While talking may seem like the most instinctive of abilities for most of us, the words we use and how we use them can have a more profound impact on our lives than we might care to imagine. Hart and Risley’s 2003 report, The Early Catastrophe estimated the disparity in vocabulary between a three-year old from the wealthiest background and one from the poorest as up to three million.
A young child’s vocabulary is increasingly recognised as a predictor of educational achievement and future socio-economic status. Which perhaps isn’t surprising if we consider that good communication skills are consistently cited by employers as one of the critical skill they are looking for in job candidates.
Oracy – the ability to communicate effectively using spoken language – a core pedagogy at the pioneering School 21 in east London and their Voice 21 programme shares that knowledge and expertise with schools across the country.
I was excited to see some of this work in action at the Easton Academy in Bristol, an inner-city primary school, where over 90% of pupils speak English as an additional language, the majority of whom are Somali. They recently moved from a focus on one-to-one support to a whole school approach adopting many of the methodologies of Voice 21.
The school council is made up of pupils from Years 2 to 6. The children representing their classmates on the council are voted in each year and feel a sense of pride in their position. I joined their weekly meeting where the children were debating the topic All children should wear school uniform. They had discussed the issue in their classes beforehand, so were equipped with their classmates’ ideas.
All the children across the year groups discussed their thoughts with confidence and respect of others’ opinions. They used terms like ‘I agree with…because…’ and ‘Building on what…thinks, I believe…’ and at the end of the meeting two of the children summarised the day’s discussion. There are clear discussion guidelines, for example ‘don’t talk over others’, which the children adhere to.
Oracy is promoted throughout the school, for example in the daily assemblies, and has become a key part of the curriculum. For example, for an end of term project Year 3 students created an Egyptian Museum to showcase their work and acted as tour guides.
Recently they have encouraged talking in Maths which has resulted in improved maths outcomes. Across the school, teachers are learning that expecting children to talk about and explain their work actually helps them to understand it better and become more fluent.
Some of Easton’s teachers have attended the Voice21 leadership programme and all staff have learnt to embrace oracy methods. Some teachers had reservations that the introduction of the pedagogy would be ‘extra work’, but now say they have found it a very useful tool for learning and benefits all areas of the curriculum and school.
“Oracy is embedded throughout the curriculum now, and planning for oracy outcomes has helped me grow in awareness of the children’s needs in speaking and listening.” (Year 2 teacher)
“I feel I am preparing children to be articulate speakers in their future careers.” (Classroom teacher)
Being able to make ourselves understood coherently, express our thoughts and feelings and, crucially, being able to listen with a critical ear, absorb and understand information, is an aptitude we might assume we acquire naturally. I was enormously heartened to see how this more structured approach is helping the children at Easton to enjoy sharing their new language and developing these critical skills for life.