The educational challenges for students when they return to school

‘A Sea of Talk’

Helen Prince considers some of the educational challenges facing schools and offers her advice for encouraging developing vocabulary across the curriculum.

Responding to a pandemic was not part of my teacher training.  Dashing around Christ Church, Canterbury all those years ago, I remember no module on understanding the challenge of students returning to school after lockdown.  But here we are.  Sleeping less and fretting more about the challenges ahead.  

Among the unknowns, there are certainties.  If, as Quigley tells us, ‘a great deal of vocabulary learning is implicit and happens by students simply coming to school and listening, talking and reading daily’ then we face the challenge of a widening word-gap.  Amid the loss of structure, friendships and freedoms, many young people have lost opportunities to talk and enrich their vocabulary; the very core of their route to success.

So, let’s talk.  Let’s really talk.

Placing talk front stage and centre is our best hope in addressing this growing vocabulary deficit and, crucially, it is the kindest route back to the classroom.  Why?  Because talk is a shared endeavour that provides comfort.  In its transitory nature, talk provides low stress, low stakes opportunity for assessment.  Talk provides a kinder path to success.  

With this in mind, these three suggestions will,  I believe, help us create the best climate for talk.

You

You, the classroom teacher, are critical to the development of oral competence for your students.  The interactive nature of talk requires an assured, confident speaker and listener at the helm, making careful noun and verb choices to model aspirational, high quality, specific talk.  So, re-frame responses injecting tier 2 vocabulary, revise students’ ideas more formally and securing standard English.  You are the talk expert.  You are ‘uniquely powerful’ in improving oracy skill. (Alexander 2012)

Raise word consciousness

Raise word consciousness across the curriculum (Duke and Moses 2003).  Energise vocabulary through sound and image, capture great vocab and cherish it in display, and through constant repetition.  Frankly, what could be better than playing word and drama games with your classes?! Use the Frayer Model (see image below) as a simple but effective way to help students organise their understanding of complex vocabulary – a great baseline activity.  Consider the etymology of words; (80% of the vocabulary of Maths, Science and technical English derives from Latin or Greek) helping students interpret words is essential for developing understanding across the curriculum.

Helen Prince: Frayer model

Oral rehearsal

A good oracy curriculum should think about the process of turning speech into writing.  Oral rehearsal can provide a kinder way into writing, reducing cognitive load and helping writers ‘hear’ their own writing.  This focus on moving talk to writing also highlights the differences between spoken and written language – helpful for shaping writerly choices about structure and nuance.  So grab the mini-white boards and post-it notes and write on the desks (it really does come off easily!) because those safe writing spaces allow written words to emerge in a low-stakes, safe environment where it’s OK to try, where it’s OK to be wrong and to have another go.  Writing is a courageous activity; tread softly through talk.

There is so much more to say.  Oracy is a moral cause; curriculum choices should be predicated on its inclusion and – right now – I firmly believe structured talk provides our kindest path back to the classroom environment.  As the author and educationalist Britten says, ‘Reading and writing float on a sea of talk’.  It is, wondrously, within our gift to calm and control the sea.

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