A spotlight on Willowbank Primary School, Devon

“I think the whole culture of the school has changed in valuing the importance of oracy."

Willowbank Primary School is a large school located in the small town of Cullompton, just outside Exeter. At Willowbank, there is a real enthusiasm amongst staff towards placing oracy at the heart of teaching and learning provision. This can be seen in the recent success of their poetry week. Here at Voice 21, we were thrilled to interview Amy Davies and Kelly Gibbs about their poetry project and the impact that oracy has had on staff and students at Willowbank.

In November 2021, the oracy champions at Willowbank Primary School worked together to plan and run a week-long poetry project across the whole school. Amy Davies, an EYFS class teacher, explained:

“We know that poetry is something the children find really, really hard, and we wanted them to get opportunities to express through words, and we felt that oracy would fit with that nicely … poetry is not something children often read at home, it’s not a book you’d often pick up. And so that was another reason why we wanted to make it a whole school focus.”

Working collaboratively, oracy champions from EYFS to Year 6 used the oracy framework and its four stands as a planning tool and mode of structure for their project: 

“Throughout the week, we introduced different parts of the oracy framework. The children left the week having an understanding of the physical strand, the social and emotional strand, the linguistic strand. And I think that allowed them to develop a greater understanding of what oracy is. And I think it’s really easy to think of oracy as talking. But there’s so much more to it than just speaking.”

The Structure of the Week

Using Michael Rosen’s chocolate cake poem as a stimulus, students explored the physical strand of oracy on day one. Older students also had the opportunity to explore the vocabulary Rosen used. Day two focused on the linguistic strand of the oracy framework with an exploration of poetic techniques: 

“So in EYFS and years one and two, they were looking at rhyme, rhythm. And then as we went up the school, we were looking at more poetic techniques and the children were able to almost pull apart different poems to think about why the poet had chosen those words, that style of writing to really grab the reader’s attention.”

By day three students were ready to look at poems specifically chosen for their year group. Unpicking these poems helped students prepare for the performances that would become the focus of days four and five. Amy explains that:

“We thought about that end product. Even though we couldn’t meet everybody in the hall, we wanted a way of celebrating it at the end as well. So we had that performance at the end of the week. There was a purpose for the children to do it … they knew that the assembly was at the end of the week and everybody would be there.”

It is clear from talking to Amy and Kelly that students’ performances were intended to “push them outside of their comfort zones”. Kelly recalled that some of the older children at Willowbank “wanted to step a little further than just performing to children that they’re really familiar with … Once they’ve got over that initial fear of what it would be like that helped them to feel confident enough to want to perform to the rest of the school”.

Opportunities for peer feedback were built into the design of Willowbank’s poetry week. Taking advice from their Oracy Consultant, Jessica Lanham-Cook, staff encouraged students to critique each other’s performances. Creating a “safe space” in which students knew “that it was okay for people to say something that could be something to practice further” was central to this process.

Notably, parents also got involved to support their children. Students took their poems home to practice, and “performing in front of someone who’s familiar, really helped to build their confidence for them to perform outside of their comfort zone”.

Impact

When asked about the impact of both Willowbank’s poetry week and their focus on oracy more generally both Amy and Kelly cited concrete examples of how oracy had helped their students to gain confidence:

“I’ve got a girl in my class who has recently been diagnosed with autism. And we said to the children they could either work on their own or work in groups. All of my class chose to work in a group apart from this girl. And she was absolutely determined to perform this poem by herself. I recorded her doing it to the class, but she then performed this poem to the whole school on her own. So I shared that poem with mum, I shared the recording, and mum was just blown away. And she couldn’t believe how even in a few weeks, her child’s confidence had grown. How actually she felt comfortable enough to do something like that, and how much courage she demonstrated.”

The positive impact that oracy initiatives have had on Pupil Premium students and those who struggle with presentational talk were also highlighted. It is clear from talking to both Amy and Kelly that the feedback from staff and students has been very positive.

“I’ve had such amazing feedback from my unit lead, to the point where she feels that we actually should do this, once every term, have a poetry week, because of the impact that it had on her class. She can really see the difference, and how much it benefited them, and how much the children loved doing it.”

Hearing about Willowbank’s poetry week, we were struck by the cultural change that staff attributed to an increased focus on oracy. The culture both staff describe appears to be rooted in feeling safe to express an opinion and students knowing that when they speak they will be listened to. Willowbank is a “safe space” for talk. Amy shared the following reflection:

“What we’ve noticed is that children who wouldn’t necessarily have put their hand up to suggest an answer … know that it’s okay to borrow somebody else’s answer. And that if they haven’t got a choice they’re okay to use somebody else’s answer to share that idea. And I think that was huge. Because sometimes when you’re put on the spot, and somebody asks you for an answer, and you think the same as somebody else, you worry if you can use it, and I think we’ve created an atmosphere where it’s okay.”

Students’ writing is another area in which Amy and Kelly have seen the impact of oracy. Noting the usefulness of stem sentences, talk tactics, discussion guidelines, and the Voice 21 Exchange, Kelly remarked on the differences she has seen oracy make when students sit down to write. 

We had a barrier beforehand. If the children didn’t have the idea in their heads, they were unable to record it. Whereas now they’re able to really think about what it is they want to say when they have the opportunity to present their idea to another child, it gives them a bit more clarity on how to then record it. And that’s in all subjects.”

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