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Really hearing every child’s story

Dr Jonathan Barnes is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at Canterbury Christ Church University.  Jonathan has written widely on the arts, creativity, curriculum and values in education. His books on cross-curricular approaches,  Cross-Curricular Learning 3-14, and Applying Cross-curricular Approaches Creatively, are used  in schools and teacher education courses throughout the country.


Speech Bubbles (SB) is an innovative drama-based programme designed to address speech, language and communication (SLC) needs in 6- and 7-year olds. It’s founded on the belief that hearing and honouring children’s invented and unique stories helps build their confidence, participation, listening and oracy. Week by week in each school a group of 10 children with serious SLC difficulties tell and act out their stories, gently led by trained theatre practitioners (TP) and teaching assistants. In 2019 Speech Bubbles worked in this way in 64 schools with 1260 children.


Great claims are made as to its effectiveness. I evaluated Speech Bubbles in 2015 and found that up to 80% of children had made measurable improvements in SLC ascribed to the drama input, but there’s been no study of any longer term impact. When asked in December to do a pilot study to see if the programme had made a difference, I jumped at the chance. In an inner-city school in London, I chatted with six 11 year olds whose last contact with Speech Bubbles was four years ago. At six these children had been identified with a wide range of barriers to learning; English was not spoken at home, they had other learning difficulties, were either painfully shy, mute or unable to control their behaviour. In the words of one, now 11-year-old, boy:


….I sat in the corner like yeah they used to always say to me like, ‘put your hand up if you have an answer,’ but I never used to do it because I was too shy I was going to get it wrong….(Child1)


Speech Bubbles claims to promote confidence and involvement among such children, so learning, listening and contributing can flourish. Let me describe what happens in a session.


Ten children with SLD and their TA and TP:


1. chant with actions their binding values of kindness/gentleness, turn-taking, good listening and good acting

2. ‘throw’ their names into an imaginary bucket in the middle of the room, using funny, quiet or loud voices

3. join in warm-up/imagination exercises to get into acting mode

4. are reminded of the essential features of a good story: characters, a place, a happening and a good ending

5. practice scenes from the week’s chosen story, deciding with voices and bodies how to make jungles, cities, shops, castles, unicorns or dragons

6. make a masking-tape ‘story square’ stage on the floor

7. listen as TP reads the week’s story, line by line

8. act out the week’s story in the story square - several children playing the lead roles in different sections of the story:


…. two would stay behind and make a story…they acted out their story and then

whoosh, the next person would have their turn. (Child 4)


9. One child stays behind to tell the TP next week’s story.

10. The story is written down absolutely verbatim – no corrections, additions or prompts.


The voices of children, shown in italics, best communicate the lasting impact of this weekly creative experience…remember they’re describing something that happened four years ago…


…at first I wasn’t really listening. It felt like it was going to take years to get to my turn, but …I realised that everyone was listening to me so that I should listen back to them because they are giving me their time and attention and I am giving them mine.’ (Child 5)


All child interviewees remembered participating in SB enthusiastically:


‘I liked the square - no I didn’t actually like it- I loved it, because we could explain our ideas and make up our own stories and express ourselves …’ (Child4)


Literally every child used the word ‘confidence’ when asked what difference the sessions had made to them.


SB upgraded myself to be confident in class and out of class. When I am doing a question I can get up in front of the whole class and answer it without thinking I don’t want to do this anymore – it’s like sharing your opinion because it’s your question or your answer – it made me understand and speak out.’ (Child3)


Remembering the warmups and individual stories in great detail, the children frequently used words like imagination, emotion and expression:

‘…now I want to listen to more things and learn, I have more imagination now than before and use it in any type of writing, it’s improved my writing.’ (Child5)


Indeed, all remarked on improvements in listening skills and clearly understood its importance to social and personal well-being:


‘… you should do good listening to them because you want them to listen to you….[SB] made me listen to others in class and share my ideas more, put my hand up more, share your ideas more with everybody.’ (Child2)


Many ascribed improved relationships to SB. All used the word we while describing the SB processes, claiming it helped them become, ‘happy to speak ‘or ‘have fun with others’ back in class or in the playground, ‘SB made me talk more and have conversations with people,’ (Child4). All remembered the SB values and spoke of the importance of being gentle, kind, sharing or taking turns.


These children were aware that SB had created significant change in their lives:


I was always the quiet one and now I am always laughing and loud.’

(Child2)


‘We really like drama or acting now’

(Child 3 and Child6) .


It’s obviously impossible and simplistic to claim that significant and measurable developments in confidence, storytelling, listening, relationships, participation and positivity arose purely from SB. But this small sample of children unequivocally believe that SB made all the difference to them. Each had constructed an enduring personal narrative that underpinned prized aspects of their present identities. Confident and personal stories consistently describe shaky beginnings, but within a ‘setting’ of security, imagination, activity, fun, friendship and shared values, they tell how they developed their story-making, story-sharing and the collective honouring of each other’s contributions. Every child’s autobiographical narrative culminated in the discovery and development of a confident, contributing, socially and psychologically healthy self. That says loads about the power of drama to transform.

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