Teach children to listen before we do anything else to them.


During the Bath kids lit fest I was on a  Young Curator’s panel where we were debating “I pods – the new school textbooks?”  Someone asked us: if we could wave magic wands what would we do to education?  My answer was off the cuff, but actually I really do believe it.

‘Teach children to listen before we do anything else to them.’

I believe, most deeply, that the current obsession with testing and grammar and rigorous “old fashioned” standards is missing a REALLY IMPORTANT POINT.

Until children know what the language is that they are trying to read and write, they can’t write it – or read it.

The best way to understand how language works, is to hear it, every day.

To Listen.

This is something that became especially apparent to me with my daughter.  She’s 12, very dyslexic, and a non reader however – because she grew up in a house full of audio books and radio 4,  because of Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter over and over again, she learned how the language worked.   During holidays and weekends, at bedtime, first thing in the morning, in the car, when they were sitting on the floor playing with Lego, or drawing, someone would be reading to them. Either us, or the stereo.

I think, and I’m not an educator, or a child psychologist, that if we stopped trying to make children read and write at such a young age, we could take them so much further.  I think we should fill classrooms with picture books, drawing and making materials, hide away the phonics and the alphabets, and employ people to read to children.  When we don’t have readers, we could have tapes playing.  If we encouraged the children to sing, and draw and listen, before we tried to make them read and write, surely, they’d be better at it when they came to it.

I’m not saying that they shouldn’t talk too – that’s vital, and of course being listened to is as important as listening.  By speaking, they try out the language for themselves, they copy what they’ve heard.  But if they haven’t heard anything, they can’t copy.

And sure – some children would want to know how the words and scribbles on the page related to each other, and they could find out.  That’s how I learned to read.  But a little like stuffing cabbage down children, it’s very easy to put them off the taste of the written word, by making it happen all the time.  By force feeding.

I know that early formal education attempts with my daughter, made her reading worse. she panicked.  She became fiercely resistant, and fell back to being a quiet well-behaved child who sharpened pencils and washed up at the back of the class.

Some time later, with no pressure to read, she’s managed to bypass the formal stuff. She won’t read a book, not a conventional book for a 12-year-old, but she loves her audio books, her graphic novels and films.  Films are only books that you can read really quickly.

She can follow Any Questions on the radio, has views on the Archers, listen to someone reading out the articles on the front page of the newspaper.

She has a carefully developed sense of plot, Can write a good story, a fine essay.  She can take notes from someone speaking, she can remember what they said despite having short-term memory issues.  She now manages perfectly well at a state secondary school, but  I don’t think any of this would have happened if she hadn’t been lucky enough to grow up in  a household of listeners.

It was a complete accident – I didn’t intend to make the children listeners, but in retrospect, I think it’s turned out to be almost my best piece of parenting.

What does anyone else think?




One thought on “Teach children to listen before we do anything else to them.

  1. Jasen Booton

    I have to admit that I was a bit of a reluctant reader of novels, when I was at school. However, I relished comics – loving the puns and play on words – even the dire corny jokes! I adored Asterix the Gaul books, but of course at the age of ten, the concept of a graphic novel never crossed my mind. Despite my disinterest in what I considered traditional novels, I have always been fascinated by words. I agree that listening is a crucial skill; it was by listening to others that I developed my vocabulary, not directly through reading. I have always been impressed by people who are natural story tellers and find myself mentally storing their expressions and colourful phrases. It is for this same reason that I too love listening to Radio Four, where language is rich and precise and the effect is always considered. As an educator I have always taught young children that you need to ‘say it in a clear sentence, before you write it in a clear sentence.’ Needless to say you need to listen to other people’s clear sentences first!


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