Finding the voice to tell our stories

by Ayesha Ahmed

Image: Pixabay

In discussing the importance of classroom talk, Douglas Barnes reminded us how important it is ‘for teachers to make it possible for pupils to think aloud even when they are talking with the whole class’1 and how difficult this can be due to the many voices competing to be heard. Some pupils rarely if ever get heard due to a lack of confidence in speaking in front of others. We can address this in part by helping children to improve their oracy skills.

The Oracy Skills Framework2 is divided into four key areas: physical, linguistic, cognitive and social and emotional. Aspects of the cognitive can improve with knowledge of the subject being discussed. And aspects of the linguistic and physical can also be taught. But the social and emotional skills can be harder to teach. How do we help children to gain the self-assurance needed to speak up and share their ideas and experiences? To feel that their contribution is valuable enough to be listened to? And how do we teach them to listen in a way that shows that they value one another’s contributions?

Lots of this is to do with classroom culture. But more specifically, for children to voice their ideas and experiences, they need to feel that these ideas and experiences are important and that they matter to others. One way to help with this is to ensure that children hear examples that they can relate to – the voices and stories of ‘someone like me’ so that they are encouraged to believe that their voice will be listened to, understood and respected too.

In reading about efforts to improve minority ethnic representations in children’s literature (e.g. the recent report by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education3) I started to think about how this translates to the spoken story. Stories that children read or hear can influence their willingness to talk – to use their voice and to share their own story. If children repeatedly read or hear stories that are hard for them to relate to, and in which children from minority ethnic backgrounds are not represented, confidence that their own story is important can become harder to obtain.

Hearing a story that they can relate to can open up the possibility for children to be able to tell their own. Reading Hanif Kureishi4 in my late teens was a pivotal moment for me and I still keep ‘The Rainbow Sign’ on my desk. It was the first time I had read a story that reflected my own experiences – growing up in a mixed-race family in 1970s and 80s England. Plenty of children were experiencing what I experienced. It’s just that we weren’t reading about it and we weren’t hearing about it.

But as well as lack of representation of ethnic minorities in stories, there is also the danger of being represented as a stereotype. Stories are a powerful way to communicate, but with power, there always comes responsibility. Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie in her TED talk ‘The danger of the single story’5 reminds us how impressionable we are when listening to stories. When a person with power tells the story of another this can become their single story, representative of them. When stereotypes are perpetuated it can become difficult to see someone in any other way, to see a connection between self and other and to bridge gaps.

We saw this happen recently on millions of our screens in ‘Bodyguard’ in which a Muslim woman is portrayed as oppressed by her husband and as a terrorist. This is exactly an example of a writer with great reach (and therefore power) telling the story of another in a way that increases the danger of a single story. Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s powerful poem ‘A story for ourselves, this time’6 is a wonderful antidote to that and it’s worth watching her perform it.

So how can we use stories to encourage dialogue and to encourage children to take part and talk in the classroom? Representation while avoiding the danger of a single story is a starting point. So too is listening. Listening to each other’s viewpoints and experiences can enable us to enter a shared ‘dialogic space’ in which we can start to understand each other better and to see another’s perspective on the world. As Sara Ahmed puts it, ‘To hear, or to give the other a hearing, is to be moved by the other, such that one ceases to inhabit the same place’7. Hearing each other’s stories can move us into that dialogic space. So once a child has joined the conversation, the dialogue that occurs can help further to close that gap between self and others.

We need to help all children to develop the oracy skills and the confidence to join the conversation. Sometimes the tools that they need are simple to provide: a child from a multi-ethnic background recently told me that they were each asked to talk about their ethnic origins in a French lesson. He said he couldn’t join in the conversation simply because ‘there wasn’t the vocabulary for mine’.

Acknowledging differences and celebrating them is another way forward. The more diverse the viewpoints the more potential there is for important bridging to take place. Rupert Wegerif argues in his blog that ‘The bigger the difference that can be held together in the tension of a dialogue the brighter the sparks of insight and illumination that might result.’8 So it is critical that we encourage children to enter into dialogue – especially those who feel marginalised, side-lined, misunderstood or unimportant in the conversation. We all stand to gain the most from hearing their voices.


  1. D. Barnes, Exploratory Talk for Learning in N. Mercer & S. Hodgkinson, Exploring Talk in School, 2008, p8.
  4. Hanif Kureishi, The Rainbow Sign (Faber & Faber, London & Boston)
  7. Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), p155-6.

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