Suzanne Hughes | Rectory Farm Primary School
My school’s Ambition Charter states that we want our students to build happy and successful lives. For this, they need strength of character; strong communication skills along with a resolute confidence. There are high levels of disadvantage at my school and, as a staff body, we passionately believe that our students’ oracy should not hold them back in life.
As Alexander (2013) notes, the effects of disadvantage experienced by children can be compounded by difficulties in oral language development and communication. Therefore, all students should be supported to communicate and express themselves eloquently. All too often our children, and others in our school community, have important things to say but do not have the confidence to do so. This Impact Project looks at developing the confidence of students in the Student Council.
To what extent does structured talk, implemented for 8 weeks, improve the confidence levels of the Student Council to express their opinions?
The target group that was decided upon was the School Council, as this was a group with which I would have regular contact, as well as the autonomy to deliver the project. Recognising that the school council is the vehicle through which all students have a voice, in the wider sense, at school, I believed that developing the confidence of the Student Council to express their own opinions, as well as to listen to and act upon those of others, would have a positive effect on the whole school community.
The Council is comprised of 6 students, from Year 1 to Year 6, who are voted in by their peers. As part of the democratic process, the children verbally deliver a manifesto to their class, meaning that the students successfully voted onto the Council are likely to be some of the school’s more confident, proficient speakers, which should be considered when evaluating the impact of the intervention and its replicability across the school.
Data was collected in the form of student and teacher opinion surveys. Firstly, a student questionnaire in which students indicated how confident they feel in various scenarios. Then staff completed a similar questionnaire, outlining how confident they felt students were in the same scenarios. The questions included confidence levels in speaking to different audiences as well as how they felt about supporting others in different situations. Also, it was felt that their role as a listener could not be ignored, so this too formed part of the line of enquiry.
Intervention & intended impact
The intervention aimed to support the student’s confidence by providing students with scaffolds and strategies to raise the quality of the Student Council’s discussion. The vision was that by the end of the intervention there would be very little adult involvement in the discussion needed, with the chairperson orchestrating the discussions independently.
So, the following Voice 21 approaches – as discussed by Gaunt and Stott (2019) – were utilised:
- Discussion Guidelines
- Traits of a good listener
- Role of a Chairperson
- Sentence Stems
- Talk Roles
- Primary Talk Detectives
Having discussion guidelines in place ensured that all the students participated in the discussion. This was extremely important due to the age range of the students participating. As was their ability to listen, value each other’s contributions and build on the ideas of others. This enabled the conversation to flow and improved the outcomes of the discussion. It was important that student’s felt their Council was run by them and that they felt empowered to make their own decisions. Therefore, the balance of adult to student talk was very much weighted towards the students.
At the end of the intervention I repeated the staff and student questionnaires to assess whether the students felt that their confidence had improved, and if their teachers agreed. The impact data shows that the students’ confidence levels have risen in all areas which is extremely encouraging.
However, due to the nature of the project, there was no control group and so it is difficult to say whether student confidence levels would have increased despite the intervention. Whilst the Impact Project was taking place, staff at school were also taking part in a programme of professional development for oracy, making changes to their own classroom practice. This could also have had a positive impact on the skills and confidence levels of the students within the Student Council.
The data collected was also subjective as it was based on staff and student perceptions of their own confidence. Students may, for example, feel confident in their ability to talk in a range of different scenarios, but this does not necessarily mean that they are effective. As noted by Alexander (2013), confidence cannot be looked at in isolation; not only is a student’s ability to speak in front of an audience important but also their understanding of the concepts they are talking about.
As the project was run by a member of school staff and the students who had been voted into the Council would have been participating regardless of the project, there was very little concern about ethics. Also, the Hawthorn Effect was considered as it was important to not skew the results by explaining too much about the project. As a result, a retrospective consent letter was issued to all participants.
It soon became clear that even though the context of the discussions being undertaken were within the realms of the student’s experience, they did not have enough knowledge of the possible improvements that could be made to contribute confidently to a discussion. For example, during a discussion on improving lunchtime provision, students’ initial responses were limited. To improve this, I introduced a range of stimuli for students to discuss. For example, exploring a Chinese school’s lunchtime provision. As a result of this students decided that they would adopt the ‘table monitor’ model.
It was also essential to ensure that students respected each other and listened to their peer’s contributions carefully. To do this we introduced the idea of ‘tracking the speaker’, developed by Doug Lemov (2015) to ensure that students engaged with and listened to the opinions of their peers, rather than just those of the teacher.
The group had little or no previous experience of a council style meeting and so a lot of time and input was needed so that they had a clear idea of their roles and responsibilities. As the children were from different year groups and had very little previous interaction, many were wary of initiating conversations or participating. A lot of scaffolding was required at the start of the project in order to encourage the older students to support the younger ones and to act as positive role models.
It was great to witness the confidence of the students to participate grow, as well as the efficiency and quality of their contributions improve over time, particularly the way they ensured that the views of all the children were encouraged and supported. This in turn developed the student’s confidence to respectfully challenge each other’s ideas and finally come to a mutual agreement. Although, these results were positive, there is still a long way to go before students are able to run their own Student Council meetings independently.
I will continue to develop the Impact Project next year with the Student Council as, alongside newly elected members, current councillors will also remain in place. This will mean new and existing members will work together, with current members modelling ‘best practice’. This will also enable the students to engage in a coaching model where peers can support each other as well as the younger students.
Through the project, I have learnt that order for students to feel more confident, we need to support them not only in developing their oracy skills but also in their understanding of the context and content of a discussion to enable them to develop their own opinions on a topic.
To further develop their confidence as speakers, I also believe that it is important that students have opportunities to speak in a range of different contexts to a range of different audiences. We should not underestimate the lack of opportunity and experience some of our students have and what impact this has on their ability to articulate their ideas and opinions.
In future, as a school we plan to raise the profile of presentational oracy as well as develop talk for learning within school. Next year’s curriculum will include Ignite Speeches planned for each year group resulting in a Speech Day in school. We would also like to develop a debating team so that our student’s voice can be heard on an ever-widening platform.
Alexander, R.J (2013). Improving oracy and classroom talk: achievements and challenges. Primary First. Pp.22-29
Gaunt, A. and Stott, A. (2019). Transforming Teaching and Learning Through Talk: The Oracy Imperative. New York, London Rowman & Littlefield
Lemov, D. (2015) Teach Like a Champion. USA. Jossey Bass; 2nd ed.
Wittgenstein, L. (1955). Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. UK: Linkgua, 23 Available at: www.oriel.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/psaila_l_essay_title_2.pdf