Voice Black Country - Voice 21

In one of our schools today, a group of Year 5 boys were being taught the power of argument by a number of enthusiastic and articulate Year 11 boys. They had been introduced to the concept of ‘traverse talk’, a version of conscience alley where pupils face off against each other and share their points of view. Big ideas, cultural awareness, expressed in a confident voice. These children attend schools where oracy is a process, a strategy, and a way of exploring their learning.

At a recent session delivered by Voice 21, I was greatly impressed by the breadth and depth of work around oracy that is taking place in Black Country schools. Early years children have been debating using sentence stems to help them structure their talk; interactive ‘talk assemblies’ have sprung up, taking children away from the conventional ‘sit and fidget’ lecture from someone at the front, to a new territory that encourages them to discuss, debate and, well, talk during an assembly; secondary Science students are using talk to develop their tier 3 vocabulary; KS2 maths children are using talk to articulate complex maths problems and so improve their ability to answer exam questions.

Welcome to the world of oracy; welcome to Voice Black Country.

Twenty-seven schools, over sixty teachers, and up to 40,000 children are part of this exciting initiative that aims to bring talk to the front and centre of children’s learning. During a recent teacher training conference, I delivered a session on oracy to students from several providers, and there were student teachers from schools across the Black Country and other authorities. It was no surprise that the teachers from the Voice Black Country schools were conversant with both the theory and the practice of oracy. They’re already using listening triads to improve coaching skills in PE; attending CPD which looks at the power of disciplinary talk and what it’s like to talk like a subject specialist, and using Harkness models with Year 11 students to talk about Macbeth. It’s all happening.

But is it a new costume on last year’s model? Haven’t we always used talk in the classroom?

Certainly, when I started teaching English in the late 1990s, I always planned lessons thinking about what pupils would be talking about during that lesson: I wanted my students to articulate thoughts into speech which is what oracy is all about. Then, speaking and listening were writ large in the English curriculum; drama, driven by the brilliant practice of experts such as Andy Kempe and Jonathan Neelands, was an essential part of teaching and learning. However, the importance of talk has slowly eroded. We were in danger of forgetting the power of talk and emphasising instead the sound of silence.

It’s not just schools however that need to reinforce the power of speech. Government and Ofqual need to recognise the oracy drive and start to think about how talk can be made a part of each subject specification. And I don’t mean a footnote on page 16, I mean an assessed element that allows students to express their ideas about their subject in an ‘expert’ way. If we want History students to talk like historians, then maybe it’s not enough to just assume it’s going to happen in the classroom. Even though I work with some of the most committed and talented teachers, if school policy is driven by progress and outcomes, then the danger is that if talk is not part of the fabric of assessment, then it will be relegated to an afterthought.

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