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We have a voice! Developing oracy across the geography curriculum

9 min read
GEORGE DAVIES-CRAINE, SUBJECT LEADER FOR GEOGRAPHY AND DIGITAL LEARNING LEAD, DR CHALLONER’S GRAMMAR SCHOOL, UK

Introduction

Oracy is a vital aspect of a student’s education and way of learning, covering all verbal communication skills from presenting and questioning to storytelling, negotiating and listening. Teaching students effective oracy, ensuring that they are able to articulate themselves coherently, is the first step in enabling them to write with clarity and conviction (Newman, 2019). Through this, they are able to access a deeper level of learning and understanding, thinking critically, listening actively and speaking persuasively. While there are various strategies used to support students’ learning, Dockrell et al. (2012) note that oracy is used more frequently than others.

This article details original research into the development of oracy across the geography curriculum. During 2022, a study of students’ verbal communication across all key stages in geography was undertaken, analysing oracy within the classroom, the skills developed and innovation in this area.

Oracy

Oracy can be categorised into ‘performance oracy’ and ‘critical oracy’. Performance oracy includes reading aloud and reciting text, whereas critical oracy involves engaging with and analysing ideas. Both of these types of oracy have a specific place within the classroom and can be used to great effect to develop students’ ability to express themselves, as well as understand speech. The end result is that oracy can help to improve students’ attainment (Davies, 2020; EEF, 2021).

While there are a variety of variables that improve students’ attainment, oracy is an important dimension because it is a foundation of classroom practice (Millard and Gaunt, 2018). While verbal communication is the predominant method of conveying information by teachers, through effective oracy, students are able to articulate ideas and understand how they interlink, which ultimately improves their writing  – a fundamental skill. Further skills, such as structured thought, analysis, research, teamwork, self-confidence and thinking under pressure, can be fostered through developing oracy.

Developing oracy

To develop oracy across the curriculum, and therefore within the classroom, it must be recognised as a process whereby students learn through discussion and dialogue with their teachers and peers (Alexander, 2008). Therefore, different types of oracy will be appropriate at different points, as the curriculum only comes to life when it comes into contact with students. To encourage oracy within classrooms, Alexander (2008) outlines types of ‘teaching talk’:

  • rote: key pieces of information (facts/concepts/definitions) that are repeated by students
  • recitation: questions that check students’ knowledge and understanding of key concepts
  • discussion and dialogue: encouraging students to share information with one another and structured discussion to deepen understanding
  • instruction: giving a direction to students in terms of tasks to complete.

 

These aspects of ‘teaching talk’ are used at various points within the learning process forming the basis of teaching; they all have the goal of enabling students to explore a subject in depth by interrogating knowledge and building understanding. Alexander (2008) termed this ‘dialogic teaching’, whereby teachers use oracy to advance students’ understanding and evaluate arguments, empowering them to engage critically with information. Students are able to question ideas and challenge assumptions while they construct their knowledge, as the teacher is able to guide the students towards the use of academic or subject-specific language. Effective oracy within the classroom involves the integration of both critical and performance aspects of oracy into the pedagogical lesson design. The fundamental aspect of both critical and performance oracy is questioning, not only from the teacher but also from the students (Newman, 2019).

Designing lessons to increase oracy involves setting up the classroom so that students are able to participate. To do this, teachers keep control over the content but give the interpretive authority to the students. To facilitate this, teachers should ask ‘affective questions’, questions that link to other material or experiences, and ‘uptake questions’, which are based on what someone has said previously (Teo, 2019). In addition, during group discussion, teachers should model the language to be used and scaffold the structure.

From this, a model was created to aid the study of the development of oracy in the classroom and across the curriculum, illustrated in Table 1. This informed in-depth analysis of oracy, and subsequent innovation to push forward incremental improvement in this area.

Ways to develop oracy in the classroom
Questioning:

Teachers:

  • Ask ‘affective questions’
  • Ask ‘uptake questions’
  • Model and scaffold the language to be used (often subject-specific)
  • Cold call

Students:

  • Ask questions that deepen their understanding
  • Answer questions and think critically about their peers’ answers
Group work (pairs/threes):

Teachers:

  • Model language to be used (often subject-specific)
  • Scaffold pair/group discussion
Presentations/debates/speeches:

Teachers:

  • Carefully scaffold the process of presentation, debate or speech (this could be limiting presentations to one slide only)
  • Ensure that all students say something meaningful
Students:

  • Bounce ideas off each other
  • Question the material together
  • Explain the material to each other
  • Ask questions to each other and think carefully through the answer and a possible follow-up question
Oracy develops areas such as:

  • Structured thought
  • Analysis and research
  • Teamwork and collaboration
  • Self-confidence
  • Writing
  • Assessment and exam skills
  • Academic vocabulary
Table 1: The development of oracy in the classroom 

Oracy research

The research into the development of oracy across the geography curriculum was undertaken in three stages. Stage one consisted of a questionnaire to all geography students to understand their view on oracy, in terms of what was happening in lessons and what the department could do to further develop oracy. Stage two consisted of four focus groups of students from Years 7, 8, 11 and 12, as well as field notes on observations of the ongoing process. The focus groups were selected at random from those year groups to gain a rich source of student voices, giving further in-depth qualitative data to polyangulate any potential findings (Mertler, 2016). Table 1 was used as a theoretical foundation with which to inform the structure of the questionnaires and focus groups. This enabled an in-depth analysis of oracy in order to discover ways in which to push forward incremental improvement. Stage three consisted of a follow-up questionnaire, again to all geography students, to ascertain any gradational progress in the development of oracy across the curriculum.

The reason for focusing on the students’ learning and use of oracy in class was that oracy is a pedagogical tool used within lessons, as one of the many ways in which to deliver the curriculum content that is to be taught (Newman, 2019). This allowed for a holistic view of improving oracy across the geography curriculum, and kept in perspective the research context. The process of data collection was transparent; students could withdraw at any time and all data was anonymised.

Oracy skills and improvements

The study analysed the development of oracy across the geography curriculum. Three themes emerged from the data as to the skills developed by oracy: 1. improved idea generation; 2. improved structure of answers; and 3. improved confidence in class. These themes are linked to each other, and analysis is presented below in sequential order. In addition, the results further elicited clear direction to improve oracy across the curriculum, allowing for innovation, which is detailed below.

Idea generation

The research demonstrated that 93 per cent of students felt that their teacher created an environment in which they were able to contribute in lessons. This led to improved idea generation, as students were able to hear peers’ opinions and ideas from teacher questioning, and they were able to clarify any misunderstandings that they might harbour in relation to the material. Furthermore, 86 per cent of students enjoyed working in a pair and 75 per cent in groups of three or four. Reasons for this were the ability to bounce ideas off someone else, as well as thinking and working through answers before writing. However, many students noted that groups larger than three tended to go off topic, which is a known disadvantage of larger groups (Burke, 2011). Therefore, the teacher should manage groupwork carefully by regularly checking in on the groups’ progress. However, some students did not want to work as a group due to the view that they may need to undertake someone else’s work, as well as their own, although this view was uncommon.

Structure of answers

The improved idea generation through oracy led to an improvement in writing, in particular the structure of answers. Students welcomed the time to think before writing as, through speaking, they are able to obtain guidelines for answers and discuss ideas before writing them down. The ability to speak through an answer, discuss it with peers and perhaps even compare it to model work does improve writing. Hattie (2008) argues that for feedback to be useful, it needs to be as immediate as possible after the work. Students saying an answer aloud in class were receptive and desired the immediate feedback, as they were then able to improve their answer. In addition, students noted that by speaking through an answer in class, they were able to write it down more quickly. Thereby oracy helps to develop writing through immediate feedback and improved writing speed.

Confidence in class

Regular moments for oracy within the classroom helped to improve student confidence, as 81 per cent of respondents felt confident speaking in front of the class. The reasons for this ranged from enjoyment of the subject/topic to having the chance to have a ‘mini-debate’ with other students. Furthermore, the increase in ideas also improves confidence, as students noted that those who struggle with idea generation are often able to answer questions when others have answered before them, demonstrating the use of ‘uptake questions’ (Teo, 2019).

Innovation and conclusion: Another word?

The clear direction to improve oracy from the data centred around the need to increase the use of small group project work (yet this was only stated by three per cent of respondents). Two other areas for improvement were giving more time to answer questions and increasing the use of cold calling. The low percentage of respondents suggesting ways in which to improve oracy indicated that the students’ view of oracy within the classroom and across the curriculum was positive.

To push forward incremental improvement in the development of oracy, the innovation centred around how to improve across the geography curriculum the following aspects: idea generation, the structure of answers and confidence in class. The development of oracy structure in Table 1 was used to improve these areas in class, and to recognise the need to ensure that they were fully embedded throughout the curriculum. To improve idea generation, teachers integrated questioning with presentations. For example, students would have a clear question opportunity after a class presentation that allowed for critical reflection. Teachers would scaffold the language to be used when asking questions, to drive forwards the understanding of all students. To improve the structure of answers, opportunities were created in class for students to discuss their ideas (either as a pair or as a group) for answering a question for a couple of minutes, before starting to write their answer. This allowed for the teacher to scaffold where necessary and to ensure the best use of subject-specific language. To improve students’ confidence in class, questioning was carefully used by teachers to build up students’ self-efficacy. Implementing the aforementioned discussions at subject meetings and a review of the curricula determined opportunities for critical and performance oracy.

The follow-up questionnaire to ascertain incremental improvement in the development of oracy demonstrated progress in the use of small-group/project work and time to answer questions to develop oracy across the geography curriculum. However, while oracy improves idea generation, the structure of answers and confidence in class, these themselves also help to improve oracy as a perpetual system.

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