How to get pupils talking and improve outcomes

When one school identified that its children weren’t talking in lessons, it embarked on a mission to boost their spoken language skills. Here assistant head Nicky Pear explains how a new focus on oracy has transformed the school’s culture of teaching and learning, improving pupil confidence and Sats results
3rd January 2020, 12:04am
How To Get Pupils Talking & Improve Outcomes
Nicky Pear


How to get pupils talking and improve outcomes

The conclusions were clear: firstly, our children were beautifully behaved; secondly, they were performing above the national average in reading, writing and maths; but thirdly, they were very, very passive - "Like getting blood from a stone" was one frank, but not unfair, description of our children's participation (or lack thereof) in lessons.

That last point came as a shock (though it seems so obvious now). We had not gone into the above peer review exercise - conducted with other local primary schools - with purposeful talk in lessons as an identified weakness. But there it was, in black and white.

The fallout? We put in place a series of changes that have drastically changed the culture of learning and teaching at our school. And the impact has taken us all by surprise.

In retrospect, the issue was inevitable. In the borough of Tower Hamlets, in East London, our schools sit well above the national average for the percentage of children from families in which English is spoken as an additional language. For many of our children, the only high-quality model of spoken English they receive is at school.

However, with curricula fit to burst, and the twin demands of improving results and being "Ofsted-ready", there had been little room for robust teaching of spoken language and communication skills. The fact that standardised tests do not focus on these oracy skills either means they inevitably take a back seat to reading, writing and maths.

Following our peer review, we learned that this neglect was nonsensical. We plunged into the research and discovered a well-evidenced direct link between oracy skills and both cognitive abilities and academic outcomes. Recent studies at the University of Cambridge and University of York point to the impact that effective dialogic teaching has on children's progress. Indeed, the Educational Endowment Foundation concludes that "studies of oral language interventions consistently show positive impact on learning, including on oral language skills and reading comprehension. On average, pupils who participate in oral language interventions make approximately five months' additional progress over the course of a year."

Add to this that employers now rate communication skills as the top attribute they look for in candidates, and the case for oracy education becomes hard to ignore. If we are serious about education as a tool for social mobility in places like Tower Hamlets, it's clear we must equip our pupils with the spoken language skills that children growing up in other contexts take for granted.

So, convinced that our children's spoken language skills were the missing link in our curriculum, we started to make changes.

Our first task was to hone in on what needed to change, and how we would get there. Working with Voice 21, an oracy education charity in Stratford, East London (connected to School 21), we developed a comprehensive approach to teaching oracy, both explicitly in standalone lessons, and embedded within the wider curriculum. All of our lessons are now expected to include an oracy outcome.

In practice, this began with "discussion guidelines" created with the children to model the expectations of talk (agreeing and disagreeing politely, taking turns, building ideas and challenging others' ideas, etc). Scaffolds for talk are now also commonplace, whereby structured conversations are facilitated. Many lessons involve no written outcomes at all, as children express their progress and understanding verbally. Meanwhile, oracy displays adorn the walls and termly showcase events, from poetry slams to persuasive-speaking competitions, are built up to with excitement.

Another change has been the way we conduct assemblies. Gone are the traditional lectures (which increasingly seem like they belong to a bygone era) and in their place are what we call dialogic assemblies. Carried out with small groups of children in circles, with teachers acting as facilitators to discussion, these are opportunities for pupils to consider philosophical ideas, to debate topical issues or to have discussions relating to a range of stimuli. The expectation is that all children talk during assemblies - in pairs, trios and to the whole group.

Obviously, we did not expect staff to simply pick this up as they went along. We devoted two Inset days, as well as numerous staff meetings, to exploring approaches to teaching oracy. These meetings included support staff and midday meals supervisors, who had additional training on the language of conflict resolution.

While our teachers are certainly flexible, there tends to be an understandable resistance to shiny new ideas, which all too often are here one week and gone the next. To guarantee buy-in, we had to show that we were serious about oracy. In addition to the training, this meant supporting teachers in their planning and teaching of oracy, and the harnessing of our middle leaders' skills to explore the potential to use oracy within their respective subjects.

Did it work? A brief walk around the school is enough to discern not only that our children are talking more, but that they are also talking with more purpose and an awareness of their audience. This is as true for collaborative discussions as it is for presentational and performative talk. And you are now as likely to see talk activities in maths and history as in English.

Meanwhile, pupil-voice surveys point to an increase in confidence over the past year, with a significant jump in the percentage of children who identify as "very" or "extremely" confident in speaking to partners, in front of the class and in assemblies. The impact of our dialogic assemblies, in particular, has been felt across the school: at the beginning of the year, 25 per cent of the children said that they felt "not at all confident" in sharing their ideas - but this had reduced to below 5 per cent by the end of the year.

This research mirrors our own observations and those of external visitors, including Ofsted, which has commented on our impressive spoken language skills.

It is too early to measure properly the effect of our oracy curriculum on other skills, but in some classrooms, evidence of the impact that oracy work is having on written outcomes and vocabulary acquisition has been noted. Our Sats results last year were also better than they have been for a number of years.

Word has spread of our successes, and the impact they are having. Following an expression of interest from a number of other schools in Tower Hamlets, we launched an Oracy Hub in the borough. We have more than 20 schools signed up, with participants taking part in training sessions and sharing ideas, resources and best practice. The desire to help the pupils in our school to find their voice has now become a collaborative mission to help the children of Tower Hamlets to develop outstanding oracy skills.

Where this next chapter will take us remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure - we will have a lot to talk about.

Nicky Pear is assistant headteacher at Cubitt Town Junior School

This article originally appeared in the 3 January 2020 issue under the headline "How to get pupils talking and improve outcomes"

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