Communication and Relationships in Schools

Did anyone pick up on a hot topic at the National Association of Head Teacher’s conference this month? It reported a huge deterioration in pupil speaking, listening and imaginative abilities that seriously affects achievements. This was put down to the effects of technology on family life and time-poor working parents.

Rosemary SageThe issue is complex but important to understand. Today, Professor Rosemary Sage, qualified speech and language therapist, neuro-psychologist and teacher, explores how the teaching profession can respond and begin to the develop the capacities of the Relational Student.

In the 1980s, I was asked by the Medical Research Council (MRC) to look at a large group of students in the Midlands who tested as normally intelligent but were failing in school. Results showed that conventional assessments did not pick up the problem students had in bringing together the whole meaning of events. For example, tests of comprehension and expression are component-based. Typically, students are asked factual questions on a spoken/written text which if answered correctly gains full marks. However, in the MRC study, they had to tell back the information with bizarre responses that bore little relation to the text meaning. Examples are available in Class talk (pg.143) and results astounded teachers who were unaware of such problems with their students.

Why was this so?

Responses revealed that student ideas were clearly expressed with grammar and syntax correct, although sentences were simple rather than complex forms. Participants had either not understood the task or been able to bring together information meaningfully. They demonstrated a language format for narrative events but the content was haywire. Although details were dealt with, what students lacked was ability to assemble these for overall meaning, if it is accepted that they understood how to re-tell events. As students had adequate informal language (chat) where meaning is gained primarily from context and non-verbal clues, their problems with formal, abstract forms went unnoticed.

Neuro-psychologists call this ‘imagery weakness’. ‘Readers or listeners construct mental models of the situation a writer or speaker is describing’ (Sage, 2000 p. 144). Imaging is a sensory link to language and thought which connects us to incoming oral or written language and existing knowledge as well as accessing experience, establishing vocabulary and creating and storing information in memory. This seems complex but illustrates what Einstein meant when he said ‘if you can’t picture it, you can’t understand it’. To verbalise you must visualise which depends on making ‘movies in your head’. The right, visual brain thinks in images and the left, verbal one in words. The MRC data illustrated a lack of integrated right and left-brain function. These students had bottom-up (data-driven) information processing styles but lacked top-down (holistic) strategies. Visualising was inadequate for abstract understanding of word sequences which depend on inference, reference and coherence strategies.

Ian McGilchrist (psychiatrist) has published studies to show that children are less able to read human emotions and non-verbal language than 4 decades ago (voice tone, gestures, facial expressions, postures, movements etc.). He says the result is a large increase in ‘autistic’ type behaviour. Now technology replaces extended talk at home we rely more on picture information for meaning, so imaging processes are not developing to the extent needed to understand formal language. Have you read a book then seen a film of it and been surprised at how different characters and places are to what was imagined? It shows the importance of visualisation for meaning.

Theories of relationships, emotional and learning development are based on communication between an individual and others at all stages (Erikson, 1963)

This is one reason why educational standards are difficult to improve as teaching rarely accounts for learners who find it difficult to bring together information across modalities. Theories of relationships, emotional and learning development are based on communication between an individual and others at all stages (Erikson, 1963). I remember mothers saying to me after their children’s speech therapy that they now had a relationship with them which did not exist before they could talk.

The Badger research (1992) showed how the National Curriculum has changed communicative relationships in classrooms with the teacher telling rather than explaining, demonstrating, facilitating and inspiring learning. Studies at the Centre for Innovation in Educational Research (University of Leicester, Sage, 2000), showed how over three years the cohort entering a city primary school were at least 2 years behind their chronological age in thinking and language development. Further studies in the feeder secondary school showed that 80% of students on entry at age 11-12 years had thinking and language ages of 5-6 years. Although small samples, there is strong support for this evidence in other studies across the UK (Sage, 2007).

What is the solution?

The follow-on to the MRC project was a Communication Opportunity Group Strategy (COGS), giving teachers ideas of how to teach either small or large groups in a way that facilitates student narrative thinking and language structure. This has been translated into Spanish, German, French and Japanese. It has had positive feedback from high-achieving countries who understand that teaching and learning is a communicative relationship which has to be fully addressed if students are to achieve.

Learning about what underpins successful communication and relationships in the classroom has been a revelation. Now the whole school are enthused by an approach that has been available through the College of Teachers.

On-line courses have been available at the College of Teachers and those completing them across the world have reported on the personal and academic improvement of students taught in this way. One teacher, in the Middle East, said: ‘‘Learning about what underpins successful communication and relationships in the classroom has been a revelation. Now the whole school are enthused by an approach that has been available through the College of Teachers’. Although this institution is now morphing into the new College of Teaching, with a different agenda, it is possible these courses will continue on-line because of strong support. Initiatives, such as MP6, helping students to express views on current affairs, have shown a need for teachers to learn how to assist students to communicate ideas. (MP stands for Members of Parliament  involved in the scheme and 6 signifies the number of students in the final of a knock-out competition where topic presentations are given to an audience).

What is the way forward?

We need to focus on the attainment of formal spoken language as the step into literacy and numeracy. A study led by Professor John Sutherland, from University College, into social media and text-speak suggests that our reduced communication and use of emoticons harks back to caveman forms where a single picture conveyed a full range of messages and emotions. Joan Bakewell (Telegraph 2/5/15) in an article: ‘I know what lol means; love our language’, shows how language brevity is spreading into life and literature with negative results.

Throughout history, language has woven expressions of love, joy, pain and grief, shaping philosophies and negotiations of personal, professional and world affairs. The English Language has at least double the words of any other and its ability to express ideas is unsurpassed and part of the reason for its growth across the world. In the 1970s, the UK abolished teaching of Standard English (SE) as elitist, in spite of the fact that all cultures have high and low forms (dialects). To access some professions, such as law and the military, SE is desired and facility to use this is important in global communication as it is the taught form in other countries. Speaking must be encouraged for both education and health reasons. Increase in mental health issues is explained by psychiatrists as due to a reduction in face-to-face talk and support.

Today, students have many different first languages. There is a Midland school where 234 different languages are spoken. In London, at least 350 different languages exist. Language reflects a culture and its thinking and a present challenge is effective intercultural communication and relationships. This is mandatory curricula in some nations but the UK gives this subject scant attention. I recently had to go to Europe to find a professor in communication for a student viva voce on this topic as there is not this expertise in the UK. It is time to change and cope with the challenges of the 21st century. Better value for communication and relationships will bring improved teacher training, effective school management and increased student performance.


Erikson, E. (1963) Childhood and Society. Norton: New York

Sage, R. (2000) Class Talk: successful learning through effective communication. Stafford: Network Educational Press (now Bloomsbury)

Sage, R. (2004) (2007 International Edition).A World of Difference: tackling inclusion in schools. Stafford: Network Educational Press (now Bloomsbury)



    • Colin Badland

      Ordinary people believe only in the possible. Extraordinary people visualize not what is possible or probable, but rather what is impossible. And by visualizing the impossible, they begin to see it as possible.

      Cherie Carter-Scott

      I would agree with the statements raised in this article relating to students being unable to verbalize and visualize the information they receive.

      In my experience working in a secondary school and supporting students who have Special Educational Needs. It is noticeable, particularly in numeracy lesson how learners have difficulty in verbalising their ideas because they cannot visualise the subject matter.

      In a recent year eight numeracy lesson, relating to fractions of a whole amount, the teacher asked the students to imagine a pizza being divided into various segments to represent a particular fraction. It was evident from the questions being asked, that the students could not associate that because a pizza is circular it can easily be divided into segments to represent a fraction. It would suggest that although the image of a pizza is stored in their long term memory students are unable to take that image and use it in a different context. By not being able to make this connection, some students were unable to verbalize the answer.

      I also work with a year nine student who suffers from Hydrocephalus which seems to effect his short term memory. To improve his literacy skills he reads a variety of books ranging from Harry Potter to the ‘How to train your dragon’ series. His reading age is two years above is chronological age.

      He was presented with three scenarios. The first one was to describe an episode of EastEnders. Because he was able to visualize the episode and the information transferred to his long term memory, he was able to verbalise the episode perfectly. He was able to recall the content of the story line, the context in which the actors found themselves, some of the dialogue between the actors, and even stated specific lines that were spoken.

      He was able to recall this information perfectly because the information already existed in his memory from the television program which he visually experienced first-hand. He was able to visualise the story unfolding in front of him before he verbalised his reply.

      He was then asked to imagine he was on a beach but was unable to paint a clear picture of the sounds, aromas, and the atmosphere associated with being on a beach. Finally he was asked what his perfect dragon may look like. He could only describe it as being green, scally and that it could fly in simple sentences, there was obvious passion in his answer as he has clearly read lots about dragons. However, because he had no visualise images of either of these in his memory, he was unable to verbalise either scenario effectively.

      Another student who is in year ten and dyslexic, approaches and executes numeracy questions in a logical and orderly method. She understands the meaning, and uses mathematical language appropriately. However in Literacy lessons she struggles with comprehension and understanding deeper meanings and inferences. She can read the work but struggles to visualise images and pictures. She knows how to verbalise her reading but has an issue with writing her ideas down. Being dyslexic she struggles with her short term memory in visualising the image of a word or phrase and then has problems saving it and storing it in her long term memory because the word does not make sense.

      In conclusion, at home young people develop both their formal and informal language, social and communication skills by interacting with family members and friends. As suggested in your article, in today’s society this interaction has become less frequent, as social media and television have taken over this role. For some young people this has become their reality, where they are learning and receiving their informal communication by intensively watching a diet of reality television programs, soaps or interact with their peers on social media sites.

    • Derek kitchin

      The research is useful, but any self aware, self critical parent will tell you that there is a tension between the value and use of constant access to social networking, Google and the likes and the ‘occupying’ this can provide …..
      Further … Economic pressures, both working, lone parenting are not the only cause of parents listening and talking to their families less … look at how many parent / carers are as ‘hooked’ into TV / x box, play station, Facebook …. Attachment disorders to iPads and iPhones and laptops ….
      We each have a responsibility as teachers and parents to encourage talk … And can do this best by modelling these speaking and listening skills ourselves!

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