Avoiding the Acronym

The College of West Anglia

This project is based on my own CPD experience with School 21 where I developed my knowledge and understanding of oracy-based approaches to Teaching, Learning and Assessment, and was also completely enthused by the ideas and practices demonstrated by learners and staff.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway [LINK].

Summary

Having seen children confidently articulating their thoughts and ideas with expertise and confidence clearly demonstrated to me how having effective oracy skills can empower, motivate and inspire young people – literally changing lives. What I came to understand is that oracy – the ability to reason, respond, and explain yourself in speech – needs to be afforded the same priority and value as reading and writing, not just seen as an add-on, or limited to a Functional Skills requirement.

Harlow is an area with high levels of deprivation. Learners from this area leave school with a lower GCSE grade profile than the UK average. The college also has a large proportion of children looked after, and/or studying English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses, because of the large number of asylum seekers in the surrounding areas.

Getting our learners to speak, to engage with the world as individuals with something to say, is incredibly important. Not just for passing exams, but for inclusion, equality and diversity!

Rationale

One of the ongoing difficulties we face involves trying to enrich the programme beyond the traditional exam focus, embed stretch and challenge opportunities, and provide learners in a post-16 setting (vocational and academic) clear links to employability. These issues have been identified in learner feedback, walkthroughs, our inspection report (Ofsted, 2019) and, as a consequence, in our own SAR. Research from the government’s National curriculum review panel (James et al, 2011) shows that there is a direct relationship between dialogic teaching and improved individual and collective academic outcomes.

A recently published report (Jay et al, 2017) shows that spending more class time on meaningful dialogue that encourages learners to reason, discuss, speculate, argue and explain can improve English results. Furthermore, the development of oracy at curriculum level through a talk-centred approach can have a “pronounced effect on achievement across the curriculum, as well as enhancing learners’ eloquence, confidence and wellbeing” (Mercer et al, 2020).

In addressing the above, we believe that developing learners’ ability to critically engage with texts, ideas, and the ideas of others through dialogic approaches can have significant benefits in terms of attainment, retention and progression.

Approach

Having been inspired by the work of Voice 21 and School 21 we spent time deciding which oracy strategies and resources could be adapted and implemented in a Post-16 setting with learners who find it challenging to voice opinions or explain ideas. We chose 2 groups to work with, a GCSE resit group from Hairdressing and Beauty, and a first year A Level Literature group.

What we noticed from the outset is that whilst the A Level learners had a wider range of vocabulary, and subject specific terminology (as well as the confidence of having passed their GCSE English, unlike the resitters) they were still reluctant and unwilling to articulate their ideas through spoken language.

Given the duration of the project, we discussed a range of possible approaches that could be embedded quickly and that would be the least onerous in terms of adaptation, application, and assessment (of the learners and the strategy itself). We also wanted to choose strategies that could be used across both GCSE English Language and A Level English Literature, the two subjects we teach.

We wanted the learners to feel confident and consider themselves to be part of an exciting journey of discovery. The findings of our questionnaire at the beginning of the project showed that all the learners considered oracy to be important and wanted to be better at it.

We tried to apply and be aware of the Four Strands within The Oracy Framework used in Voice 21 (Figure 2d-1) in all of our classroom strategies, namely:
• Physical (voice and body language)
• Linguistic (vocab, language, rhetorical techniques)
• Cognitive (content, structure, clarifying and summarising and reasoning)
• Social and Emotional (working with others, listening and responding, confidence in speaking, audience awareness).

However, there was also an understanding that these were aspirational goals to be achieved across a far longer period of time.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

From the outset we made a deliberate decision to actively encourage talk by being conscious of talking as an educational resource. In terms of delivery, we prioritised oracy as an activity before the writing tasks – whatever we were doing in class had to be discussed, explained, or described. The ‘traverse’ strategy (Figure 2d-2) was used to get the learners talking about anything at first and for short bursts of time. This proved successful with the learners who got fully involved – one teacher commented that she had been trying all year to get one learner to speak without success!

Time was gradually extended and the topics changed in-line with the GCSE or A Level assessments. As the weeks progressed, and as a way of scaffolding responses to support learners, we used PETER prompt cards (Point, Evidence, Technique, Explain, Reflect) to focus on paper 1, question 5 for GCSE English language– something that the learners were familiar with. Learners really enjoyed progressing through the coloured cards, recognising the differences between the skills for each stage, and making the activity a bit of a competition.

In our classroom activities we gave learners longer to consider their ideas; we encouraged listening – no interruptions – to build on the answers of others. By changing the groupings of the tables (changed according to learners’ feedback) this allowed for cross class/group talk. In the A level group, the tables were always arranged in a horseshoe shape so that learners were able to see and listen to the contributions of one another more effectively, as well as taking into account the 4 strands. By the 4th week, learners were moving tables around before I even got into the room. What we found from implementing the strategies was that the learners were becoming used to using speaking as a strategy to engage with learning, knowledge and understanding; as teachers we were able to assess their knowledge and understanding more quickly. The classroom felt more dynamic and responsive.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Given the starting point for our learners, evidence of improvement with a skill like oracy is difficult to track over such a short space of time. Oracy is not a single skill, and is powerfully intertwined with learner’s self-esteem, self-efficacy, and sense of place in the world. For our learners, oracy (the capacity to speak out), makes you visible, and many of our GCSE and our Level 3 learners, feel uncomfortable about this. However, the results of our learner questionnaire, collated at the start of the project, confirmed our belief in the need for good oracy skills. 78% felt that they wanted to speak, but didn’t have the confidence, 87% wanted to feel more confident in verbalising their ideas, and 75% considered that being able to explain yourself helped with their learning. At the end of the project we asked the learners to reflect on their experience of a more oracy-based classroom. Their responses were mostly positive to neutral, with no negative feedback.

The learners said oracy:

“helped boost my confidence”

“it helped me speak up to other people”

“It definitely helped my social skills…and share my ideas”

“I feel that the oracy project helped me with my social communication with others. In particular, the writing task.”

From a professional stance, we are convinced by the positive impact oracy has had on our learners and classroom, and intend to invest time and effort in continued planning and research.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

We held regular meetings to discuss the outcomes of our oracy approach to Teaching, Learning and Assessment, and found a new confidence and excitement about how this approach could positively influence our learners. We also recognised that oracy is not a quick fix. We could see that some learners were developing their oracy skills across the weeks: they were talking for longer with greater focus, were more confident and were prepared to talk through ideas with others. However, we realised that for oracy to have a meaningful impact and see real change in our learners would require a buy in, a strategic and cultural shift that can be achieved only through practitioners having the understanding of how oracy can positively impact on learners’ progression. The direct participants in the project have therefore taken the opportunity for professional learning through external training offered through Voice 21, The National Oracy Pioneers programme, and attendance at School 21 Great Oracy Exhibition.

Based on our professional experience, classroom practice, and reflection, we feel passionately that learners can benefit from the inclusion of our oracy project in our curriculum planning. Although Functional Skills groups weren’t directly involved in the project, we can see that oracy will have a huge impact in enabling learners to pass their Speaking and Listening through increased confidence. As an area that supports most of the programmes in the college, we believe that strong oracy skills will have a positive impact on learners’ progression, confidence and motivation. We initially intend to work collaboratively with the English team to disseminate our findings, share practice and embed oracy in our curriculum planning for next year. The OTLA project is already identified in the Harlow College’s QIP as a means of improving achievement and retention, with possible collaborative CPD opportunities to expand the use of oracy across college.

Learning from this project

We have found that our focus on developing oracy skills has had a positive impact on Teaching, Learning and Assessment. However, we also strongly believe that strategies need to be carefully considered, and planned for to maximise its potential in the classroom. We will be reviewing these at the end of the year, and modifying/creating our own resources to meet the specific needs of our learners.

A focus on oracy skills can change the dynamics and interactions of a classroom, making it more student led. However, oracy cannot be explored only by individual teachers; it needs the support, enthusiasm and commitment of the whole team.

Of the resources we used, some were more effective than others; the A level learners didn’t like the discussion cards as they thought that they inhibited their responses and offered too many choices. Some oracy techniques need to be streamlined to allow for the time restraints of lessons. There were too many colour-coded cards to work through with the learners; some were ambiguous and needed modelling, or refining.

Putting into place our oracy skills programme several weeks into the term meant there was some work to do to convince the learners of its relevance, and for them to be less resistant. It needs to be planned for, and for teachers to be confident in its implementation from the start of the academic year, so that oracy skills are accepted as a key element in the culture of the programme/s.

In order to achieve results, oracy skills development should be planned for. It should be an active part of every lesson, for every learner, and afforded the same value as reading and writing. Oracy should not be seen as a bolt-on to reading and writing, which is often shown by the struggle to complete the speaking and listening component of the Functional Skills assessments. It is a central aspect of the curriculum.