Oracy – teaching your pupils to talk

Written by: HTU | Published:

Schools can make great strides in tackling underachievement by improving pupils’ spoken language skills across the curriculum. Jean Gross, the former government Communication Champion for children, reports on some of the great practice she has seen

The new national curriculum proposals highlight the importance of focusing on spoken language, the Ofsted framework now includes pupils’ communication skills in key judgements, and the teacher professional standards demand that all teachers are able to promote “articulacy”. I am delighted – the message about the central importance of communication skills has got through at last.

Weaker communication skills predict poor life chances. Vocabulary at age five, for example, is one of the strongest predictors of how many GCSEs a child will get at 16. Weaker communication skills are also closely linked to social disadvantage; children from less well-off homes start school on average 16 months behind their better-off peers in their language.

Improving language skills improves attainment. Research at York University, for example, has shown that children who took part in a 30-week small group oral language programme (the Nuffield Early Language Intervention) did significantly better on a reading comprehension test six months later than a control group.

And Cambridge University research with children in key stage 2 found that children taking part in a whole-class programme called Thinking Together, which teaches children how to hold a reasoned discussion, made greater gains in maths and science than children who did not take part.

Implications for leadership

All this means that you may be giving thought to what could be done to further develop speaking and listening in your school. There is lots of great practice to draw on; in my two years as Communication Champion I saw many examples of whole-school approaches which were giving good results. These all seemed to have in common a three-wave approach:

• Wave 1: Good everyday classroom curriculum practice.
• Wave 2: Catch-up interventions for groups of children.
• Wave 3: Specialist interventions for those with the greatest difficulties.

Watercliffe Meadow Primary in Sheffield is one example. The headteacher and staff have a shared vision about the importance of meeting children’s speech, language and communication needs. The school’s strategy includes working with parents as well as good systems for identifying children who need help and tracking their progress.

At Wave 1, the curriculum is rich with visits and experiential learning to promote talk. The school uses approaches such as Pie Corbett’s Talk for Writing, Philosophy for Children, and Quality Circle Time to give children language structures that enable them to have deep conversations and discussions on issues that are important to them.

The school café has “social seating” to promote talk and is open for parents at the start and end of the day and throughout the day for children. The playground is also seen as a key opportunity:“Just as the teacher would structure conversation and debate in the classroom, we have a team of ‘play leaders’ (mainly teaching assistants) who initiate games that encourage children to talk and interact,” headteacher Ian Read explained.

At Wave 2, there are well-planned interventions to provide extra help for children who need it – groups which pre-teach key vocabulary before the children are going to meet it, speech groups, and the “Talking Partners” small group intervention devised in Bradford.

All children have their language skills assessed by the end of their first term in nursery. Their language progress is then individually tracked as they move up through the school. Every half-term the speech and language therapist meets class teachers and goes through tracking data, identifying strategies to support children with language needs in class, or further interventions. Children who are still having difficulties at the start of year 1 are prioritised for therapy at Wave 3.

The impact of the school’s focus on communication has been noted by Ofsted: “Achievement has improved substantially. This is most notable in developing speech and language in key stage 1, which is having a direct impact on attainment in reading and writing.”

Cluster approaches

As well as work in individual schools, I saw good examples of groups of schools collaborating to share provision. In the town of Winsford in Cheshire, a cluster of primary and special schools buy additional time from the local speech and language therapy service so that school-based therapists can help staff embed approaches into their everyday teaching, assess children, and train and support teaching assistants to run intervention programmes. The schools also work with the charity ICAN, which has arranged large-scale training events for the cluster.

In the early years, speech and language therapists and children’s centres provide parents with a key ring of top tips for talk, with new tips added each week. Another cluster initiative is a research project in which children formed a team to find out what makes a good conversation and now act as “Conversation Champions” to coach and support their peers.

Other children were involved in researching what happened in classrooms and presenting their findings. They found that children often did not understand what the teacher was saying. They also reported that “we – the children – are very good at talking but not so good at listening”.

From this came a staff development programme on how to modify adult language (“chunking” instructions, using visual supports and so on), and work in classes on listening skills. At the end, children repeated their classroom observations and found positive changes.

A focus on the environment

At Derwentwater Primary in Ealing, one of the first steps to improve language was to look at the environment. They found that the more open the space, the noisier it became and the more it was dominated by confident children. The more intimate the space, the more the less confident children engaged and the more children talked to adults and each other – and could be heard.

So staff planned ways of breaking up the space, creating a corner of the playground with a trellis, drapes and small play houses. Noticing that children are stimulated to talk by strong sensory experiences, they created a sensory garden full of things to look at, smell, touch and hear. Audits also showed that role-play, problem-solving and investigation were the activities most likely to lead to collaboration and communication. So role-play areas were carefully planned, like a baby clinic with telephones for children to use to make appointments.

Role-play was linked to problem-solving and investigation, and to outdoor as well as indoor play; a group of boys, for example, decided that the babies in the baby clinic needed washing, so they discussed how to do this, finding an empty bucket and working out how to fill it with water.

Adults undertook training and learned how to change some habitual ways of interacting with children. Instead of asking questions, they learned to comment on what children were doing, giving them time to respond.

Comments practitioners could use to encourage talk (“That’s really interesting”, “I wonder how…”, “You’ve used…”) were displayed in areas where staff had in the past found it hardest to use appropriate open-ended language. Staff discussed and agreed on the key vocabulary they wanted children to learn for particular activities and these were written on cards and hung above that activity in order to be consistently modelled.

Making change happen

All the great schools I saw realised that developing a fresh approach to language would involve changing some fairly entrenched adult behaviours. So what worked for them was sustained professional development, in which training was followed up with the chance to try out new ideas in the setting, with support, and then reflect on the impact.

One useful tool was peer coaching – partnering up with another practitioner and asking them to observe their colleague’s interactions with children and provide feedback.

Methods like Lesson Study were also effective. A group of schools in Croydon, for example, used Lesson Study to develop children’s skills in paired and group discussion, reflecting on what others have said, and questioning skills. Change was measured by auditing the percentage of teacher talk and productive pupil talk over a series of Lesson Studies. Findings showed that teacher talk decreased from 35 to 25 per cent and pupil talk rose from 65 to 75 per cent.

Help is at hand

There are an increasing number of programmes to support school leaders choosing to focus on children’s communication skills. ICAN, for example, has a whole-school programme Primary Talk and provides training on high-impact small group intervention programmes like Talk Boost. Also, Language Link is an online scheme that can be used to screen an entire year group to identify those who need extra help and provide strategies to support them. Local speech and language therapy services can, as we have seen, help schools develop staff skills.

So, maybe it is time to recognise the vital contribution that spoken language makes to learning and try out some of these approaches?

• Jean Gross CBE is an expert in improving the learning, attainment and wellbeing of disadvantaged children and those with SEN. She was until recently the government’s Communication Champion for children. Her book Time to Talk: Implementing outstanding practice in speech, language and communication is out now (Routledge).

Further information
• Thinking together: http://thinkingtogether.educ.cam.ac.uk/.
• ICAN: www.ican.org.uk.
• Language Link:www.speechlink.info.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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