If we were to ask pupils about the most daunting tasks in school, speaking in lessons would be right near the top of the list.
For the quietest members of the class, the idea of speaking sparks worry and fear, but even the most confident pupil fears putting their head above the proverbial parapet sometimes when it comes to class discussions.
We need to tackle this. Pupils need to talk because it is such a powerful way of learning. Speaking confidently is also an important life skill.
So how can we encourage pupils to speak more without having to force them?
1. Key terminology
A key feature of any discussion in class is specific key terms. These differ from subject to subject (of course) but they are an essential part of building confidence in pupils. You need to model the use of these key terms so that the pupils can see them being used in context. Also, have them on display to act as discussion-prompts and starters. It is also worth helping students to become “word detectives” – give them the responsibility of working with the words to build definitions and model examples. Give them ownership. This will build their confidence when using the words in their spoken discussions. Finally, be picky about words you need to focus on; an overload of vocabulary can be counterproductive.
2. Link talking and writing
Linking talking and writing is something that needs to be explicit. Pupils often miss the intrinsic relationship between the two and see them as two disassociated skills. Try changing the expectation in your classroom so that pupils have to verbalise answers in full sentences just as they write. Discussion frames are simply writing frames refocused. Not only will this improve your class discussions, it will also have a huge impact on the written phrasing of your pupils’ work. This approach does take some modelling but it is a great way to give pupils the confidence to answer questions and partake in discussion.
3. Creating a safe environment
This is much more complicated than it sounds. Having clear expectations of pupils is the first step – making sure that everyone is treated equally and fairly is a given, but ensuring that there is mutual respect for all speakers as well as empathy really adds to the confidence of the shyest pupils. Simply knowing that they won’t be ridiculed is something that empowers them.
You can then consider how you approach talking – is it going to be questioning? Will the pupils have time to prepare to talk? Can you pre-warn pupils that they will be contributing? Look at creating opportunities for small-scale discussion between a few pupils. Start small and work up; don’t try to get everyone involved in whole-class discussions at first. Aim to have everyone contribute by the end of the term or scheme of work. Creating a non-threatening environment will encourage the members of your class to feel more comfortable with the prospect of speaking. It sounds simple but it is one of the cornerstones of a successful talking classroom.
Asking questions is an art. It involves skill and initiative to differentiate questions on the spot. But answering questions is even harder – we need to remember that. The thought of being asked a question about something that they’ve just learned can be really intimidating for a pupil. There is nothing worse than avoiding eye contact and still being picked to talk and having nothing to say. As a teacher, you can modify your methods. Consider the way in which you ask your questions. Can they be written in pupils’ books as you go around the class? Can you get pupils to question each other before contributing to class discussions? Can you flip it so the pupils ask you questions? Consider who can answer “easy” and “hard” questions. Build confidence by asking questions that you know pupils can answer. Again, build up to everyone taking part over a period of time.
Adam Riches is lead teacher in English at the Paradigm Trust chain of schools