The BBC this week highlighted two reports which add to the mounting evidence of the damage that prolonged periods of lockdown have done to children and young people’s development, often exacerbating existing concerns, problems and inequalities. These particular reports are concerned with children’s speech and language skills, and their findings lend support to those who are arguing that the development of oracy — the ability to express oneself fluently and grammatically in speech — needs as much attention as literacy and numeracy.
The BBC highlighted Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) research which found that “[l]ess or no contact with grandparents, social distancing, no play dates, and the wearing of face coverings in public have left children less exposed to conversations and everyday experiences.”
It also cited alarming data from the company Speech Link: among 50,000 four- and five-year-olds starting school in September “an extra 20-25% needed help with language skills compared with the previous year”.
These findings are in line with other recent research that has charted the devastating effect of lockdown on children’s health and wellbeing and educational development. The following blogs, all posted on this site in recent weeks, illustrate the scale of the problem:
- Oracy needs the same focus and attention as literacy and numeracy. This highlighted a report which stated that 92% of teachers believe that school closures have increased the so-called ‘word gap’, a reference to children whose vocabulary is below age-related expectations.
- Unlocking the benefits for children of play and outdoor learning. This featured research from the Youth Sport Trust showing the effects of lockdown on children’s activity levels. The charity said that its findings show “the urgent need for a renewed focus on sport and physical education”.
- ‘Build Back Better’ must include tackling children’s mental health. This mentioned The Prince’s Trust Tesco Youth Index 2021, which said that “more young people are feeling down or depressed than at any other time in the history of the Youth Index”.
Life-based learning aims to respond to both the short-term and long-term issues we face. At its core is the need to reform the school curriculum for young children. Communication is one of nine learning themes — each with equal priority — through which the Forum proposes the individual subjects of the national curriculum in England should be taught, in order to equip children with the knowledge, skills and values to tackle the challenges they will meet as adults.
The Communication theme focuses not just on reading and writing — fundamental though they are — but on communication in all its aspects. This includes non-verbal communication, a key ingredient in forming positive and lasting relationships. And of course it includes oracy: the ability to speak fluently, to make yourself clearly understood and to articulate your thoughts and views is a key life skill.
A fundamental weakness of the national curriculum is the compartmentalisation of subjects, one consequence of which is that reading, writing and speaking are too often seen as almost the sole preserve of a single subject — English. The life-based learning framework, by contrast, values the role that all curriculum subjects can play in developing children’s communication skills.
It brings a fresh approach by building language acquisition into every subject. This is much more than merely children learning about grammar, punctuation and spelling, and teachers paying lip service to the notion of literacy across the curriculum. It involves an understanding that every subject has its own language to be learned and articulated by the child — the language of science, of physical education, of design technology etc — and that subject language is an integral part of learning in that subject. And it is an approach that also values the crucial role that speaking and listening play in the learning process itself.
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Image at the head of this article credited to Please Don’t sell My Artwork AS IS from Pixabay.