Over the years I have become increasingly convinced that there is something particularly cognitively ‘sticky’ about speech. We are more likely to remember that which we have said than that which we have merely read or heard. One of the big problems teachers regularly encounter is that children who are able to articulate interesting opinions and make useful connections orally will often struggle to record these observations in writing. All too often this is because the way children have expressed themselves is the only way they have of expressing themselves.
As literate adults, we have the ability to instantaneously translate between what we say and what we would need to alter in order to write down what we’ve said. Although they’re related, spoken and written language are very different beasts, as anyone who’s ever tried to transcribe speech will know. If children are not sufficiently familiar with the academic language code they will struggle to write down that which they find easy to say out loud.
So, what’s the solution? For some years now I’ve been working on a teaching approach I’ve called ‘structured discussion’. It really isn’t anything especially new or exciting but it does seem very different to the way most teachers teach, and therefore it can seem hard to grasp what needs to done.
Essentially, it works like this: The teacher asks a question about the content being studied and then directs it at a particular student. The student then gives an answer. Instead of either paraphrasing their answer in academic language or just saying, ‘great’ and moving on, the teacher then asks the student to elevate their response so that they ‘speak like an essay’. This can be hard for students to do and so it may require the teacher to provide a scaffold to elicit a more academic response, or a model for them to repeat. Then other students should be asked to repeat what the first student has said. If they’ve said it, they’ll be able to write it down.
This pattern is then repeated with as many children as possible asked to participate. They can be asked to expand on or reply to other students’ answers, but responses must always be mediated by the teacher to make sure children are supported to speak in academic language.
Just in case this explanation has been hard to follow, here’s a rough transcript of a discussion following reading the first part of Simon Armitage’s version of the Odyssey with a Year 7 class:
- Teacher: Sarah, what impression do we get of the gods and their attitude to mortals?
- Sarah: They think they’re dependent
- T: Can you say that in a full sentence beginning “The impression readers get of the gods is… “?
- S: The impression readers get of the gods is that they think they’re dependent?
- T: That’s better. Ben, what did Sarah just say?
- Ben: The impression readers get of the gods is … uh…
- T: OK. She said, “The impression readers get of the gods is that they think mortals are dependent on them.” What did I just say?
- B: The impression readers get of the gods is that they think mortals are dependent on them.
- T: Good. Ahmed, what did Ben just say?
- Ahmed: He said, “The impression readers get of the gods is that they think mortals are too dependent on them.”
- T: Good. Maia, how do we know the gods think humans are dependent on them?
- Maia: Um, Zeus says… “It doesn’t do to meddle too much. Makes them dependent.”
- T: Yes, can you say that so that it sounds more like an essay?
- M: We know the gods think humans are dependent on them because Zeus says “It doesn’t do to meddle too much. Makes them dependent.”
- T: That’s a good effort. Jake, can you improve on what Maia said without repeating the word dependent? Start by saying, The impression readers get of the gods is that…
- Jake: Er… The impression readers get of the gods is that… they are worried humans will get too dependent on them.
- T: Yes. Now add ‘because’ to the end of that sentence.
- J: The impression readers get of the gods is that humans will get too dependent on them because Zeus says, “It doesn’t do to meddle too much.”
- T: Excellent. Shima, what did Jake just say?
And so on….
This can be continued for as long as is desired but my recommendation is to keep it down to no more than 10 minutes at first. Speaking in this way requires care and attention and can be exhausting – for you as well as them. As they become more fluent and familiar, their stamina should increase and you can spend longer to ensure topics have been thoroughly explored before a written response is expected.