A guest post by Helen Holt. Helen is the Deputy Head of Bolton School Junior Girls’ School (Hesketh House). Bolton School’s Primary Division comprises a Nursery, Pre-School Class, Infant school, Boys’ Junior School and Girls’ Junior School and is part of the wider Bolton School Foundation, which also includes our Girls’ and Boys’ Senior Schools that educate pupils up to 18 years of age.
Having taught in both State and Independent schools, I have always been interested in looking at ways to develop language and communication skills across KS1 and 2, and a conversation with a member of Oracy Cambridge about the importance of dialogue in teaching and learning prompted me to dig deeper further into the research.
I was struck by Paul Warwick’s assertion that ‘if there is a ‘holy grail’ of developing learners’ 21st Century skills – particularly collaboration and critical thinking skills, such as evaluating and integrating information, forming ideas, and justifying and communicating in and across knowledge domains – then dialogue lies at its heart. It seems that dialogue is therefore one central core to the development of wider oracy skills and capability, and it may be a good place for schools to start.’
The research from Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education stating that oracy is pivotal to a pupils’ development when they are from a poorer background was compelling. The crucial question for me, in my current role, was how was this of relevance to us in a selective school where pupils achieve highly, and where there might perhaps be a casual assumption that pupils have high existing levels of oracy? I was interested to discover more: How could we develop pupils’ oracy skills across our curriculum in order to both advance their knowledge and develop their confidence? (Refs 1&2)
The Oracy Project Begins
The management team identified oracy as a key initiative across the school. Having completed Voice 21’s ‘Oracy Programme’, I introduced ‘The Oracy Project’. It was exciting to lead a series of professional development sessions throughout the year, mindful that ‘while schools devote hundreds of hours of teaching time and teacher expertise to the development of pupils’ writing and reading skills, barely any time is spent developing the vital verbal communication skills students need to succeed in work and life.’ (Voice 21)
But I knew there would be challenges ahead: would all the staff see the value of an oracy-focused curriculum and embrace this new initiative? What would be the tangible benefits be to our pupils? Would parents be supportive of our new approach to learning? Considering the question ‘Why Oracy ?’ we reflected on research from Voice 21 and The EEF Toolkit showing that oracy impacts positively on academic outcomes, on cognitive development and on promoting a sense of well-being. (Refs 3&4) Luckily for me, in the ensuing discussions staff understood the imperative of developing our pupils’ communication skills and could see the benefits immediately. (Ref 5)
Experimenting with new ideas
‘Talk is the most powerful tool of communication in the classroom and it’s fundamentally central to the acts of teaching and learning.’ Professor Frank Hardman
Using the Oracy Framework as a springboard, we agreed to focus on scaffolding oracy skills across every subject, building a learning environment in which pupils could clearly express their thoughts and effectively communicate ideas. In each subject, teachers prioritised the development of social and emotional skills; central to this was an emphasis on working collaboratively. We encouraged speaking confidently with awareness of audience, we promoted the physical skills of using the voice and body language to convey meaning, and used linguistic skills to develop vocabulary and language. (Ref 6)
We first experimented with games and lesson starters using oracy formats and debating ideas from The Noisy Classroom. (Ref 7) We then introduced the ‘Harkness Discussion’ and talking roles in our Learning Challenge lessons – Geography, History and RS – using the British Council resources. (Ref 8)
Of particular help were:
- British Council Page 6 Sentence Stems and Talking Roles
- British Council Page 7 Talking Groups
- British Council Page 10 Good discussion guidelines
To develop confidence in every pupil we introduced Voice 21 ‘Ignite’ talks: fast-paced talks presented without notes with 3 minutes to prepare.
During professional development sessions we reflected on progress and next steps. We were particularly interested in the research showing that developing oracy skills promoted greater depth of subject knowledge: ‘Through a high quality oracy education students learn through talk and to talk. This is when they develop and deepen their subject knowledge and understanding through talk in the classroom, which has been planned, designed, modelled, scaffolded and structured to enable them to learn the skills needed to talk effectively.’ (Voice 21)
We discussed the different types of talk that are engaged in group discussions – Neil Mercer’s categorisation of disputational talk, cumulative talk and exploratory talk (from Barnes) – and started to consider ways in which we could encourage more exploratory talk. We wanted to build the pupils’ skills in employing exploratory talk, and to ‘give permission’ for them to employ it.
Turning challenges into positives
Covid and lockdown – a challenge to staff, pupils and parents – then presented an opportunity to place effective communication at the core of our remote learning to build pupil engagement, resilience and positivity. Technology and oracy stood out as vital skills to prioritise and iPads, already an integral part of our teaching and learning, became a tool to enhance oracy capabilities. (Ref 9)
Parents came to understand the importance of oracy, noticing at first hand the impact of the project on their children. Our pupils craved interaction and our remote/ zoom form times and assemblies became vital for self-expression, allowing them time to reflect, question and present their thoughts. As Marissa, one of our Year 6 pupils, put it: ‘Oracy is so important in everyone’s lives. It enhances social and emotional well-being, boosts self-confidence and resilience. It gives you the confidence to speak up for yourself: this can lead to a greater sense of happiness and well-being. It also prevents the feelings of isolation and loneliness which are far more evident today.’ (Ref 10)
Integrating Oracy skills into every part of school life.
Promoting interaction between pupils was critical as our pupils returned to school life. It was evident from the Education Endowment Foundation research that many children during the pandemic were deprived of social opportunities and contact, therefore speech and language skills suffered. This research suggested that ‘Less or no contact with grandparents, social distancing, no play dates, and the wearing of face coverings in public had left children less exposed to conversations and everyday experiences.’ (Ref 11) This mirrored our direct experiences on our return to face-to-face lessons.
The benefits of an oracy-rich education now seemed indisputable to our staff and the effects of the pandemic made it even clearer to us that we should continue to develop communication skills across our curriculum and the wider life of school. To give a flavour of how we attempted to integrate oracy into every area of the curriculum, below I present some ‘snippets’ to suggest how we made a start. As a starting point, we integrated ‘The Oracy Project’ into our whole school ethos of building good habits in our pupils – The Hesketh Habits. (Ref 12)
These ‘Habits’ are central to our school ethos, and it was easy for staff and pupils to see how they were supported by oracy skills such as being curious and ask questions, being creative in our use of language, communicating ideas effectively, working together and sharing ideas, embracing challenge in debates and discussions, being compassionate and listening carefully and empathetically to others, and presenting our ideas confidently and enthusiastically. (Ref 13)
In every area of the curriculum, teachers have continued to develop oracy skills in conjunction with the Hesketh Habits to prioritise the development of our pupils’ social and emotional skills. Our pupils also benefited hugely from us highlighting oracy within specific lessons. In work on reading and comprehension, for example, discussion of the text and vocabulary was vital in broadening our pupils’ vocabulary. In literacy lessons, the ability to articulate thoughts was key to developing written answers, and we employed an understanding of oracy skills to develop confidence through performance poetry, presentations and structured discussion. (Ref 14) We began to look at the benefits of collaborative talk in other subjects such as mathematics, where Oracy was used to develop understanding, hone problem solving and reasoning skills, and promote questioning and decision-making. Believing that ‘Although groupwork – a teaching strategy based on learning through social interaction – is used across the curriculum in England, it is under-utilised in maths teaching ’, we particularly focused on the development of Exploratory talk in groups, using the Thinking Together’ materials from Cambridge. (Ref 15) Research has shown that this can have a positive effect on attainment in mathematics. (Refs 16 & 17)
In Science we focused on building specific oracy skills, allowing pupils to take time to discuss, question and evaluate concepts. We use paired and group discussion to build scientific vocabulary, and asking good, investigable questions was central to our lessons. (Ref 18) Here, we used the ‘Onion’ formation (pictured below), with pupils shared ideas before moving on to the next partner, with the intention of promoting the prioritising of information and developing better focus, keener listening and confidence.
We encouraged compassion and engagement with the wider world, integrating oracy skills into our Learning Challenge lessons. Through devising of Public Service Announcement our pupils were encouraged to be curious about the wider world. (Refs 19 & 20)
Year 6, studying the topic Ancient Baghdad, used the book ‘The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad’ by Saviour Pirotta as a springboard to increase oracy skills. Ideas from the book and ‘fed in facts’ about ancient Baghdad were built into Learning Challenge lessons to increase pupils’ listening skills as they used clues to work out what the ancient city would have looked like. Pupils in Year 6 debated arguments for and against sending the main character, Jabir, to a judge for punishment.
Fed in Facts
Year 6 Debates
In PSHEE, History and RS we established protocols for talking and listening, incorporating key vocabulary and sentence openers into discussions. We considered how to develop oracy skills across a sequence of learning, taking exploratory talk into subsequent presentational talk whilst being mindful of their distinctiveness:
‘exploratory talk … is typical of the early stages of approaching new ideas […]Exploratory talk is hesitant and incomplete because it enables the speaker to try out ideas, to hear how they sound, to see what others make of them, to arrange information and ideas into different patterns. The difference between the two functions of talk is that in presentational talk the speaker’s attention is primarily focused on adjusting the language, content and manner to the needs of an audience, and in exploratory talk the speaker is more concerned with sorting out his or her own thoughts.’ (Barnes, 1992)
In Year 5, studying the Anglo Saxons and The Battle of Hastings, pupils created story maps of the battle. Pupils worked in pairs to create a timeline of ‘The Battle of Hastings’ using ‘fed in facts’. In groups they interviewed the main characters, discussing the qualities of each to develop character maps, before finally creating a news flash. (Ref 21)
We have continued to integrate oracy skills into the wider life of school. In House Meetings and Oracy Assemblies pupils are vertically grouped, sit in circles to talk, share and reflect on a number of pastoral issues. (Refs 22, 23 & 24)
The Power of Oracy for our students
We believe that ‘The ability to communicate effectively is an essential ingredient to both success in school and beyond’ (Reference 25). We made a conscious decision to give staff time to try new ideas and share good practice, allowing space to embrace the initiative wholeheartedly. Initial concerns that a focus on oracy would encourage confident pupils and discourage quieter students to participate were unfounded; through the prioritising of oracy we encouraged our quieter pupils to find their voice. The pupils make the point more succinctly than I can:
Sara, a pupil new to the school: ‘I was not very confident when I came to Hesketh House at speaking in front of others. The Oracy lessons have helped me express myself more; whether in a class discussion or making a presentation. I think it is a good way to encourage children who are shy or lack confidence.’
Evie, pupil: ‘Oracy at School is so important because children need to learn to be good communicators and be able to engage with an audience. The work we do in School builds up our confidence so we can stand up in any environment and do not feel intimidated. Oracy also teaches us to listen to others.’
Harriet, pupil: ‘I am passionate about the environment and learning to express my feelings is one of the most important things I have learnt in Year 5. Whatever I choose to do when I am older, it will certainly involve expressing my views to other people.’
The pupils evidently saw the value in what they were doing. But would our parents understand the importance of oracy in preparing our pupils for life in the 21st century? We asked parents for feedback and were excited by their responses.
Parent: ‘Oracy skills are a huge part of adult life and at Bolton School these skills are taught from an early age. The children are encouraged in their oracy skills in numerous daily activities, whether it be assemblies they perform, school shows, poetry recitals, book reading, debating and idea sharing. It becomes such a daily part of life at Bolton School so that the children don’t see it as a daunting task, but rather as an everyday event which needn’t be feared. As a result, the children are more confident, self-aware and confident, engaging speakers.’
Parent: ‘The ability to communicate underpins every aspect of today’s society. In this digital age where much of our communication is increasingly virtual, it has become imperative that our children still develop and perfect their oracy skills in order to help them communicate more effectively in both their school and adult lives. Hesketh House succeeds in instilling confidence, encouraging independent thinking, building social skills and giving the children the ability to articulate their opinions in a clear and precise manner. Through their comprehensive oracy initiative the School achieves this through lessons in the core curriculum as well as offering the opportunity to learn public speaking techniques, perform poetry and music recitals, debate current affair topics and conduct interviews.’
So, we have made a start. But we are clear that ‘Oracy is not a programme to be completed one year and gone the next, or an extracurricular endeavour for a select few, but rather an essential facet of an effective, empowering and expansive education.’ (Voice 21)
Oracy skills now underpin our curriculum; pupils have advanced in their ability to listen and reflect, they share ideas and collaborate, they have grown in confidence when presenting, performing, interviewing and questioning. Curiosity and asking questions is central to lessons.
Our observations indicate that pupils have become more engaged in reading, discussing vocabulary and sharing ideas during reading studies. In Mathematics, Technology and Science pupils have benefited from group work, building specific vocabulary and depth of knowledge.
Oracy isn’t a bolt-on to the curriculum – it is at the core of everything we do. But we are always looking at how to develop further, and would welcome feedback from anyone reading this.
Thank you for reading. Oracy matters – for everyone.
You can email Helen at: email@example.com
1 Howe, C., Hennessy, S., Mercer, N., Vrikki, M., & Wheatley, L. (2019). Teacher–Student Dialogue During Classroom Teaching: Does It Really Impact on Student Outcomes? Journal of the Learning Sciences, 28(4–5), 462–512. https://doi.org/10.1080/10508406.2019.1573730
2 Vrikki, M., Wheatley, L., Howe, C., Hennessy, S., & Mercer, N. (2018). Dialogic practices in primary school classrooms. Language and Education, 1–19.
3 Why Oracy? https://voice21.org/oracy-2/
13 Hesketh Habits: Communication https://youtu.be/cI4acANEC4E