by Dave Dodd, Crab Lane Primary
A significant proportion of the students who come to our school enter without the necessary language and communication skills to fully access the curriculum. We have already begun to raise the profile of high quality oracy in school, through a focus on collaboration and speaking frames and we have been keen to develop this further. We are really keen to provide the best possible opportunities for our students to develop high quality language skills throughout their primary experience. Talk is essential to students’ thinking and learning and there is no doubt oracy should feature predominately within the statutory national curriculum (Alexander, 2011). This research aims to seek ways in which to improve the confidence of students to speak in group discussions, as well as to improve the quality of their discussions.
My exploratory research question was ‘How could the teaching of oracy improve the quality of talk from students?’ This was based on my practical observations of students throughout my six years of teaching at my current school, and through discussions with staff. As a school, we know that oracy education is essential for our students and this has become a key aspect of our School Improvement Plan.
As a Key Stage Two Phase Leader and a Year Six teacher, my target students were a group of seven Year Six students, both male and female. The students were chosen for a variety of reasons including: lack of confidence in speaking in group discussions, dominating conversations, absence of listening skills and a lack of ability to create content of what to say, when to say it and how. In addition to this, the students were also chosen to support their transition from our school into high school.
As the research developed, I was able to hone my exploratory question and to create my evaluative research question: To what extent does the teaching of oracy groupings and roles, implemented for 5 months, improve the quality of discussions for Year Six students?
Firstly, I completed a Pupil Oracy Questionnaire, to gain an understanding of the students’ awareness of what oracy was and how they would rate their own communication skills. The results (Figure 1) clearly demonstrated a lack of awareness from the students about what oracy was, alongside an acknowledgement of their own poor communication skills. I completed a Harkness discussion with the group. Whilst doing this, I gathered various types of quantitative data. I recorded how many times each student spoke (Figure 2), to measure the student’s confidence to speak in group discussions.
I also measured the type and quality of talk the group used during the Harkness discussion (Figure 3), as well as negative behaviours (Figure 4). It was clear various students did not have the confidence to even speak in group discussions and the ones who did, used very limited oracy skills, often simply building on or challenging each other’s opinions. In addition, negative behaviours, such as dominating the discussion and going off topic were observed.
I then showed the students the four strands of Oracy (Linguistic, Cognitive, Physical and Social), developed by Voice 21 and Cambridge University. Within the strands, there are 13 individual skills such as: voice control, correct vocabulary, relevant content and listening and responding. I asked them to self-assess which of these skills they had used during the Harkness discussion (Figure 5). From this, I concluded that not only did the students use a very limited number of oracy skills, but their self-awareness of which skills they were able to use was not very accurate. This highlights the importance of making the teaching of oracy explicit to students.
Finally, I conducted a Focus Group (Figure 6), to gain qualitative, anecdotal and “rich” data about the student’s thoughts and feelings regarding the oracy task. This was extremely powerful, as it clearly demonstrated the difficulties many students have participating in group discussions and communicating effectively with others.
Baseline data summary
The pre oracy education data above highlighted many students’ lack of confidence to speak in a group discussion. The rationale and necessity for this research and a need for oracy education were also highlighted by anecdotal comments such as, “I didn’t know what to say and when to say something.” In addition, it highlighted that the students are often only building on or challenging each other’s opinions, with a real lack of probing, clarifying and summarising. In addition, negative behaviours, such as lack of listening and going off topic were clearly embedded for students, as clear discussion guidelines had not been provided for the students up to this point.
Intervention and intended impact
An Oracy Education Intervention was planned over a five month period. The students accessed a range of lessons, with the intended impact being increased confidence to speak in group discussions and a higher quality of talk, with students using a greater range of types of talk and less negative behaviours.
Initially, I introduced the notion of discussion guidelines to the student. We videoed discussions of the students and allowed them to evaluate them to produce a set of barriers to their discussions. We then created a collective set of guidelines to follow, during group discussions, which made it explicitly clear what the expectations were.
I then taught the students a range of activities, which helped teach the skills linked to the Oracy Framework. Initially, I focused on the ‘physical’ strand, working to develop body language and tone of voice. The impact of this was instant with one teacher finding me to say, “I have never seen them so confident to speak in class!” Over a series of lessons, I taught the students different roles and types of talk within a discussion, such as, instigating a discussion, building on other’s opinions, probing and questioning, challenging other’s opinions, clarifying and summarising the conversation. Alongside this, I encouraged students to speak in a range of group sizes (pairs, trios, larger groups), which allowed for different types of talk.
Finally, I continued to emphasise the importance of the students using the sentence stems that I had provided them with and encouraged them to innovate their own throughout the process.
It is clear there was an improvement in students’ oracy skills, due to the oracy education provided.
Figure 1. Pupil oracy questionnaire pre and post oracy intervention
Figure 2. Number of inputs during a Harkness discussion.
There was a fairer distribution of inputs during the post oracy education Harkness discussion, with all students having an opportunity to share their thoughts.
Figure 3. Types of talk (Harkness).
Figure 4. Negative behaviours (Harkness).
In the post oracy education Harkness discussion, all six types of talk roles were successfully used by the students. This was a huge improvement, when compared to the first Harkness discussion. Clarifying and summarising were observed for the first time, alongside a significant increase in probing. In addition, it was interesting to note the disappearance of negative behaviours, such as disrespectful comments, post oracy education.
Figure 5. Student comments before and after the oracy intervention.
Children clearly felt more confident in participating in the group discussion post-oracy education. The students not only felt they were more successful individually, using new oracy skills and all having an input, but clearly felt the group as a whole were more successful, with an awareness of staying on topic and supporting each other to become part of the discussion.
Figure 6. Student self-assessment of oracy skills, linked to the four strands, during Harkness discussion (out of 13).
Students were clearly aware of how successful they were, using a variety of oracy skills, in the post oracy education Harkness discussion. The group average score more than doubled.
Ethical concerns were minimised throughout the impact project. Consent forms were gained and the student’s identity remained anonymous.
I have thoroughly enjoyed and learned a great deal from this project. The qualitative data has really evidenced the clear positive impact of this project for our students. The students have not only improved the quality of their oracy skills, evidenced above, but also their own awareness of improved abilities, confidence and enjoyment of group discussions; this has been wonderful to observe.
Alexander, R.J. (ed) (2011) Children, their World, their Education: final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review, Abingdon, Routledge, especially pp 305-7.