What’s Talk got to do with it?
“You taught me language and my profit on’t is I know how to curse.” The Tempest, Shakespeare
In The Tempest, Caliban the monster is taught to speak by the wizard Prospero. As he is enslaved by Prospero, he has been taught a life changing skill but has no purpose for it other than to curse his master.
Talking is a fundamental part of human life. So often its associations are so strongly social that its purpose as a tool for learning can be overlooked. In fact many teachers intentionally ‘hush’ students so they can ‘get on with their learning.’ Don’t get me wrong, there are all times in our lessons where quiet, individual working time is essential for our students. However, when Ofsted visited our school in 2014 they saw lots of great, in fact ‘Outstanding’ lessons where students were reading, writing and applying their ideas in practical lessons. But what they didn’t seem to see much of was talking. Teachers articulated brilliant ideas, students answered questions, made notes and worked quietly but they didn’t really interact with each other to discuss ideas as much as you might expect. For a school with highly articulate students, and students that have, in fact, fronted BBC Northwest Tonight and Radio 5 Live for BBC School Report, we realised that it was time to reflect. And what an exciting aspect of teaching and learning to reflect on, we thought.
It’s worth pointing out that we are not a school that strives to tick boxes for Ofsted but their external evaluation allowed us to stand back and see a great opportunity to develop teaching and learning within our school community.
Professor Rob Coe has spoken recently about poor proxies for learning where quiet, calm and ordered classrooms can be mistaken for paradises of learning. If students are working in silence are our students clear? Have they had the opportunity to think and check their understanding before they embark on a task? If there is no talk, how can we be sure? David Didau in The Secret Literacy draws on this idea and explores the importance of formalising talk in the classroom so that students are equipped with the vocabulary so they can actually articulate their ideas in order to impact on their understanding. Martin Robinson’s Trivium explores the history of Rhetoric and reminds us of its cultural, historical and social significance – we know that talk is central to human endeavour so surely it has a place in the classroom in shaping and developing learning. James Britton’s argument that “talk is the sea upon which all else floats” confirms the idea that externalising thoughts and ideas verbally is an essential element in building layers of understanding. Without it, how can understanding be truly embedded? The Socratic method, another influencing factor, is exemplified here: http://www.sayersjohn.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/questioning.html
So how did we set about developing Oracy as a tool for learning in our school? The reading told us that Oracy was central to cognition but we had to evaluate this in our own context to see whether it would have any impact. As we did not know the impact of oral interventions, there was equipoise. So, we trialled and evaluated it as follows:
- We spoke to our students. We video interviewed some Year 11 students and they told us that in most lessons opportunities for discussing and clarifying ideas were minimal. They said that when they heard from their peers not only did it help them clarify ideas but they actually needed and relied on that discussion in order to shape and develop new ideas. In Maths, students wanted the chance to check their understanding of the methodology before embarking on their individual work.
- We worked with Curriculum Leaders during our annual Curriculum Conference looking at the role of Oracy in their own Faculties – we shared the feedback from our students and subsequently asked colleagues to work with their subjects teams exploring the role of talk for learning in lessons
- We set up and ran a series of Sharing Best Practice sessions on ‘Oracy’ where colleagues shared strategies based on key ideas drawn from key reading
- Several colleagues pursued Action Research on Oracy looking at the impact of oral language interventions in their classroom practice
- In my own lessons, I looked at the impact of oral language interventions in GCSE English and Year 13 English Literature as shown below.
|Class||Topic||Oral Language Interventions|
|GCSE Year 10 English Set 2a||Extended Reading Controlled Assessment, To Kill a Mockingbird (Reading Analysis)||Pausing before writing analytical ideas down – giving opportunity to discuss and clarify ideas before writingVerbal PQEL paragraphs – saying paragraphs out loud before writing ideas downOnce written, reading out analytical paragraphs to the whole class to check clarity and expressionTheme Register – Share an idea you will explore in your written analysis|
|A Level English Literature||Preparation for LITB3 Examination||Speak like an essay intervention’ – providing students with ‘nominalisation’ training (Idea taken from Didau 2013)Use elements of the Socratic method approach with students to engage debate surrounding essay plansUsing listening Triads for essay argumentsDefining key words from exam questions in group discussion to achieve clarity about the argument students are being asked to articulate|
Impact on Learning (Findings)
|Area of School||Impact|
|My own practice (GCSE and A Level English Literature)||In GCSE, by their final assessment, almost all students outperformed their Target grades compared to the pre-test where most students were meeting or working below their Target gradesAt A Level, there was a marked increase in the assessment band students were working in by the end of the interventions. All students move up by at least one band. The result of the interventions had a direct impact on the clarity and sharpness of their argument which is central to their mark they will ultimately achieve|
|Oracy Action Research||Classroom Teachers’ findings shared on our THS Research websitePastoral Teams have developed and heightened the value placed on Oracy by implementing Oracy based programmes to improve students’ opportunities for debate outside of lessons|
|Whole staff focus on Oracy||In Teaching & Learning Reviews our final review of the collated reports revealed that we were seeing much greater emphasis on spoken discussion for learning in the lessons and learning walks that took place this year. This was demonstrated in most comments recorded by observers in their notes.|
As soon as we opened up the ‘Oracy’ debate with our colleagues, there was great excitement. The opportunity to revisit our approach to ‘talk’ allowed us to hear much more from our very articulate and sparky students by setting up a framework for them to see talk as a way to improve their learning. Suddenly, we were valuing and giving time to something that had seemed so intuitive yet had tended to be overlooked. Even as an English teacher, I found myself applying principles from the teaching of speaking and listening to all aspects of my classroom practice as I was forced to re-evaluate seeing how talk could enhance and sharpen understanding in all areas. But now we must go back to Caliban; without wishing to state the obvious, we know all our students can ‘talk’ but if we want them to use this essential skill for learning, we have to teach them how to do that too. Unlike Prospero’s neglect of Caliban, we have to provide our students with the right parameters to channel that talk and empower them by giving them a clear purpose and direction.
So in summary, we must provide parameters for students so just like anything else that we would teach students, there must be structure and clarity when using ‘Talk for Learning’:
- Make students ‘Word Rich’ by providing Vocabulary – empower students with subject specific vocabulary that will heighten the complexity and sophistication of their contributions in class
- Structure Talk – provide students with ‘sentence stems’ as starting points eg. Could it be argued that…? and differentiate these by scaffolding contributions for less able and providing more complex stems for more able students
- Signpost ‘Talk for Learning’ – Value and signpost clear time during lessons for students to talk through their ideas before fixing them ‘on the page’ so that they understand how talk impacts on cognition
- Link thinking time to ‘Talk’ by Pausing – Use ‘discussion time’ to allow students to ‘pause’ before they set off on a task in order to give them time to ask questions, clarify ideas and therefore their thinking
- Use ‘No Hands Up’ – Ask a question to the class and give all time to formulate a response. Select students at random to ensure talk is valued and all are involved.
- Use Higher Order Questioning – The Higher order question stems challenge students to respond to an idea on a much more complex level – (Key words – agree, assess, choose, compare, criticise, defend, determine, interpret, justify, recommend, review Key questions – What is your opinion of…? Would it be better if…? How would you justify…? How would you compare…? Why did [name] choose…? How would you prove that…?)