Research School Network: Talk matters

Talk matters

by Research Schools Network
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Hydeh Fayaz, Lead Practitioner and ELE for St Matthew’s Research School, discusses the importance of talk in Key Stage 1 Literacy education.

Talk matters more than ever. 

After a half term in the classroom, we are seeing the impact time away from school has had on our pupils. For some children who experienced a talk rich environment, returning to school life has proven a relatively smooth transition. But for those children whose diet of talk has been limited, for a range of reasons, engaging in academic talk in the classroom has proven more challenging. 

The symbiosis between reading and writing is well known. They are two aspects of literacy that have a mutual, reciprocal benefit. We can consider talk as not only part of this symbiosis, but as a vital catalyst too. 

We as educators are au fait with the expressions reading and writing float on a sea of talk’ and if children can’t say it, then they can’t write it’. However, in order to support children talking more effectively, we can’t just practice talk but must dedicate our time to improve the oracy provision. 

A child is born with the innate desire to communicate and we must harness this ability and develop it. 

What does the guidance say? 

The evidence is clear: Pupils from EYFS to KS4 need to be provided with opportunities to learn how to talk. There is extensive evidence which proves this has an impact on our children’s attainment. 

Lit GR Recs 1
Recommendations from the EEF's Literacy Guidance Reports
Lit GR Recs 2
Recommendations from the EEF's Literacy Guidance Reports

First things first: Build a culture of oracy 

Start by making ground rules. What do you want from your children when someone else in the room is talking? 

Listening is a fundamental act of participation and classroom discussions can be a great opportunity for practice. In my own classroom, I begin with how children can show they are listening. This is a skill the children practice every day and has made a huge impact on pupils’ self-esteem. 

I like it when people look at me because it makes what I’m saying feel important.

Year 5 boy
Active Listeners

Voice 21 have a great resource – the Listening Ladder’ – to help pupils assess where they are in terms of their listening skills. I have made a flipchart which shows what active listening looks like in my classroom. 

Next, begin to practise oral skills when giving feedback 

We need to teach children the language to provide feedback that is not only precise, but is a lever for progress in the classroom. We need to have a meta-language of feedback: Wow, good job’ does not improve our children’s understanding or allow them to progress. 

Neil Mercer states that language forms in the mind and that ways of thinking are embedded in ways of using language.” If we provide a rhythm of feedback and practice it across the subjects, children can internalise these structures. ABC feedback ensures that answers to authentic, open-ended questions can be co-constructed – participation by all. 


What about subject disciplines? 

Oracy in History 

To talk like an historian involves more than just recalling facts about a specific time period. If we look to the national curriculum it is clear: we need to empower our mini historians to hypothesise, question and enquire. 

Classroom example: Ranking Reliability’

Reliability, bias, credible’ are not just vocabulary for secondary school children. Looking at the origin, context and motives of a source is something all children should be exposed to. Once the disciplinary knowledge of history has been learnt, then the children can use that to unpick and create substantive knowledge of their own. Children can then engage in active practice of enquiry and the interpretation of sources by ranking them in order (from unreliable to reliable).

Ranking Reliability

A summary bullseye is also a great way for children to engage with subject specific vocabulary.

It involves a minute of individual reflection time with the academic language/​more familiar words, before moving to paired work, verbalising their sentences. Their partner tallies points, and so has to tune in carefully, to not only identify if their peer has said the correct word, but if they have used it in an appropriate context.

Summary Bullseye
Summary Bullseye from a Year 5 pupil

We need to focus on oracy

Asking open-ended, authentic questions is what we need to be planning for if we are to improve oracy. By only asking closed questions we can only expect spot the correct answer’ to play out in our lessons, with children jumping through hoops to reach a predetermined answer. By preparing, delivering and sustaining a focus on oral development, a knowledge rich curriculum can be explored and learnt through talk.

As pupils and teachers grapple with a school year involving new challenges and routines, an explicit focus on oracy, including clear talk roles, goals and approaches, can help ensure every pupil flourishes in the classroom. 

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