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'Oracy is an underdeveloped skill in the UK ─ here's how to help your primary class speak up'

One primary school teacher outlines the strategies that have helped his class to become confident participants in class discussion and public speaking

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One primary school teacher outlines the strategies that have helped his class to become confident participants in class discussion and public speaking

“The name ‘Sudoku’ comes from Japan and consists of the Japanese characters ‘su’, meaning ‘number’, and ‘doku’, meaning ‘simple’,” explained the seven-year-old Chinese boy, in English.

I was visiting Beijing, observing classroom practice in a variety of schools, when this small but confident young boy strode to the front of his classroom to face his 44 classmates and various strange adults. Not only did he impart his Sudoku wisdom, he also challenged us with various tasks along the way.

He chose who would answer questions, and then followed that up by asking if a different child agreed with the previous answer.

This confidence in public speaking and the ability to verbalise understanding was a common factor amongst the children that I observed in China. It was also something that I decided to take back with me to my own school in sunny Blackpool.

Oracy is an underdeveloped skill in the UK. But as far as I’m concerned, there is no benefit in pupils passively absorbing an abundance of information if they are then unable to verbalise their learning.

To counter this, our school now gets children to perform regular class talks. Rather than simply bringing a toy or a medal to show to the class, this was about the children preparing, rehearsing and then presenting to their peers.

Initially, the children lacked confidence; they would mumble and ultimately run out of things to say after a minute. So, we worked with the pupils on how to present information, project their voice, change their expression to keep it interesting and sound confident even when nervous. Now the pupils are engaging their audience, setting follow-up activities and seeking audience participation through questioning.

'Agree, build on or challenge'

This learning has been supplemented by introducing more class discussion, with a lot of attention being placed on explaining to the children what makes a good question and on fostering an open and friendly atmosphere in the classroom.

With the help of the ‘agree, build on or challenge’ technique, children now feel comfortable challenging the opinions of their peers and teacher on topics from fair trade to the merits of rewards. Discussions and debates arise in every area of the curriculum, often from inquisitive questions such as “does a flower even need soil?” or “why do we have stars?”

To get the whole class involved in the discussion, you can try drawing named lollipop sticks at random. This technique makes every child aware that they must have an opinion ready to share with the class. At this point, the children can then take over the discussion and I merely facilitate the learning by drawing the names.

Before giving their own opinion, pupils must state if they agree with the previous pupil’s opinion and then either build on what they said or challenge others’ opinions. It’s important that children have the confidence to challenge what they hear, but also to do it in a polite way.

I don’t want passive learners – I want children who ask questions, challenge peers and are also brave enough to change their own opinions after listening to others.

Ben Burgess is a primary school teacher and an ex-footballer who played for Hull City and Blackpool

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