WE Lab Classrooms is an opportunity to engage critically with research, trial a new approach in your classroom and reflect on which teaching and learning strategies are the most effective for your learners. Each Lab Classrooms strand is ‘two for one’ – improving both learners’ knowledge and wider skills, such as teamwork and communication. Oracy is one of our WE Classroom strands.
Sophie Moss is Head of Department at Northumberland Heath Primary School. In this blog, she shares her experience of using oracy skills to improve academic attainment and increase confidence.
On beginning this project, I was eager to prove that primary aged children need strong oracy skills as these are one of the most sought-after skills in their future. In fact, good language skills are a crucial factor in social mobility.
Immediately, my mind went back to when I first began teaching and a child said to me, “Teacher, can I tell you something?”— a sentence he used to share ideas, thoughts and observations – a blanket question stem. Teaching in an economically disadvantaged trust of schools raised the question:
How often do we teachers encourage our little people to talk without equipping them with practical skills to be eloquent?
The first barrier I encountered was the impact that COVID restrictions and government directives had on the day-to-day running of our school. This meant it was impractical for me to use oracy approaches on children from different bubbles (classes) as I initially intended and, instead, I had to use students from my class. To avoid bias and ensure the purity of data, I used objective statements and summative assessments.
During the process, the group I focused on were Year Two children whose teachers from the previous year had commented on their oracy: “She is reticent, lacks confidence.” “He has a speech and language need which I believe contributes to his lack of participation.” “She has an opinion for everything but doesn’t know when to stop.” “She refuses to speak in a big voice; I can hardly hear her.” “He is very disruptive and interjects all the time – he is like white noise.” The group was a mixture of genders, SEND pupils, EAL pupils and different academic and social abilities.
Before the trial began, I asked the group how they felt when asked a question and they had to answer with the whole class listening. All five students said they felt nervous and scared about making a mistake. Then, I asked what could the teacher do to help them? Their replies: “Not ask me” “I don’t know.”
So, I cultivated an environment rooted in praise that celebrated mistakes as opportunities for learning and a place where there are no wrong answers or opinions, just brilliant ideas.
During the process, I realised I didn’t strategically create opportunities for discussion in my lessons and support my students effectively. Therefore, I began to use specific question stems in whole class and small group discussions so that students could express their agreement and disagreement and expand and elaborate on what their classmate had to say. Using these opportunities with the required etiquette led to a respectful and polite exchange of ideas.
I instilled an air of tolerance and mutual respect, which resulted in increased confidence and the desire to contribute productively to discussions.
Subsequently, all students in the trial can express their ideas well and help their classmates structure their sentences correctly. They also include those students in the groups that have not had a chance to participate in the conversation. They have learned to encourage and recognise each other’s contribution in the exchange.
The most exciting development is improved academic attainment. Following our summative assessments, the group has shown an average increase of 29% in maths outcomes, an average 9% increase in reading results and a whole level of improvement from WTS (Working Towards Standard) to EXS (Expected Standard) in writing. Coupled with this, students have become more confident when expressing themselves in general and specifically during discussion opportunities.
This is what the teachers and support staff had to say:
“They always have questions and relevant ones.”
“I can’t believe how well he expresses himself now.”
“She has come out of her shell.”
“I love how they add on to each other’s comments.”
“He is so much calmer and waits his turn to share his ideas.”
“They have such lovely and interesting ideas.”
I am so thrilled by the notion that, with the help of the children and support from my colleagues, I proved that oracy skills are a necessary skill for all our young people for them to be able to meet and overcome the challenges that await them as global citizens.
Looking ahead, I aim to add discussion/talk task opportunities into each lesson with a specific number of question stems to be used during these times, which expand on the topic and delve deeper. I also intend to add role-play, debating, presentation, hot seating, video diarising and news broadcasting opportunities. In addition, I plan to organise competitions and events to promote oracy, such as debates and speeches.
All being equal, I hope to be able to implement oracy at a whole school level by convincing our headteacher to designate an Oracy Lead. I feel that this will spearhead our school’s approach to oracy and begin the journey towards social mobility and narrowing the language gap between those in economically disadvantaged schools and those in economically advantaged schools.