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The Power of Talk by Eirini Parsons

The Power of Talk by Eirini Parsons

I look back at my primary school days with fondness; making friends, learning to read, creating lots of art and playing schools. However, one thing that I can also distinctly remember is the sheer dread I would feel when asked to share my ideas or learning to the class. I hated it. Talking in front of others was something that I (and many of my friends) feared. I used to try and ‘lay low’ in the classroom in hope that I wouldn’t be chosen to speak. I would often only share my ideas one to one to my teacher or in small groups and speaking in front of a whole class was something I completely avoided where possible. This came as a surprise to my parents, who could not understand how I was a ‘free reader’ and could confidently flit between speaking two languages at home, yet would be so quiet in class.

It wasn’t until I started secondary school that I built the confidence to use my voice more. I now realise that this was from being given so many planned for opportunities to practise ‘talk’ in different ways across subjects- something which definitely lacked from my primary school experience. Group discussions, debates, projects and presentations were so regular in secondary school that they became the norm, so eventually became less daunting. These experiences gave me the confidence to use my voice in other aspects of my life too; things like joining debate societies, delivering talks and within aspects of my teaching career. It’s that regular group discussion and opportunities to talk in different forms that I wish six-year-old me was encouraged to do more in primary school, so that I could have had the confidence to use my voice sooner. This is why I am such a strong advocate for encouraging talk in the classroom and ensuring that children can develop both exploratory and presentational talk from a young age, not just when they start secondary school.

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When I attended the Voice 21 Oracy training in 2020, it really opened my eyes to how much can be done to help develop children’s oracy in and out of the classroom, and dispelled any ideas I had that oracy was purely about presenting. Oracy is so much more than that; it’s the ability to listen, share ideas, build and challenge others, reason and interact confidently in different social interactions and contexts. Trialling different strategies within my own classroom at the time, really helped me see the positive impact of explicitly teaching ‘talk’ had on the children socially, academically and emotionally. I saw first- hand children who were once too shy to answer a question in lessons, challenge others’ points, initiate new points of conversation and share their learning to the class with pride. I saw children who had not passed their phonics screenings in Year 1, yet were successfully applying Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary and constructing full sentences in conversations in, with the help of speaking frames, sentence stems and the introduction of the ‘vocabulary vine’. It was clear that it wasn’t just talk, but that actually all of these elements together really helped to develop children’s ability to articulate themselves confidently and clearly, regardless of academic attainment.

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As a partnership, we have collectively become more aware of the impact that vocabulary (or lack of) has on children’s communication development. Studies by White et al. (1989) highlighted how children from disadvantaged backgrounds have a much narrower vocabulary than children from a more advantaged background, with the vocabulary gap only widening as the children get older. Likewise, the Bercow: 10 Years On report (2018) highlighted to us how in the UK more than 10% of all children and young people have communication difficulties, with needs which are not always met.

Our push to develop children’s oracy across our schools through the implementation of the Inspire Oracy Framework and clearly planned activities started to make great improvements to our children’s exposure and confidence to talking in different contexts. However, with the pandemic, school closures and guidance on new classroom arrangements, it was made very difficult to allow for talk in many ways. Whilst I know we all got creative with planning for different presentational outcomes that children took part in through online learning- I saw so many great speeches, poetry recitals and oral retells across Google Classrooms- the key element of face to face interaction was lost during this period of time.

I’m sure you have all noticed the impact the pandemic has had on our children’s vocabulary, confidence and how well they articulate themselves, within your own schools and classrooms. This has impacted children in schools across the UK. The Oracy All- Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) have found the huge impact the pandemic has had on the already significant language gap between disadvantaged students and their peers. 66% of primary school teachers said that school closures during the pandemic had a negative effect on the spoken language development of pupils eligible for pupil premium and free school meals, whereas 19% of teachers noting a negative impact of the school closures on the most advantaged pupils (APPG Final Report, April 2021). The pandemic has increased the need to act now and really push talk in classrooms to help narrow these gaps.

Purposeful talk in the classroom really goes back to what we are doing as teachers to develop a dialogic classroom and teaching practises. In Robin Alexander’s ‘Dialogic Teaching’ (2020) it explains how ‘dialogic teaching harnesses the power of talk to engage interest, stimulate thinking, advance understanding, expand ideas, build and evaluate arguments… empowering students for lifelong learning and democratic engagement. Being collaborative and supportive, it confers social and emotional benefits too’.

Dialogic teaching includes three main elements we all need to be aware of within our practise:

  1. Teacher talk and language
  2. A vocabulary rich learning environment
  3. Planning activities for talk to take place across the curriculum


Teacher talk and language

The way we talk as teachers can make such a difference on the children’s oracy development. Giving open ended questions more regularly will support children’s thinking and encourage them to reason. The way we give feedback and how we respond to incorrect answers is also crucial, because teasing out an understanding rather than providing a correction allows that opportunity for the children to lead their learning through building and challenging each other’s ideas. Allowing for wait time to find those answers is also key - don’t ‘steal the struggle’ and you will see how every child will eventually find their answer, so allow for that wait time no matter how uncomfortable. All children will soon see their voice is valid and will be heard.


A vocabulary rich learning environment

Ensuring our learning environments are up to date with relevant tier 2 & 3 vocabulary is key, because without the appropriate words, children will not feel confident to apply them to both their speaking and writing. Having appropriate stems and speaking frames around the room easily accessible to the children will structure their dialogue and give them confidence to engage in conversations- often, children don’t lack the ideas or knowledge, but struggle to construct what they want to say in full sentences, so this really helps. Lastly, don’t underestimate the power of an oral story. Pi Corbett’s Talk for Writing and oral rehearsal can be so beneficial in giving children that time to discuss and practise what they want to say or write and also gives them the chance to magpie ideas from across the classroom.

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Planning activities for talk to take place across the curriculum

Explicitly planning activities that encourage talk in lessons means you will always be able to target children’s specific oracy development points. Considering your grouping structures (Kagan or Discussion Roles), thinking about how you will encourage turn- taking and active listening and giving the children different roles to take on within groups ensures that they are being exposed to talk in a variety of different contexts. There are so many different activities and discussion roles to choose from, all of which can be found broken down within the Inspire Oracy Framework.

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Whilst I know that these points are not completely new and these are all things we see across our schools in the partnership on a regular basis, what I ask you to do having read this blog, is think to yourself, which of these elements can you confidently say you consistently apply within your day to day teaching practise? Which of these elements need to be reintroduced or need more emphasis with your new class? What can you do to ensure that no child in your class feels too shy to use their own voice?

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