Oracy outdoors

Spending time outside can help your students develop a better understanding of the environment, enhancing their engagement with learning and supporting their physical and mental health. Outdoor learning also presents opportunities for developing students’ oracy skills, providing meaningful contexts for talk and authentic reasons to collaborate. The playground is also the main setting for informal or playful talk in school and is a good place to address students’ social and emotional needs through talk.

Real-life contexts to develop oracy skills 

Taking learning outside can provide students with opportunities to engage in ‘real-life experiences’ which prompt rich and meaningful talk that can enhance learning. Imagine how much richer a discussion on climate change would be after measuring the carbon in trees on the school grounds? When learning about the Great Fire of London, would students retain more new vocabulary if they had the chance to use the terms ‘spark’ or ‘ash’ around a real fire outside?

Academic and EAL specialist Jim Cummins talks about the importance of context-embedded communication to support second language learners. Why not bring the Tower Hamlets Progression in Language Structures to life in an authentic context outside? Students could describe colours and textures in the outdoor environment, by comparing and contrasting different features of the natural environment or by practicing the language of prediction to imagine how a landscape may change over time.

Authentic reasons to interact

“We have not evolved to be sitting at a desk inside for 8 hours a day, we’ve evolved to be moving around, outdoors, in a tribe, co-operating, communicating, and we are really good at that.” – Chris Smith, Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust talking about Transition Forest School, a programme which prepares children for secondary school by creating opportunities for outdoor learning. 

Participating in outdoor learning can help students develop their social and emotional oracy skills. Outside, it’s easy to set up tasks that require students to really collaborate, such as this KS3 science task in which students become ecologists, investigating the relationship between plants, animals and the environment. The lack of inhibitive furniture and other space constraints outside also presents opportunities; if your students are learning about the Romans, for example, turn an area of the playground into a Roman marketplace or the Senate. 

Oracy in the playground 

To mark Outdoor Classroom Day, why not take a walk around the playground at breaktime, listening in on students’ conversations and observing their interactions? Are there any students who tend to be quieter or more reserved during your lessons who talk loudly and animatedly with their friends at breaktime? How does the classroom environment change the way students interact? Are there specific parts of the playground where interesting talk happens? 

Once you have a good understanding of students’ oracy in the playground, consider how you could reconfigure your outside space to promote talk. Some Voice 21 Oracy Schools have introduced chattering benches, performance stages, buddy areas and calming zones with language structures to address peer disagreements and encourage positive talk.

If you’re keen to improve your students’ oracy skills in the playground, take a look at this Impact Project from Laura Fletcher,Oracy Lead at Wexham Court Primary School, who implemented a successful oracy intervention to improve her students’ ability to resolve playground disputes. 

Oracy and emotional regulation 

SEND specialists have long extolled the virtue of taking  students outside to get moving and to talk through problems. American researchers found significant improvements in children with Attention Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) after a 20 minute guided walk in a green outdoor space, compared to the same amount of time spent in other settings. Part of this appeal is that it offers a chance to talk through things in a less threatening environment. “The part of the brain that is responsible for ruminative and negative thoughts – the subgenual prefrontal cortex – has been shown to quieten when we connect with nature, which gives people more space to process their problems,” says Psychotherapist Beth Collier, founder of the Nature Therapy School in this recent Guardian article

By changing the physical space where a discussion takes place can alter the tone of a conversation – a useful tool to bear in mind when addressing sensitive issues with your students. How might taking a sensitive class discussion outside facilitate a more reflective and thoughtful conversation? Could restorative conversations with students displaying challenging behaviours take place while walking outside?

Let us know how you and your students get on using the outdoors as a new context for talk by sharing your ideas with us on Twitter #gettalkinginclass

Looking to prioritise oracy teaching and learning at your school? Become a Voice 21 Oracy School today! Find out more here

This article was written by Alice Kennedy and Kathy Sheppard-Barnes, both Oracy Consultants at Voice 21. Alice and Kathy support Voice 21 Oracy Schools to transform their teaching and learning and achieve a high-quality oracy education. You can meet our whole team here.

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