In my dream school, the English teachers would teach the importance of communication; they would break down the skills required and support the development of confidence in presentations, group work and drama. The teachers of other subjects would ensure that pupils were given the opportunity to perfect these skills through practice. Pupils would grow in confidence and their ability to engage with subjects through effective communication would be strengthened… everybody wins.
Communication is at the top of my teaching to-do list. Articulate pupils can express their thoughts succinctly. They can show me what they really know; their confident and detailed answers give a clear indication to their current understanding and misconceptions. Silent pupils may know little or they may know a lot; it’s often difficult to tell. Pupils who can work effectively as part of a group are more likely to achieve positive outcomes during independent investigations. A climate for learning, collaborating and reflecting together can be created when groups are highly functional. Knowledge is not being replaced by skills; knowledge is being delivered as skills are being acquired. As a teacher of any subject, you can improve the communication in your classroom, even if it is not being explicitly taught in English lessons (although I hope it is). Here are my top five takeaways for improving classroom talk in any subject.
Clarify, Prepare, Share Questioning
Samantha Bainbridge introduced me to this genius simple idea. Outside the classroom is a permanently placed poster with the words Clarify, Prepare and Share on it (see above image). Pupils get used to the fact that the lesson always begins in the corridor with a question or a task stuck to that poster. The first thing that they need to do is clarify the task. If they understand what they need to do, they can enter the room and get prepared to share their ideas. If they do not understand the task, they can ask friends or wait a moment to have the task clarified by the teacher. Preparation takes the form of a discussion with their peers about the task or question. Putting this routine into place means pupils recognise that lessons always begin with discussion that is in some way linked to the bigger picture.
The best lesson opener questions ignite curiosity. Avoid closed questions, “Do you like turnips?” is unlikely to generate much discussion. Link the question to "Pupils who can work effectively as part of a group are more likely to achieve positive outcomes."the main body of the lesson so that it always has purpose. For example, during collaborative planning with an ICT teacher, we created the question, “Can a mistake in a spreadsheet kill you?” This lesson aimed to get pupils investigating the purpose of accuracy in databases. In the lesson before, I observed pupils completing a close exercise, spotting spreadsheet mistakes… the engagement was poor to say the least. Observing this second lesson, the question grabbed pupils’ attention. They excitedly began discussing scenarios in which you may end up dead because of a spreadsheet mistake. We had found their level.
Pupils are naturally curious, but that curiosity is fragile. Look from their eyes and think, “What would grab my attention if I was my pupil?” I have successfully used, “When were you last stung by nettles?” to open a poetry lesson; “Marmite, love it or hate it?” to open a lesson on writing a rant and ”Who are we?” next to images of magnified bugs that looked like aliens to open a lesson on creative writing. The question is the hook, what you do when they enter is the key to success.
It is important to note that pupils will not immediately fall into perfect discussions because of the arrival of a poster. For the first few lessons, a teacher’s listening and observation skills are essential tools in training pupils. Get a note pad and stand next to the pupils that you know are doing the task well. Note down some excellent points that they are making before listening across the room to those pupils that are discussing what just happened at break. Note down their words exactly. Stop the class and repeat back both the excellent discussions and the words from the mouths of the off-task pupils. This usually brings about much giggling (especially if the topic discussed is not for the ears of all). Do not name the pupils, ritual humiliation is not the goal. The key to success is demonstrating that you are always listening and modelling the type of discussions that you want to hear. It usually takes around a week of persistence to get pupils on board with this.
The wonderful Jim Smith introduced me to this idea at a local TeachMeet. As with clarify, prepare, share, pupils are asked a question. However, this time they are asked to think about their response to this question in silence. For example, in a history lesson, pupils’ clarify, prepare, share question is, “Only one person can survive… who would you choose and why?” Pupils see images of three figures from World War One. The outcome of the lesson is to investigate the lives of these key figures, deepening their understanding of the war. The task is a snog, marry or avoid style choice. Pupils have to decide upon their chosen survivor for themselves to begin with. As they are in silence, the History teacher can share more chosen facts about the figures. Then the task escalates:
Step one: Pupils listen to the facts and make their initial decision. They are reminded of the art of persuasion (ideally, the history teacher would know that the English teacher had taught persuasion recently and would be allowing pupils to practice this understanding in a new context). Pupils are given device cards to remind them of persuasive devices and must get prepared with persuasive reasons why they would save their choice.
Step Two: Pair up. Each person gets one minute to persuade the other that their choice should be saved. After two minutes, the pair must decide upon one person to take forward. The most persuasive partner is the winner.
Step Three: Pupils form quartets. Each pair gets one minute to persuade the other pair that their chosen person should be saved. I have tried escalating this up to higher and higher numbers. After four, people begin to sit back.
Pupils each have their own opinions they have been allowed to share in the safety of two before taking their ideas forward to a higher number. Using this technique can keep all pupils engaged and encourage them to share more ideas within their group. The end goal is that each group should share their thoughts with the class. You could get them to share right now; however I like to add a bit more to the discussion by using the following two ideas.
Thought bombing can encourage deeper thinking and richer discussions. Take the History example. Once pupils have formed a four and decided upon their survivor, the teacher can throw some thought bombs into the mix. These explode the direction of pupils’ thinking. Simply cut a hole in a plastic ball (the kind that you find in kids’ ball pools works best) and fill it with a thought. For a "Think, ‘What would grab my attention if I was my pupil?"figure such as Joseph Goebbels, you might put thoughts such as, “He killed his six children” or “He was Hitler’s right-hand man.” If the pupils had picked him as the survivor, they would need to discuss how this new information had either changed the direction of their thinking or how they might persuade others that this man is still worth saving. I also like to throw in random thoughts such as what they had for tea. This allows us to think about the type of information that is useful and that which is insignificant.
The History teacher wants pupils to know facts about key figures. These key facts could be presented in a booklet or via a PowerPoint. However, we remember things more when we have an emotional response to them. This task gets pupils emotional about the figures. Shouts of, “No way did he do that!” and “I hate her now!” can be heard as pupils search for the next stage of the story attached to these characters. Notice that the subject content has not been removed. It is being delivered in a way that encourages discussion but this lesson is still all about the history. Once pupils have lots of facts, they may be ready to share but will their speech be clearly structured? It will if you add the next point to it…
Hexagons and Persuasive Speeches
To build coherent speeches, pupils can use hexagons as prompts. Hexagons are great as they fit together nicely to form a chain of ideas, while they can also be moved around as pupils decide upon the most effective order for delivery. Providing pupils with both blank hexagons and hexagons that contain cohesive language can support them in using a range of connectives to link together their ideas. Practising words such as “similarly” or “unlike,” “secondly” and “moreover” makes this language more accessible and it soon appears in their writing as standard. This method gets them used to planning, rearranging structures, using topic specific language and the language of cohesion.
Thanks to the escalator and thought bombing, pupils are brimming with ideas; they are given prompt cards to remind them of persuasive techniques that were taught to them in English. Pupils use the prompt cards, their ideas, the facts from the thought bombs and the hexagons to begin preparing their response. Each person can write down their own ideas on individual hexagons and then the hexagons are joined together, making use of the cohesive language hexagons, to form an articulate speech.
Finally, this is an excellent (and, you’ll be happy to hear, simple) task to get pupils to be more articulate when speaking out loud. In English, pupils are taught the following features of spontaneous speech as part of their spoken language unit:
Filler: Any utterance that has no meaning and is used to give the speaker time to think “errm”.
Hesitation: This is an overly-long pause that is awkward rather than dramatic. Usually longer than two seconds.
Ellipsis: When you miss part of the sentence out, “Going to the party?” Instead of “Are you going to the party?”
The above are features of spontaneous speech and are perfectly natural. However, if you are able to control these features, you can become more articulate in your presentations. A great way of reflecting or connecting on any learning is to play ‘Articulation’.
In small groups, each person must speak for one minute on a given topic. For example, in a maths lesson, they could have been "Pupils are given prompt cards to remind them of persuasive techniques."learning about quadratic equations. Pupils are asked to reflect by discussing their learning in a game of ‘Articulation’. One person must keep time while the other listen out for features of non-fluency. The listeners make a tally chart; each time one of the above features (you could add more… this is a very basic version) is used, a tally goes down. The winner is the person who uses the least number of non-fluency features during their talk. You will be surprised how much they love the game and what a difference it makes to their confidence.
If you want a collaborative classroom, a classroom filled with confident, enthusiastic learners, remember that they are at school for a reason. Pupils need to be taught how to work in a team, how to discuss, stay on task, think deeply, be articulate and confident. Having confident, articulate, team working pupils is absolutely worth investing the time spent teaching them to get there. In an ideal curriculum, teachers would collaborate to allow pupils to practise these skills in different contexts, but as a teacher of any subject, even in the most isolated of situations, you can still make a difference by putting communication at the heart of your lessons.
Do you use similar tactics in your school? Let us know in the comments.