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. Jane Kelleher is a Year 7 History and RE Teacher at Ely College. In this blog, she shares her experience of developing oracy with her Year 7 History and RE students through collaborative speech and poetry writing.
I always knew implicitly the importance of helping my students develop articulacy, but the idea of spending time explicitly researching and addressing oracy in my classroom was an intriguing one. How did students feel about where they were with their verbal skills? How would they define good verbal skills?
I’m really lucky to be a multi-specialist teacher – trained in History, I am employed to teach RE and deliver both of these day-to-day. This meant I could plan lessons with an oracy focus across both subjects and compare them. I had plenty of preconceptions about how the students felt about speaking up and expressing themselves in lessons, but I decided that my first step would be to conduct a piece of research.
I wrote a questionnaire on Microsoft Teams and assigned it to all students in the Year 7 cohort. This was incredibly useful in giving me a valid dataset from which to plan my lessons. I posed a question on what rules they would have for speaking in class and the responses gave me much to consider.
I expected students to feel nervous or shy about speaking and I expected them to highlight their need for a rich vocabulary to help them to feel confident expressing themselves. What was unexpected was something that came up time and again in the responses: students want to be listened to. They want to know that their audience respects them unequivocally. When I presented a selection of these responses back to the teaching groups, it led to some interesting discussions about how we often listen in order to wait for our turn to respond, rather than really hearing the speaker. This finding helped me to clarify what I would be looking to achieve in my oracy project – not just encouraging articulate and confident speakers, but also fostering a respectful and open-minded audience.
Being an orator
My first set of planning was for history lessons, with the idea to pick up the same skills with the same class cohort, but this time in RE, further down the track. The topic was ‘medieval monarchs’ and I had students create speeches comparing the ones we’d studied.
I discussed my oracy project with the class following the initial questionnaire. I had a very good buy-in from the students as they were very eager to improve their spoken skills and could see the value of this across all aspects of schooling and their lives.
Students filled in an information gathering sheet evaluating each monarch as we progressed through the unit, with the clear understanding that they would be using this information for a speech-writing activity which would form the assessment for the unit. Speeches were written in predetermined small groups, based on the strengths that each individual could bring to a small group. Students were encouraged to utilise a structure for their speeches, choose a speaker from among the group and use vocabulary learned during the unit.
It was amazing to see the students collaborate and build one another up while they constructed the speech. What impressed me the most about this was the quality of feedback given by the students to their peers after the speeches were given. Feedback given was not generic of the “I liked it” variety, but they were able to identify specific elements of the speaker’s toolkit, such as their clarity, use of vocabulary or tone. Students did, by and large, respect the speakers very well, with some additional prompting.
Being a poet
Moving on from the speeches, I wanted students to create something for RE that was more reflective than fact-based. I had an opportunity to create something on ‘life after death’ and, with my focus group, I decided that they should write and perform a poem:
I was intrigued to see how well they would carry over the experience of collaborating from one subject to another and this would give them another chance to respond meaningfully to each other as an audience.
Students worked in different groupings and, working collaboratively in groups of two or three, respectfully negotiated on the writing of the poem. Students were much more willing and likely to perform the poem as an ensemble rather than one nominated reader. They were provided with vocabulary from the unit, the use of which was evident in their piece of work.
The students did a brilliant job navigating the differing views in their group to come up with a cohesive piece of work.
It is vital for oracy to underpin all the work we do. Moving forward I want to work on embedding some of these approaches. The pandemic has provided numerous challenges to our teaching but our young learners are eager to make good progress and can see the value in developing their verbal skills.
I’d like to share a few pieces of the feedback I collected from Year 7 students at the end of the exercise which for me summarise the project very well.