A focus on oracy can transform your school

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Discourse is a powerful tool for learning, but one that is often overlooked. In this, the first of a three-part series on oracy, Oli de Botton explains how a focus on developing students’ ability to express themselves in a variety of scenarios has transformed his school

Talk – it might change your school

Oracy, the act of learning to talk and learning through talk, is having a moment in education. Schools minister Nick Gibb recently celebrated its importance (in response to a school banning the word “like”), while education secretary Damian Hinds named the act of performing as one of five critical elements of character education.

For some, highlighting the value of talk is a way to bring together the traditionalists and progressives; the former enjoying the focus on exploratory discussion about curriculum concepts and the latter appreciating the emphasis on children finding their voice.

Perhaps, though, the real reason that oracy is taking hold is both more obvious and more complex. It’s obvious in the sense that it is a bottom-up movement, led by teachers who know that talk happens in their lessons and want to maximise it for learning. But it’s more complex because a focus on classroom talk quickly deepens into a conversation about dialogue across the school, with implications for curriculum design, teacher collaboration and school purpose. At its most profound, a dialogic education is a completely different way of doing things.

A polyphony is an authentic recognition of many voices (as argued by 20th-century theorist Mikhail Bakhtin) and recognises dialogue as a system finding truth in the interactions between perspectives. New directions are discovered through the process of talk. So, in practice, that means no monologues from the head, only the power of staffroom and classroom voices.

Oracy is an ugly name for a beautiful craft. The term was first coined in the 1960s by academic Andrew Wilkins, and it was intended to capture something vital (like literacy and numeracy). The term speaks to a moral imperative.

Oral communication between parent and child determines language learning early on. Yet, by some estimates, 75 per cent of children living in poverty enter school well below average in terms of language development. Without an explicit focus on talk, it is hard for them to catch up.

And as children get older, the cognitive benefits of oracy are just as clear, with measurable impacts on academic progress. Oracy promotes deep thinking, as teacher-to-pupil and pupil-to-pupil interactions can be shaped to demand reasoning and reflection.

So, what can this look like in practice? At School 21 – a 4-18 school in Stratford, East London – we have been working on oracy since we opened in 2012 (and later with our linked charity, Voice 21). While we would not say that we have fully embedded our practice, we have discovered things that work in our context and, crucially, things that don’t.

Defining good talk

The initial thing we worked out was that teaching oracy was much like teaching anything else: the first step was to define what we meant. After much debate (as you might expect in this area), we settled on the four strands of oracy: physical, linguistic, cognitive and social/emotional.

Talk is, of course, subtle and highly complex, and we wanted a framework broad enough to capture depth yet specific enough to support teaching. The physical strand highlights stance and posture as well as non-verbal communication; “linguistic” emphasises lexical choice and vocabulary learning; “cognitive” focuses on the structure and content of the talk; and “social/emotional” looks at empathy and collaboration.

These strands (co-created by our teachers) were not gospel, but they gave us a shared language and clarity about what we were seeking to teach and how we would assess it. Later on, they became a way of reflecting on lessons and curriculum. Teachers might say that a lesson was highly cognitive with lots of thinking but the physical positioning of the teacher or the tables did not enable good learning for everyone, or there was less emotional connection with the students.

Context and scaffolding

Once we had an idea of what we were looking for, we quickly realised that we needed to expand the range and frequency of contexts within which children could talk. So assemblies became lessons without writing and often without chairs (even for secondary-age children). Many assemblies (together with coaching time – our version of form time) would emphasise the social/emotional strand, with students learning to discuss sensitive issues from the playground or wider society.

Talk protocols such as philosophy for children (where students use stimuli to decide questions they want to explore), or consensus circles, supported deeper conversations. Coaching tools (such as “question rather than tell”) and the language of self-reflection and vulnerability allowed children to talk about themselves and their worries. The classroom became the central context for talk and, as practice developed, we placed an emphasis on the following three areas of scaffolding.

Expectations

Before any talk starts, we find it helpful to clarify expectations. These are co-created and on display, and could include statements such as “everyone must be heard” and “opinions need to be supported by facts”.

This, of course, is not a new technique but we found it helpful when trying to get the agenda off the ground. Understanding different expectations for talk also helps students negotiate the growing number of contexts where they need to recognise specific rules for communication.

Intentionality

In the planning stages, we try to ensure talk has purpose, with roles, sentence stems and prompts if necessary. Examples include a recorder-solver protocol to support problem solving in maths, with one student solving and the other highlighting the process. Or the “Yes and…” idea-creation technique, where participants can’t use the term “but” and can only build on ideas. We have found that if we aren’t clear on the purpose of talk, it can become a showpiece rather than central to the learning.

Reflection

This meta-conscious aspect helps children to improve their talk over time. Often, practice involves going back to the talk expectations and establishing how well individuals and, crucially, the group have done. You might hear students say “not everyone spoke and so we need to include more voices next time” or “the conversation got stuck as we didn’t have enough information to back up our points”.

These scaffolds, which are now becoming layered in adult interactions too, are supporting us with our drive to help every teacher become a teacher of oracy. This greater clarity is also useful in safeguarding against over-extending the agenda. If oracy and its toolkit don’t extend the learning, then there is no compulsion to use them.

Listening

A lot of talk can build into a cacophony, particularly if you don’t put the same effort into supporting listening. We quickly found that students got better at using their voices but there was no commensurate improvement in hearing others, so we set about shaping a language of listening. We found the three Ms useful. “Me” listening is what we probably do most of the time; thinking about our next point or something different while our talk partner is speaking; “micro” listening is about close listening for individual words or body language; and “macro” listening is the story of what is being said and the values coming through.

We mapped this framework on to the four strands and then went about constructing learning tasks that allowed for good listening. For example, asking “what is your story?” – to be told in three minutes with no interruptions – allows for two listeners (a “micro” and a “macro”) and lots of reflection at the end. We use this in teacher interviews but also as part of our wellbeing programme.

In addition, we shifted listening from being performative (seeing if children are sitting upright and facing the teacher) to seeing proof of listening in the response. We found that children can appear off task while listening and vice versa. Open, targeted teacher questioning, including probing one child over a series of questions or the “say it again, better” protocol, have been helpful in this area.

So, after nearly seven years, we are now close to securing a classroom toolkit and a way of thinking about oracy. But as we have delved deeper, we’ve found there is more to it.

The Tes oracy series

Part one: A focus on oracy can transform your school – 19 July issue

Part two: How learning discussion skills can deliver social change - 26 July issue

Part three: How emphasising oracy had a profound impact at one school– 2 August issue

Oli de Botton is head of School 21 in East London

This is the first of a three-part series on oracy. On 26 July, Oli explains how building speaking skills can bring harmony to the school environment, and on 2 August, he looks at the wider benefits of his choice to highlight discussion over detention.

This article originally appeared in the 19 July 2019 issue under the headline “Listen, we need to talk more”