Language matters. It shapes thought.
Language is constantly changing. Broadcasters in the 1950s would have sounded like the Queen; today, regional accents are commonplace on radio and television. In Literature, Enid Blyton books would have contained “awfully nice” as an expression of delight, compared to the harder language and moral messages (shaped buy cultural and societal change) found in literature for children and young adults of today. The significance? Cultural changes subconsciously affect us as we mirror each other’s speech and gestures.
I’ve occasionally come across text speak when looking through student language analysis and most certainly in oracy, words have mirrored cultures that we are exposed to through the media and the subconscious influence from those around us; ‘init’ ‘like’ and ‘you know what I mean’ are probably in my top five. Feedback is given when any of the latter is used in a response. I highlight it with humour – but ultimately my students know there is an important message to be learned and a correction to be made.
If we reflect on our classroom experiences and consider speech and communication, we spend the majority of our lessons delivering instruction to support our students in accessing the curriculum. We think out loud to model our thought processes and demonstrate how we connect knowledge and tackle challenges. Preparing students to be confident speakers and writers is key and oracy can be found at its core – loud voice, confidence, talking thoughtfully and verbalising responses that are peppered with tiered vocabulary, and shaped with explain, describe, analyse, compare and evaluate. In requiring our students to think carefully about their dialogue in response to questions and discussion, we diagnostically assess the extent to which they can deliver a rich oral tapestry of a deepening understanding and making connections with previous taught material. We are ultimately setting students on the journey of moving from a novice to an expert. This deepening of understanding is a result of the dialogue that takes place with teachers and peers. (Alexander, 2012)
Insisting on the speaking of full sentences is one way in which we can support students to strengthen their speech and communication. For Robin Alexander (2008), five types of ‘teacher talk’ will be appropriate in the learning cycle.
- Rote: imparting knowledge by getting students to repeat key pieces of information to impart facts, ideas and routines.
- Recitation: using questions to test students’ knowledge and understanding, to check students’ progress, and stimulate recall.
- Instruction: telling students what to do and explaining key facts, principles or processes in order to transmit information.
- Discussion: encouraging the exchange of ideas within a class, to share information.
- Dialogue: using structured questions and discussion, helping students deepen understanding of key knowledge, principles and processes.
Very often, our dialogue is structured and built around key vocabulary and its application within the subject matter being delivered. Targeted questioning encourages verbal participation and wait time gives space for reflection and discussion. It can be empowering; increasing student ability to discuss, connect ideas whilst purposefully challenging them to retain specific subject knowledge.
The importance of developing oracy is highly recognised. Like all teachers, I have specific words in my subject that I require my students to use when verbally answering a question and when they are writing a response. What if I wish my students to think outside the box, grow their perceptive thinking and be able to elaborate? Does my targeting questioning allow for this? I’ve used terms such as ‘can you develop that?’ and ‘can you add to what student X has just said?’ In using these questions, am I looking for the obvious? Am I looking at predictable answers?
I’m working hard to develop the oracy of the students I teach. Maybe I’m not convinced I have found the answers, but I feel I am on my way. To build a platform of oracy focus and understanding I have begun to be mindful of the following:
When students talk to peers, full sentences must be spoken and key vocabulary used (from the current lesson and previous lessons).
In modelling my talk I carefully include the vocabulary I wish my students to use, purposefully connecting back to grow contextual understanding and strengthen their understanding of how to link concepts. I have found active practise vocabulary (also termed explicit vocabulary instruction) a strong platform on which to grow vocabulary within contexts.
When I question, I try to encourage a range of thought processes from retrieval, deeper exploration and the connecting of concepts. I use dual coding to trigger previous student knowledge of vocabulary to support the application of the concept and connect to a new concept. I use this strategy to organise and layer knowledge. The more layers of knowledge, the deeper the thinking and the more concepts are connected. A platform for that rich tapestry of thinking and verbalisation of ideas with oracy at the fore.
Starter sentences can be signposts to the level of oracy expected. Deliberately practising verbalising responses using this strategy helps to build the written element which all students have to experience and master. In English Literature, the starter sentences I use capture the what, how and why:
In the extract, Stevenson presents (character/theme/setting) . . .
The careful use of . . . (language/structure/form)
The purposeful use of ‘____________________’
Stevenson’s use of (language/structure/form) creates a sense of . . .
This of course is only a brief example. Once the how, what and why are established, questioning is built up to include contextual knowledge and reader response. Discussions before crafting a response enable the pooling of ideas – a dipping pond in which my students can begin to select, connect and develop their ideas.
I often have songs in my head as I put words on paper – I put this down to my previous role as a music teacher. From the first sentence of this blog, the Feeling’s ‘Fill My Little World Right Up’ has weaved in and out of my thinking. But I don’t want to simply fill my students world with knowledge; my goal is to use my expert knowledge to introduce, connect, grow and inspire perceptive and insightful thinking using oracy to help my students get there. A goal of every teacher. Init?