One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs…
‘Politics and the English Language’ George Orwell.
I never read anything remotely educational feeling superior and smug, as a insecure practitioner at the best of times it mostly fills me with guilt about my inadequacies. Such was the case last weekend when I shattered a serene Sunday by stumbling across this: ‘Speaking Frankly ‘ by the English Speaking Union, which outlines its case as to why oracy should be more of a focus in the curriculum. Indeed it strongly advocates that oracy should be an integral part of teaching and learning. Then I read the inspiring Tom Sherrington’s blog about what they have been doing at his school, Highbury Grove. By this point I was a sweating, anxious wreck, drafting my resignation letter and googling potential chip frying jobs (I can always fall back on those golden years of part time burger flipping and chip frying from the tender age of thirteen).
So is oracy integral to my classroom as an English teacher? Do I invest significant amount of classroom time on the quality of student’s talk? Do I communicate high expectations about how they phrase their verbal responses? Do I encourage better expression, cutting out what Orwell delightfully terms: “verbal refuse”? Do I place value on students speaking appropriately formally at all times? The honest answer is not enough. Not nearly enough. Particularly since speaking and listening no longer contributes to GCSE grading, a shocking justification for spending less time on it!
The more important question is: should I be? The report is very clear: students need communication skills to succeed in future work, social life and relationships. They need communication skills so they can contribute to society. There is also a significant correlation between students capacity to speak fluently and their social background. Another inspirational headteacher, Geoff Barton defines it in the report as the “language habits of those who weird power and influence”. It seems we have a moral imperative to equip young people with the strategies to ensure they leave school with the ability to communicate in a sophisticated and clear manner.
Talk in the classroom is also like osmosis: if it is sloppy, vague, generic and careless then that diffuses into everything else. For my subject it means that the writing the students produce will reflect what we do most of in the lessons: using dialogue to build ideas. If I am not communicating extremely high expectations of how they talk, then the writing will mirror this ethos.
So the challenge begins. Time to change, time to have classroom dialogue that would put the Oxford union to shame. Time to have (appropriately) verbose students whose gift of language is seamless, whose ability to articulate is taken straight from Orwell’s masterful ‘Politics and the English Language’ . Orwell seems fitting giving the slightly ‘1984’ style title of this blog (re-read last week and terrifying combined with Trump events. Sleepless nights).
My mixed ability Year 7 were the defenceless and naive victims of this language purge this week. We started the week by discussing the importance of speech and its influence in society (any excuse for some Obama action: a short clip of Obama’s incredible 2004 speech) and identifying our own four principles: a seventastic speaking checklist: which I typed up and reminded students of throughout the week:
- We will aim to answer all questions in full sentences
- We will avoid unnecessary fillers: “like” etc.
- We will seek to demonstrate our knowledge of a wide range of vocabulary.
- We will speak formally at all times.
In this first lesson I identified our Word choice wizard, the individual who would listen carefully to the dialogue throughout the lesson and make a record on this. This will vary each lesson and the student will fill out this: word-choice-wizard. Owen did a cracking job in the first lesson, exploring the poem ‘Nettles’ by Vernon Scannel, noting a range including the following: in my view, retrospective, naive, poignant, emotive, nostalgic, suffering, Scannel, thematic. The last few minutes in the lesson we dissected the words we had used, we celebrated them, we made sure that we were confident about spelling and defining them, we ticked off the words we had used in our paragraphs. All very positive and celebratory.
In contrast, Daniel also led the way as the dialogue detective using this guidance: dialogue-detective interjecting with helpful guidance and words that extended his chum’s responses as we went through the lesson. He got ever so slightly overly passionate about cutting out the ubiquity of fillers, but they quickly got the message!
So a tentative start that payed some dividends: by the end of the week the students were consciously adapting their language, keen to use the best vocabulary they could. The banned words list had grown and students gasped in shame when they uttered a superfluous ‘like’. Balancing humour with rigour seemed to be the approach: a draconian style would only serve to put the students off or even worse humiliate them. Constantly rationalising why this was important and would help our learning was also a focus of this week.
I am conscious that this initial enthusiasm may wear off and this is a long term project. So on Thursday night I created two new classroom displays. I conveniently have rather odd poles in the middle of the classroom, they are now draped in very colourful versions of the following: ‘Talking in Thom’s’ and ‘Wonderous Wall of Words.” Alliterative potential is perhaps the only benefit of having Thom as a surname, usually rife with student mocking potential (“Is that it?” “Sat nav” “Good night Mr Tom!” “What’s the point in the h?”)
These will ensure the ubiquity and priority of talking and expression in the classroom. Students will also be given their own specific oracy targets using this card in lessons, perhaps to ask students to focus on their use of vocabulary in the lesson, or to seek to encourage them to use a range of connectives. This will be combined with my oracy pointers which will now feature in every lesson:
Which word could you extent in that response?
Can you rephrase that answer?
How could we restructure that answer to improve it grammatically?
What word could we use instead?
Can we build on that with one of the key words of the lesson?
Which word did I love in that response?
Can we all define that? Can we all spell that?
Personal favourites already:
Can you take another word from the wondrous word wall to replace that?
Look at the talking in Thom’s wall – is that acceptable in this room?
Finally this remarkable ‘Rhetoric Roadmap’ from Tom Sherrington has again got me thinking: there needs to be a structured plan to give students opportunities to hone their ability to communicate. So before Christmas the aim is the following: Year 7 will have the opportunity to deliver a mini speech from the perspective of character in a poem; Year 9 will have a structured debate about the actions of Mary in ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ then Year 11 will be delivering their own version of Lady Macbeth’s final speech in Act Five, a Christmas X Factor style performance that will be judged by the three witches (obviously).
So my anxiety from reading this report was justified. Classrooms are microcosms of the world and in the world we are expected to communicate. A lot. We are a society that places enormous value on words: how articulate we are is without doubt a significant defining factor in how successful we are. The responsibility on us to hone our students ability to communicate effectively so they are prepared for the cut throat world out there is immense. Prioritising this will help secure positives future for them. Time to inspire seventastic speakers everywhere. The guru of all things educational, Noel Gallagher, can have the final words from ‘Talk Tonight’:
I wanna talk tonight
Until the mornin’ light
‘Bout how you saved my life
(You saved my life)
I wanna talk tonight