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Really hearing every child’s story

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

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