“Voice 21 has really helped us with developing those strategies for the children and those sentence stems; getting them into the habit of first working in their talking fours and then developing it beyond that. That means you can have the class discussion where the teacher is the true facilitator rather than every single comment having to go through the teacher”

 

It is clear how much progress Mount Pleasant Junior School (MPJS) has made in incorporating oracy into their curriculum, although Emma Kerrigan-Draper, Headteacher, and Gemma Brumwell, Assistant Headteacher and Oracy Lead, stress that they are still at the beginning of their journey. Based in Southampton, this junior school has an incredibly high EAL (or ELL – standing for English Language Learners – which is what MPJS refer to these students as) population, with approximately 95% of its 328 students speaking English as an additional language and 27 languages currently spoken.

They constantly welcome children who are new to English through the school year so are always looking at how to support these students. On their diverse student population Gemma said, We have different groups of children, coming from different places in the world, so it’s never it’s never the same mix of languages spoken. And it’s something that makes our school really unique, and it makes it a really lovely place to work. But working with children who are new to English is a challenge and you have to make sure you’re going to put things into place” which they certainly seem to have done. The school is in its second year of being a Voice 21 school and their focus on what they’re aiming to achieve is evident. 

When asked about Mount Pleasant’s motivations for becoming a Voice 21 Oracy School, Gemma told me that the students would be very passive and they wanted them to talk more. Of lockdown she says, We worried when lockdown happened that we would get children fairly quiet and it wasn’t like that at all. They came up and they wanted to talk. So we’ve harnessed that but it’s training them to become sort of empowered to want to lead discussions in the fashion that means they really enjoy it.Emma added that she’d heard about School 21 and was inspired, realising that if you’re not teaching children to be good speakers and listeners then you’re not setting them up to succeed in life. She wants students to use their voices to “empower them and express their views” and saw Voice 21 as a “bridge to actually affect change” as it provides a “scaffold and a pedagogy of its own that would allow some of those enduring principles of learning to really come to life”.

What strategies have they put in place? 

Talking fours

One of the strategies that both Gemma and Emma agreed have had the most impact on EAL students’ oracy is how the students are seated. They have put all of their students onto tables of four, two twos that face each other, which encourages speech amongst all the students but especially those who are new to English. When asked about the impact of the talking fours Gemma told me:We had to train them to begin with because if you ask children to discuss something, they don’t naturally know what to do and that’s where Voice 21 has really helped us with developing those strategies for the children and those sentence stems; getting them into the habit of first working in their talking fours and then developing it beyond that. That means you can have the class discussion where the teacher is the true facilitator rather than every single comment having to go through the teacher.” She went on to explain that it helps the EAL students to immerse themselves in the language” by sitting and listening to their peers. She also stressed the importance of good role models, explaining that students who are new to English should be seated with students whose language you want them to listen to and use themselves.

Whole school oracy charter

Mount Pleasant has put into place a whole school oracy charter. It is based around the school’s values so that oracy expectations are consistent throughout school and each student knows exactly what to expect. Emma told me: “it’s about trying to recognise as we do in science, that too many variables just overload someone who is trying to learn a new language, learn a new culture, make new friends, fitting in at school. As you know, a pupil who has recently arrived from overseas is doing so much so it’s helpful to actually be able to have some elements in their classroom and their school life which are consistent.” The charter has been co-written with a group of students and the aim is to create videos for their website which show elements of the character in action. You can see an example on the left.

Learning-question based curriculum

Mount Pleasant equates to part of their success to their learning-question based curriculum where they have replaced their learning objectives with macro and micro questions. Emma told me, “We did it because we chose to use the word question as opposed to objective, which, if you’re relatively new to English, you know even as an adult, is quite an obscure concept. So we phrase our learning using macro and micro questions. Because that makes sense to our children. And it makes sense to our families, and it empowers our children to know more and remember more.” In terms of language acquisition, the students are now able to demonstrate a greater level of knowledge through being able to articulate their learning and part of that, they believe, is because of the way they’ve organised the curriculum. By answering and understanding the individual elements, it leads to the students being able to engage more with the overarching question. Emma also makes sure that everything in the curriculum is kept in context for those students, We can’t assume that our children who are new to English are new to the country. have had the same understanding or experiences as potentially a child who’s always lived in this community. So we’ve looked at how we allow them to hook into that learning and make meaning of it and other contexts then also evaluated and weighed up the extent to which they’ve been able to answer the macro or the micro question.” You can see some an example of their Learning Question Curriculum below.


Sentence stems and substitution tables

At Mount Pleasant, sentence stems are key to scaffolding students’ talk, Emma said, “The stem sentence ideas that we so often get from Voice 21 are great, where you’re not expecting someone to put everything together. You’re asking them to make decisions about what they’re selecting for particular parts; the sentence or the idea that they’re trying to communicate. And that allows children to focus on the bits that really matter.” Emma went on to tell us that she feels that using sentence stems takes the pressure off the students, particularly those new to English, trying to memorise what they want to say and focus on responding to what the other students in the class are thinking. “So the discussions are much more fluid and much more led by the children rather than having to go through the teacher every time.”

Makaton

At Mount Pleasant, they also use Makaton groups to support the students as they often find that it helps to develop their confidence in communicating as well as being great for developing friendships and connections. Emma likens the experience to when she, too, was in an unfamiliar setting where she didn’t speak the language and said, “Actually having a physical signal or kinaesthetic movement helped me remember all of these different elements. It was really helpful and sometimes it was easier to remember the action than it was to try and hold the word or remember to pronounce the word completely the right way”. She added that it can help to relieve the frustration of someone trying to communicate whilst not knowing.

Embrace the silent period

At Mount Pleasant the teachers also believe in embracing the silent period for those new arrivals who speak little to no English and remind me that they may well be taking in more than we realise. She told me, “One of the things that we need to do always with the teachers new to the profession is get them to embrace and understand that you do not need to get an output from someone who has just arrived in the country and is beginning to learn English. They need to absorb a lot more.”  As long as they have some ways of communicating their basic needs, it’s okay for them not to speak for a while. Emma goes on to say that she believes that bi and multilingual students are more adept at problem solving because of their circumstances, often being more skilled at being able to concentrate and pay close attention to what is going on. Emma is also keen for EAL students to embrace their home language, reiterating that oracy doesn’t always have to be using the English language.

What does the future hold for Mount Pleasant Junior School?

When asked about the future, Emma was humble about how Mount Pleasant is still at the beginning of its journey and was keen to mention how they have committed to continuing their journey with Voice 21. Next, they will be looking deeply into resources to support those students who are new to English and carry on personalising their provision to exactly what their community needs. As well as Voice 21, they are also working closely with The Bell Foundation, combining the principles for EAL students together to do what is best for their students, So we’re really looking at how you can utilise those elements in a coherent way to meet the needs of our community, but we think that they each bring an individual element, which we will be able to combine in a meaningful and purposeful way. And I think most importantly for professionals, they are a manageable way to continue our journey of meeting the needs of our amazing bi and multilingual learners.” There is clearly a lot more oracy still to come.

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