How can teachers make their practice talk-rich? In this blog for the TRT project, Naomi Flynn presents extracts from an interview with the class teacher and Oracy lead (Delphine*) in the school where she first piloted The Enduring Principles of Learning (EPL). She reflects with Delphine on how  the school prioritised classroom talk in their planning and delivery. 

I have been very fortunate to work alongside the school where Delphine teaches since early 2019; an inner-city school in southern England with nigh on 100% multilingual learners. The relationship started because the Headteacher asked for my advice on how her staff might improve their practice for multilingual learners, and I was looking for a setting that could help me explore whether The Enduring Principles of Learning (EPL) could translate to English classrooms. As we know, the best practitioner – researcher partnerships are borne of co-constructed mutually-desirable aims and thus we had an enviable fit as a team from the outset. Our shared aim was to support teachers in making their practice more dialogic, and by doing so to scaffold their multilingual children’s skills of both speaking and listening in lessons.

Delphine was an early adopter of the EPL and she has since become Oracy Champion for her school. Here we are talking about those early days:

Naomi: So what was it about the EPL that you found you could engage with early on?

Delphine: My starting point was the children and their needs. I was working with Year 6 (age 10 – 11) and found they were less engaged with their learning in the afternoons – they were reluctant to talk – and so I needed something that encouraged me to stand back and give them a more central role in classroom discussion. The fact that the EPL demands a more talk-rich approach for language and literacy development meant I was able to give a name to what I was doing. I knew that the idea that the teacher stands at the front, teacher talks, children learn, was not working and that I needed to flip that model on its head.

children reading a book together

Naomi:  Where did you start with this?

Delphine:  I found Religious Education (RE) lessons worked well because the children’s faiths are so important to them in our school. With RE, they can talk about their experiences. They feel confident listening to others’ experiences and hearing the common ground between different religions. So I think that the subject led the way for there to be more “well you tell me, what does happen?” “Oh, that’s interesting. What about your religion?” And so, I think that’s where the gates opened.

Naomi:  Yes, I remember watching you teach RE and the gates opening for me too – in terms of seeing where a teacher in our English context could take this US model. It’s interesting to hear you reflect on RE as a starting point because what you describe relates to the principle of Critical Stance, and this was the principle with which were least confident at the outset.

Delphine: That’s right – Critical Stance – but also I think Contextualisation. We were working on making the content relatable to and respectful of what the children bring from home to school. I remember that it was not so easy to make EPL work with all lessons at the beginning, and it was a matter of finding a good fit. Something else that was a feature of our early work with EPL was understanding that not every lesson will hit every Principle – some are going to remain unobserved or only at an emerging level. I liked how the rubric helped us to see which elements of any lesson were its strengths, rather than it being a checklist whereby we had to score high on every element; teaching just isn’t like that.

Naomi:  So, these were what you saw as strengths of the EPL approach, but what did you find challenging at first?

Delphine: I think it was trusting that children were going to talk about the topic that you give them, when you set them off, and that they’re not just going to talk about something else. And I think what comes with that is the level of noise, and teachers find that hard. So it can be very quiet when the teacher’s talking and it can feel very ordered and controlled, but when the children are talking, it can feel like, “Oh my gosh, they’re not learning. What if someone walks by? They’re not productive.”. You might think, “Well, if I have a talk activity, I’ll give them like 30 seconds.” But actually that’s not a long time for them to formulate ideas. And especially for children who are learning English, they need more time; and giving enough talk time was a challenge. I found it useful to use a timer and encourage children to talk for the duration of the timer.

Naomi:  I can really see that. Teachers are juggling so many expectations and the need for being ‘productive’ can mean that they find allowing for talk feels too risky. How did you get past that worry?

Delphine: I think I saw the benefits of the talk activities in that the children didn’t go off on a tangent. And if they did, it was very rare. They did stay focused on their learning. They were enthusiastic. They become better orators. They became better listeners. The positives just outweighed any sort of challenges that I had.

Naomi:  Something my project teachers have found hard is the demand from the EPL that teachers work towards small group teaching (Joint Productive Activity) in order to maximise the quality of their Instructional Conversation. I remember your school working on creating ‘talking fours’ early on – tell me about that.

Delphine: So, it’s training the children for group work. I think it’s being really clear on what you want it to look like and what you need to do in order to get to that stage. So, if you want one table to have a discussion by themselves, have they got a scaffold? Have they got resources? Have they got a word bank to support them, to enable them to do that? They can’t just do it by themselves, and you will get off-topic chat and noise if they don’t have what they need to make it work.  If children have what they need, to do the discussion, then actually the learning takes place. But it takes time to set up – it’s a process. That first time where you have children doing different things, you may not be able to sit with your focus group for 10 minutes, because you’re keeping an eye on everybody else. So it’s almost like setting them all up first. Have they all got it? Okay. Yes. Now I can sit with this group and we’re going to work together. Just like you would model a piece of writing, it’s important to model what good talk in a group looks like.

 In this next interview extract I turned the focus of our discussion to what the school are doing now as they move onwards from the extraordinary challenges of the global pandemic in 2020 – 2021.

Naomi:  Your current role is to work as the Oracy Champion for your school, and the school is also a Voice 21 school. Tell me about your work with both of these.

Delphine:  I am working chiefly with our newest teachers and we are using elements of the rubric – Joint Productive Activity and Modelling – and combining that with the teacher benchmarks from Voice 21. On top of the EPL changes we’ve made in terms of small group teaching – we’re working with both threes and fours now – we are using Voice 21’s talking guidelines. So, we work on how we’re going to look at the person who’s speaking, we’re going to nod. We’re going to disagree politely. We’re going to invite others in who aren’t speaking. So those rules, we’ve kind of combined with our school values, which was to be responsible, respectful, and positive learners.

Teacher with four children and a stick insect in a tank

Sometimes new teachers don’t understand that oracy can be woven through the lesson and that it facilitates learning through talk – so I keep repeating that in order that they understand it’s not a bolt on.

Naomi:  There are commonalities between your oracy charter and the expectations of intentionally dialogic practice in the EPL. Take for example the enacting level of Instructional Conversation where pupil talk should be at a higher level than teacher talk – I can see how paying attention to physical behaviours when talking in groups can really help with that.

Delphine:  Yes, that’s right. So, to give you a practical example, in Year 4 (age 8 – 9), they are learning about electricity. And usually, they would normally write something in their book, but we changed that to them being a news anchor and presenting the story on the danger of electricity. So the learning intention stays as it should but the learning outcome looks different. It’s quite a lengthy process, but it’s worth it in the end. Because then, you have them doing their news report, and they’ve learned so much that the quality of their writing is much better than it would have been without the talk.

 And finally, I asked Delphine what her advice would be for schools wanting to adopt EPL as part of their own practice.

Delphine: Try working out what talk is happening already in the classroom and what impact that’s already making. And I think, as well, it would be good to start with a lesson or a subject, which teachers are confident in;  start to build this in and just start off small. So thinking about smart steps through the opportunities that are there already. Can talk-based opportunities lead to the same outcome in a given curriculum unit? Do the children speak to each other usually in lessons, and what is the purpose of their talk? Provide children with scaffolds to support their talk. Word banks and sentence starters such as I think… I agree/disagree because… are great starting points.

Naomi:  In terms of using the EPL to support multilingual learners learning English, do you think that English lessons are the best place to start?

Delphine:  Not necessarily. Lessons where the vocabulary is very subject specific – Science for example – can make great starting points for the EPL approach. There are more opportunities for children to discuss, and their teachers will be focussed on introducing the content vocabulary to support access to the curriculum; both strategies really support multilingual learners.

Naomi:  Which of the EPLs might schools start with?

Delphine: I think the important thing is modelling the small groups (Joint Productive Activity), don’t expect the children to just be able to do it. But to model it, you need to think, what do you want? How do you want it to look? Is it better that they work in pairs first and then move to their fours? Is it better they work in fours? It’s all these little things, but they really make a difference.

 Delphine’s practical insights into adoption of the EPL have reinforced my hunch that the best advice schools can take if they want to launch this approach is to work towards small step changes and focus on the longer-term gains. Delphine also talks of starting with the best of what you do already and adapting it to become more talk-rich. This is how my work with the current schools in the TRT project has developed and we are seeing the fruits of our labours as we move through the summer term. The EPL rubric can look daunting if you think that all of the principles are needed all of the time in every lesson, but this has never been the intention of its architects. Its central question is ‘how can I make my teaching more dialogic?’ and this is essentially what Delphine and her school have been working on so successfully over the past three years.

* Name changed to protect anonymity