Liberty Kitchen, Catherine Junior School
For my project, I decided to research to what extent the use of presentational talk (implemented for 4 months) improved writing in Year 5. As the saying goes, “If you can say it, you can write it” and I wanted to test this theory further. Social constructivist theorists such as Vygotsky state that learning is a social process and therefore place a high importance on language and dialogue as the vehicle for deepening understanding (Pritchard, 2009). Today, that idea has been built upon with educational programmes such as ‘Talk for Writing’ by Pie Corbett, suggesting that oral language plays a strong role in supporting writing (Dockrell et al, 2015).
In the inner-city school in Leicester where I teach, approximately 80% of the children speak English as an additional language; therefore, their speech is sometimes broken, their sentences are not always grammatically correct and their vocabulary is limited. Unsurprisingly, this is also reflected in their writing. I knew the development of oracy in class was having a positive impact on the quality of speaking within discussions, however these opportunities were mainly based around exploratory talk. With presentational talk being defined as “final draft” talk (Barnes, 2008,), I was keen to explore whether greater exposure to this standard of talk would elevate the standard of written outcomes.
Can the development of presentational talk enhance the quality of writing?
At the beginning of the project, I decided to take writing samples from my class. The children were given time to talk about their ideas with their talk partners, they created plans together and then wrote independently. The baseline pieces of writing were collected across the ability spectrum of WTS (Working Towards Standards) and EXS (Expected Standard). From these samples, I found that despite being given time for exploratory talk, the children still struggled to get on and write and when they did, there was little variety in sentence structures and no evidence of ambitious vocabulary. Over 90% of the sentences that the WTS children had written were grammatically incorrect and 60% of the EXS writing samples had consistent punctuation errors.
As well as this, I also gave the children a questionnaire to complete, gathering information on the children’s attitudes towards writing and strategies that they identified as being helpful when writing in lessons. This showed that the majority of boys had a negative attitude towards writing and that the most helpful strategy was ‘working with a partner’. I also interviewed some children about their feelings towards talk and writing:
“I feel good when I’ve talked to someone and I’ve got more information.”
“I like talking with a partner. I feel embarrassed when it’s just my own idea.”
Intervention & intended impact
To begin, I wanted to clarify the difference between exploratory and presentational talk. Douglas Barnes refers to exploratory talk as speech that is “hesitant and incomplete because it enables the speaker to try out ideas”. Presentational talk on the other hand is focused on “getting it right” and giving an “appropriate form of speech” (Barnes, 2008).
As part of the intervention, I gave the children writing journals and asked them to do a writing task every morning for 30 minutes. Because of the emphasis on speech that was more formal and accurate, I decided to give the children sentence stems alongside a visual stimulus as these are recommended as a useful scaffold for talk and also “serve as a useful precursor to academic writing” (Gaunt & Stott, 2019). Firstly, the children were given 10 minutes of exploratory talk time to talk about the visual stimulus. They then had to make some notes on a whiteboard about what they were going to write. After that, they presented their writing to another pair or to the class, using the sentence stems provided. Finally, the children independently wrote into their journals. This process was repeated with different stimuli but always with the above method.
After a month of doing this, I felt there were a lot of different support aids within this process and I wanted to test each individual one to see which had the greatest impact. Was it the use of sentence stems? Or maybe just the exploratory talk? Maybe it was purely the pressure of presenting ideas to an audience that increased the standard of written outcomes? So, I then changed the intervention slightly. Each month, I tested a different part:
- Firstly, I experimented with not allowing any talk but gave the children sentence stems to use when planning and writing
- Then I gave them time for exploratory talk and sentence stems to support their discussions
- Finally, I gave them time for exploratory talk and then asked the children to present their stories to the class but gave them no sentence stems
By doing this, I hoped to get a greater understanding of the specific links between oracy and writing and how best to support the children in my class.
The data collected for this project was mainly qualitative: I conducted a pre and post qualitative questionnaire with the students in my class, I took writing samples and I interviewed children. However, from the writing samples, I also looked at the number of grammatically correct sentences and recorded this as a percentage. The results were as follows:
- Sentence stems/No talk: In this condition, I found that the children struggled to start their writing. One boy said in his interview, “I just looked at the page. I had nothing to write.” It’s evident here that, as proposed by theorists such as Vygotsky, children construct ideas through dialogue and discussion and so a lack of exploratory talk here meant that even with prompts such as the sentence stems, children still need time to ‘play’ with these sentence stems and ‘try out’ different ideas. 100% of the WTS and EXS sentences were now grammatically correct. However, there were only on average 3 sentences.
- Exploratory talk/Sentence Stems: This time there was a noticeable difference in the speed that the children got started writing. Instantly, the children started writing and were much more focused. When interviewed, a girl said, “we liked working as a group. We had more ideas and I felt more confident.” The conversations had by the children were still not ‘polished’ but having the sentence stems on the board helped to guide the conversation and support it. In the WTS and EXS group, 100% of sentences were grammatically correct and the amount of writing now increased to an average of 8 sentences. Interestingly, although I didn’t include ‘Greater Depth’ writers in this project, I still asked them to participate in the same activities and found that the sentence stems actually had a negative impact on this group. It appears that my sentence stems were too narrowing and didn’t give this group the challenge to explore their own sentence structures or ideas and so this hindered both the ambitious nature of their sentence structure, imagination and vocabulary.
- Presentational talk/Exploratory talk/No sentence stems: Finally, this time the children were equally as eager to start writing. However, during the presentations, it was clear that some of the children were lacking in confidence. One boy said, “I didn’t like presenting my ideas because I didn’t know if what I was saying was right. It was embarrassing and I didn’t know what to say.” When I continued the interview, it became apparent that the reason the student was uncomfortable was because I had taken away the scaffold of the sentence stems. He explained that these sentence stems provided a structure for his presentation and by taking this away, the task became too daunting for the WTS and EXS group. For this piece of writing, the average number of sentences was 6 and 60% of the sentences were grammatically correct.
In conclusion, it appears that the combination of both exploratory and presentational talk is most beneficial for improving the quality writing; exploratory talk provides the generation of ideas, and presentational talk is needed as a safe space to turn those ideas into something that is fit for both the purpose and audience.
Being the class teacher of the children involved in this project meant that I didn’t have to ask for participation permission from parents. However, I did tell the children at the beginning of the project that I was exploring different strategies that help them to write. By taking part in the pre and post questionnaire and interviews throughout the process, I also think they felt involved in the process as I shared my findings with them at the end and we discussed which strategies I should continue using in lessons to support their writing.
I think the biggest challenge in this project was unpicking the term ‘oracy’. I knew that embedding oracy within my teaching had a positive impact on learning, however, specifying what aspects of talk were improving the standards of writing was a challenge. To overcome this, I had to complete a variety of mini experiments within my project which did cut down my time dedicated to the preferred intervention. I now want to continue testing this intervention and dedicate more time in lessons to both exploratory and presentational talk.
Pritchard. A (2009) Ways of Learning. Abingdon: Routledge
Dockrell. J et al (2015) Talk for writing: Evaluation report and executive summary. London: EEF
Barnes. D (2008) Exploring talk in school. London: SAGE
Gaunt. A & Scott. A (2019) Transform teaching and learning through talk. London: Rowman & Littlefield