Over the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time visiting schools to talk about literacy. One of my stock nuggets of advice is that it’s worth spending lesson time scaffolding students’ speech in order to help them become fluent in academic language. My contention is talk is a powerful cognitive lever and that by getting students to speak in academic language it changes the way they think. If you can think in academic language then writing becomes straightforward. I call this my simple theory about writing.
Amazingly though, I’ve very rarely seen this done well. Teachers are very keen on making speaking frames to decorate their classrooms but I’m continually struck by how poorly these are often used. After I’ve watched lessons where teachers had intended to develop students’ academic language my feedback has often been that they need to make students repeat what the teacher and other students say in order to remember it better. Because this is how my own teaching evolved it’s seemed intuitive to me, but clearly that’s not the way most people see it. It’s often not until I show teachers what I mean and give a demonstration lesson that it clicks.
A few weeks ago I visited Nigeria. The highlight of the trip was visiting the Muyiwa Bamgbose Academy in Ibadan for the day and watching how lessons were taught. The most striking difference between Nigerian and western schools is the number of students in the class – it’s not unusual to see classes of 50-60 children! Clearly this means students get far less individual attention from teachers, but despite the obvious drawbacks there are, I think, potential benefits too. Teaching is very fast paced and uses and lot of call and response. This is a mode of communication which permeates African cultures: a speaker calls for audience participation and the audience respond appropriately. I saw this not only in classrooms but church services and public meetings as well.
In the classroom, a teacher will often make a statement and then expect the students to repeat it. Sometimes they ask a particular student to speak and then expect the rest of the class to repeat what was said. Because there are so many students, there’s no time to mess about. When the teacher asks a question, students shoot out of their seat and give an answer. The confidence and articulacy of these answers was remarkable. Don’t forget, English is these children’s second language but they spoke it beautifully. Compare this with the way children often answer (or don’t) questions in England: they mumble, they’re hesitant, they don’t know. Students in England are not used to the expectation that they should answer questions clearly, confidently and articulately.
This is how I tried to teach. I called it ‘speaking like an essay’. If students didn’t know, or couldn’t give, a reasonable answer in academic English I would give them a frame to help them turn their ideas presented in everyday English into something more academic sounding. I would get them to repeat it until they’d said it perfectly and then get other students to repeat, adapt and add to what they’d said with the aim that everyone had spoken like an essay. This can be exhausting and often 10 minutes was plenty both for me and my students, but in Nigerian classrooms they keep it up at a relentless pace for much longer with the result that students brim with confidence.
When I demonstrate this type of teaching to English teachers I can get a mixed response. Some teachers love it, others are repelled. They’re squeamish at having children repeat expertly crafted sentences out loud because it all feels a bit too… Victorian? I understand this squeamishness – after all, this way of teaching runs counter to the way most teachers are trained and clashes with the social norms in most schools – but I’d argue that if we always allow children to choose how and if they want to participate in lessons the result is predictable: children who lack the confidence to speak in public and who cannot communicate in the language of academic success. You may feel reluctant to drill children like this but it can be liberating for them. Our preferences ought not be a barrier to students’ academic success.