Talking tech: Developing oracy online

by Alan Howe, with a contribution from Daniel Booth-Howe

This article should be read alongside its companion piece, Talking at a distance: Oracy in a time of isolation and uncertainty.

There’s a risk that online teaching and learning might bring about a reversion to written forms of activity and response. However, distance learning presents us with unique opportunities for developing spoken language skills. Here are a few reflections from a secondary colleague, based on his early experience of teaching online:

  • Online teaching changes the conventional teacher-pupil dynamic. 
  • From the comfort of their own nests, the pupils are much more frank and honest. When the cameras are off (required for safeguarding) and they are participating only through audio, their inhibitions relating to how they ‘look’ in front of their peers are removed. In the online lessons I’ve conducted thus far, this has been quite refreshing.
  • There is a naturally slower pace, which allows for greater exploration of what is thought and said. I suspect the level of active listening is greatly improved too.
  • Online classroom behaviour management is very different – I experimented with those participating all acknowledging an agreement at the beginning of the session using the chat feature in Microsoft teams that included an understanding of how I wanted them to contribute – i.e. to indicate when they wanted to talk so I could unmute them.

It’s important to plan distance learning with speaking and listening in mind. Here are ten suggestions for making distance learning as interactive as possible, and maintaining a focus on students’ spoken language skills:

  1. Introduce, negotiate and reinforce a set of ground rules (expectations and protocols). In particular, these should focus on how participants will contribute, respond, draw others in, and listen in an active way.
  2. Chair/lead and manage the session actively, so that all participants have opportunities to contribute, and all understand what’s expected of them.
  3. Keep a running note of who has spoken, and who hasn’t. Aim to draw in contributions from all participants during the session (you may find this easier to do, paradoxically, than is often the case in a live classroom setting). It is also important to give people time to plan their contribution, rather than putting them ‘on the spot’ – and to allow them the opportunity to ‘pass’ if they prefer.
  4. Use the ‘Breakout Room’ facility (if the platform you are using has one) to set collaborative tasks. Set strict time limits. Appoint roles, visit each breakout room and listen in, and ask for a single spokesperson from each breakout room to feed back.
  5. Make effective use of the ‘mute’ and ‘unmute’ functions, to signal when it’s time to listen, and when it’s time to contribute.
  6. Encourage individuals to signal when they want to speak, and invite elaboration and extension through one-to-one questioning that all other participants can hear.
  7. Show students how to use the ‘chat’ facility to log comments and questions whilst they are listening or watching a presentation or video. Set aside time to review these and invite individuals to elaborate, explain or respond.
  8. If your platform does not allow participants to ‘raise their hand’, participants can signal that they wish to make a verbal contribution by writing ‘P’ (for ‘Point’) in the chat box. This is especially important if you have asked students not to use video (as some schools require as part of safeguarding practice). Regularly scan the chat box and accept reasonable interjections.
  9. Capitalise on the facility available in online meetings for an individual to ‘take the floor.’ Invite individuals and unmute them. Then invite others to build on, elaborate or respond to points made.
  10. Ask participants to prepare a short explanation/presentation/teaching point in advance and then provide them with the time to deliver to the rest of the group. You may find that, seated safely with a screen between them and their peers, and with other participants muted, students soon gain confidence presenting in this way.

The key thing is to continue to use effective dialogic strategies when teaching online:

  • Posting a key question in advance;
  • Using ‘wait/thinking time’;
  • Using open-ended questions, as well as follow-up questions, to promote deeper thinking;
  • Specifying roles for collaborative discussion;
  • Inviting students to respond to one another before you move in with a teacher response;
  • Building in time to summarise key points being made or ideas suggested.

Good luck – and please share your thoughts, frustrations and ideas for best practice in the comments section below.

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