‘listening’ includes listening to music, radio, TV programmes and film, as well as everyday class situations, performances, readings and presentations. It is worth teaching children how to pick out the main points in a presentation. A simple way into this is to begin by forewarning the children of the number of key points to listen for. Try modelling this when watching broadcasts. Then discuss the presenter’s viewpoint.

3. Group discussion, interaction

Children are expected to take on different roles in group tasks, such as leader, reporter, scribe and mentor. Develop group discussion early on each year so that ground rules are established. These can be developed over the year and across the curriculum. Children should:

  • take turns, listening and responding to each other
  • build on other people’s suggestions
  • contribute their ideas, but be prepared to change them
  • organise tasks within a time limit
  • agree on the steps needed to complete a task
  • check progress as time passes by
  • check round the group for contributions
  • take on different roles and evaluate.

Group tasks in literacy could involve deciding how to perform a poem, looking for character clues in a short story or preparing to defend a viewpoint in a class debate. Remember that group discussions are vital in all areas of the curriculum.

4. Drama

Most teachers use drama to deepen understanding of poems and stories, through activities such as:

  • hot seating characters to discover motives
  • freeze frame to explore different viewpoints
  • role play to deepen understanding
  • broadcasting events from stories
  • making phone calls or gossiping in role
  • monologues or miming key events.

Remember, too, that drama can also be used when studying non-fiction. Try holding classroom debates, role play interviews with experts or visitors, create television broadcasts about information, make formal presentations or hold ‘meetings’ where information is shared.