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We need to talk about oracy

Silence isn’t always golden, says Nicky Pear – and a curriculum that neglects spoken language risks leaving children voiceless, permanently...

  • We need to talk about oracy

Your children are very well behaved, but getting them to talk is like getting blood from a stone’. This was the stark feedback from a peer review process with leaders from local schools 18 months ago.

Our children were passive; there simply wasn’t enough meaningful talk in our classrooms. This conclusion, which seems so obvious to us now, set in motion a process of change, the impact of which has taken us by surprise.

Many schools in Tower Hamlets work with a large proportion of children from backgrounds without a high-quality model of spoken English at home.

Unfortunately, with so much to cram into the curriculum and the twin demands of improving results and being ‘Ofsted-ready’, there has been little room for robust teaching of spoken language and communication skills, known increasingly as ‘oracy’.

This seems perverse, however, in light of research at the University of Cambridge revealing a direct link between oracy skills and academic outcomes.

Add to this that employers now rate communication skills as the top attribute that they look for in candidates, and the case for oracy education becomes hard to ignore.

We came to the conclusion that spoken communication skills were the missing link in our curriculum and decided to promote oracy to have equal standing alongside maths and literacy.

In the middle of the ‘Ofsted window’, this was certainly a risk, but given that we felt it was what our pupils needed, one that we were more than willing to take.

A comprehensive approach

We first developed a comprehensive approach to teaching oracy. We decided that oracy skills should be taught in stand-alone lessons as well as being woven throughout the curriculum.

Every class created discussion guidelines to hang on the wall to model the expectations of talk, including using positive body language, listening intently, taking turns and agreeing and disagreeing politely.

Talk is now scaffolded in a similar way to writing, with sentence stems and word banks to support less confident speakers. Each classroom has an oracy display and we have termly school-wide oracy events such as persuasive speech competitions and poetry slams.

We have also replaced traditional assemblies (which seem not to have changed much since the Victorian times), with dialogic assemblies, carried out in circles.

These are opportunities for children to consider philosophical ideas, debate topical issues or have discussions relating to a range of stimuli. Teachers and additional adults act as facilitators to the discussion and all children are expected to talk, in pairs, trios and to the whole group.

We knew that if we wanted oracy to be successfully embedded within our curriculum, we would need a whole-school approach. We ran two full-staff inset days, and have had numerous staff meetings exploring approaches to teaching oracy.

These included support staff and midday meals supervisors, who had additional training on the language of conflict resolution. A collective consciousness about the importance of talk was beginning to grow.

Spreading the word

Oracy now sits alongside literacy and numeracy as an equal partner in our curriculum. The impact of this change has been dramatic.

Pupil voice surveys point to an increase in confidence over the past year, with a significant jump in the percentage of children who identify as ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ confident in speaking to partners, in front of the class and in assemblies.

This mirrors our own observations and those of external visitors, including Ofsted, who have commented on the confidence and impressive spoken language skills of our children. Quite a contrast from the passivity observed a year before.

Word has spread of our success, and this month we have launched an Oracy Hub in Tower Hamlets. Over twenty primary schools have signed up for a year of training, sharing practice and raising the profile of oracy education across the borough.

Watch this space… or should I say listen?

Nicky Pear is an assistant headteacher and oracy lead at Cubitt Town Junior School in Tower Hamlet, who also recently helped to set up the Tower Hamlets Oracy Hub. Follow him on Twitter at @nickypair.

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