Talk for Writing

Katie Ridgway
Katie Ridgway

Katie is a Lead Practitioner and English teacher at a Secondary school just outside Durham and has been in a Lead Practitioner role for almost 3 years. She is also a WomenEd North East Regional Network Leader and TeachFirst North East Lead Mentor.

Why is effective talk important?

On attending my first Oracy Pioneers session with Voice 21 I was astounded to discover the profound impact which talk, or lack thereof, can have on students. Of course, in preparation for attending the course I had begun to reflect on this: What opportunities for talk did I provide in my classroom? How did students feel about talking in lessons? Were the opportunities provided eliciting successful responses?

When I consider the amount of talk taking place in my classroom – my direct instructions, think-pair-share, questioning – it is no wonder that ‘talk is the most powerful tool of communication’ (Hardmann). The impact of effective talk, of course, stretches far beyond the walls of the classroom. Verbal communication has been consistently ranked as being among the most important skills employers look for in their employees and if we consider the fact that 50% of children in deprived areas start school with below average language skills, as educators we have a responsibility to ensure we make this skill a priority to develop. That being said, some statistics suggest that 90% of talking within lessons is being done by teachers, with individual students saying approximately four words per lesson per day (Page, 2005). This is why Oracy is crucial. Improving oral literacy can have enormous impact on:

  • Academic outcomes
  • Social mobility
  • Employability
  • Well-being, self esteem and confidence

What does effective talk look like and how can we create opportunities for it in our classrooms?

In order for opportunities for talk to be effective it is essential that they are:

  • Structured
  • Purposeful
  • Embedded

A climate for talk should be pre-planned and introduced through establishing guidelines for different types of talk (with student involvement), consideration and planning of timings, groupings, scaffolding and routines (see Fig. A). There should be a clear objectives or goals for a talk task e.g. a group consensus, summary, one idea to share etc. with success criteria (see Fig. B). Creating a whole school approach for oracy should therefore be as much of a priority as that of literacy and numeracy to ensure an effective strategy is deployed across classrooms.

Fig A – Example of Year 7 Discussion Guidelines

Fig. B – Example of planned Think-Pair-Share activity (Year 7)

What is the impact of effective talk on writing?

In order to measure the impact of some talk for writing strategies, I created a short sequence of learning for Year 10 English Language students to work towards a writing task – an article giving their viewpoint on capital punishment.

Prior to this, the class had already created their climate for oracy in the classroom by spending a lesson creating discussion guidelines similar to the Year 7 example above. I also had students conduct a baseline assessment of the writing task. The results were underdeveloped, lacked a range of ideas and credible rhetorical devices.

Firstly students were provided with thinking time on the topic to ascertain their own views; often what students struggle with when going into a discussion is that they haven’t had time to process their thoughts on the topic they are talking about. In order to keep the discussion purposeful and on track, I assigned roles for each student in their groups of 4-6 and provided job descriptions for each role so that students knew what they were responsible for. These were pre-assigned to ensure that roles and responsibilities were appropriate for the students in the groups.

To provide a scaffold for some of the students within the class with anxiety surrounding speaking in groups, I provided sentence stems for each role. The group’s goal was to come to a consensus on the statement: ‘no country which uses capital punishment can call itself civilised.’ Students started by taking turns, each giving their own viewpoint which was recorded on a consensus placemat, before a more open discussion took place with students engaging with each other’s perspectives. During this part of the discussion I used ‘fed-in facts’ to help stimulate and challenge thoughts within the conversation.

At the end of the group discussion portion of the lesson, one person from each group fed back their group’s consensus, all of which was collated for whole-class discussion before we spent a lesson on planning and re-writing the article.

When I marked the second attempt I found:

  • Writing that was much more sustained in quality throughout
  • Opinions were explained in much greater depth
  • More detailed justifications of opinions
  • Wider range of perspectives covered
  • Greater variety in the language devices used

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