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When oracy is the critical factor

boy-with-megaphoneFor the ninth year, SSAT has celebrated and shared outstanding practice from schools across the country in the Achievement Show – this year, back at the site of the original show, the Emirates Stadium, North London.

Leaders and teachers from over 50 schools gave presentations of no longer than 45 minutes, highlighting their challenges and successes. Most importantly, the speakers gave the detail, and advice on what worked and what didn’t, and why.

The presentations covered a wide range of subjects and approaches: there was something there for everyone. Over the next week, we are publishing on our blog reports from a small selection, covering mobile technology in and outside the classroom, motivating disparate categories of students, retaining learning, school radio stations, special needs education, and oracy in young people from severely deprived backgrounds.

We began with Greg Hughes’ session on the impact of learning technologies at de Ferrers Academy. A second report gave you four advantages of investing in mobile technology. This third piece recalls how a north London school has tackled severe language deprivation…


Sarah Creasey, deputy headteacher, Lisa Hutchinson, careers coordinator and white British achievement lead, and Marie Underwood, literacy coordinator, Parliament Hill School, in the London borough of Camden, discussed how to help overcome severe language deprivation.

Their presentation began with the startling assertion that the school’s catchment area had some of the country’s worst recorded levels of within-family violence. Associated indices of disadvantage were stark: in years 7-11, between 34% and 52% of students were on the SEN register, similar proportions of students had EAL and over 50% in each year group qualified for the pupil premium.

Language deprivation

The overriding barrier for students from disadvantaged backgrounds is their significantly lower literacy levels and often severe language deprivation, said Sarah Creasey. When they come to the school in year 7, many of Parliament Hill School’s girls are unfamiliar with what seem like some of the most obvious words, such as saucepan.

The overriding barrier for students from disadvantaged backgrounds is their significantly lower literacy levels and often severe language deprivation

Lisa Hutchinson then described the barriers to learning that lead to some of these difficulties. Research by the borough had found:

  • lack of inspiration within families
  • lack of understanding of the world
  • lack of aspiration
  • lack of parental engagement (many parents having had poor experience of school)
  • perceived loss of culture
  • few or no community links
  • poor housing and lack of space
  • low literacy and language among the adults.

Sarah Creasey recalled the school staff’s immediate reaction to such a damning catalogue of disadvantage: “Short of adopting these children and cooking for them, what can we do?”

To start, what they did was to look at other schools that had been successful with similar challenges. Then they introduced a number of changes, notably a focus on white British achievement (WBA) projects. They appointed a WBA officer, who mainly works informally with students. Together they studied the issues at the school, and found, among other things, that parents often lacked the confidence to leave their home area; and that they preferred to speak than to listen ¬– so conversation works better than presentation.

Girls from these families tended to:

  • be passive in lessons
  • have a poor diet
  • struggle with making choices
  • avoid after-school interests
  • have limited options
  • be language deprived
  • have poor organisation.

The school took up Camden local services’ offer to become involved in its Listen-EAR (enjoy, achieve, respect) project. Activities include ‘speak week’ and ‘listening week’, team-teaching ‘listening lessons’, creating a communication skills scheme of work, parents’ workshops and classroom audits or learning walks.

The WBA officer and a colleague undertook a screening assessment of five girls in each year group who fitted the profile. All the parents came with their daughters to the feedback session, which discussed a wide range of issues to do with social communication, such as: slang, different ways of talking to peers and teachers, and examples of sarcasm and their implications.

In their contributions to the discussion, the girls said they liked the positive feedback and the more active lessons they were now experiencing; but they were anxious to avoid any difficulties with teachers, or talking about their difficulties at home.

Marie Underwood then outlined the resulting advice given to teachers and learning support assistants after the discussions with parents and students. This included: using easier words and sentences, giving visual information, showing examples or modelling how to do something, checking understanding and breaking tasks down into more manageable units.

“We don’t do ‘literacy'”

The focus of Parliament Hill’s work on oracy is detailed: “We don’t do ‘literacy’,” said Marie Underwood, “we break it down.” So the whole school Inset programme includes eight distinct workshops for teachers to choose from.

Speaking and listening is the focus for half a term in a student’s first year at the school. In ‘women of the world week’, students have spoken word workshops. And in ‘speak week’, whole-school activities are complemented by all staff focusing on oracy in the classroom.

The theme of one week was about fillers in spoken language, which many young people use constantly: words or sounds such as ‘er’, ‘um’, etc. Teachers showed a video of a young American woman peppering her conversation with ‘like’. The girls in class laughed, but Marie told them, “actually, that’s what you sound ‘like’.” She set up think-pair-share discussions about fillers, and they came up with counter strategies, such as recognising that a pause in your speech is not necessarily bad, and preparing and practising speech in advance.

Avoiding fillers

The challenge all the teachers then set their students was to avoid using the word ‘like’ as a filler in class – for the whole week. After this, students did start correcting their use of fillers in speech.

In another speak week, the challenge was for every student in every class to ‘adopt a word’ (approved by the teacher: eg moreover, in addition) for the week. The student recorded as using their word correctly most often in the week received a prize. “They were driving their teachers absolutely nuts using their words,” recalled Lisa Hutchinson. One year 11 girl achieved 250 recorded uses of her word in the week.

In a ‘speak week’, every student adopted a word. The student recorded as using their word correctly most often in the week received a prize

Another ploy is to mount a language-related question on the wall in one part of the school, and the same question – plus its answer – somewhere else. This gets everyone involved and engaged in language. Apps such as Quizlet have been useful in devising more activities of this sort.

Amanda Hanks, the WBA officer, is now working with parents, talking to them about their daughters and how they can be helped. The school produces end-of-year ‘passports’ showing a student’s achievements as they enter the next school year.

Parliament Hill School’s current plans in this area include relaunching student profiles, deciding whether to screen new year 7 students or continue with the whole-school focus on vocabulary, involving white British parents in workshops, co-planning activities with students (which the girls are very keen on), and monitoring the register of students with high learning potential for takeup of a wider range of curriculum subjects.


Check out photos from the SSAT Achievement Show 2016 on our Facebook page.

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