Recent research has repeatedly focussed on the importance of language development to improve educational outcomes for pupils and more specifically disadvantaged pupils. For example the Oxford University Press report April 2018, ‘Why Closing the Word Gap Matters’ oxford.ly/wordgap found that the number of pupils with a word gap was either increasing or significantly increasing in their schools according to the majority of the teachers surveyed. The OUP research also found that just 27 per cent of primary school teachers and 29 per cent of secondary school teachers said that they had a school-wide programme in place to identify and support pupils with a limited vocabulary. Similarly many other surveys have uncovered a lack of confidence amongst teachers in both primary and secondary schools in teaching speaking and listening for all pupils. This is why the Leeds learning Improvement Team decided to create a ‘Language Champions’ programme to ensure that teachers had the tools, training and expertise needed to address the language gap for their pupils.

What is a champion? One of the Oxford dictionary definitions is: ‘a person who vigorously supports or defends a person or cause.’ Linked synonyms include: advocate, proponent, promoter, proposer, supporter, standard-bearer, torch-bearer, defender, protector, upholder, backer, exponent, patron, sponsor, prime mover, pleader for, campaigner for, propagandist for, lobbyist for, fighter for, battler for, crusader for…… In primary schools there are leaders of English, Maths, Assessment, SEND, EAL, Child Protection to name but a few of the many roles adopted by teachers but very rarely do we see a leader of Oracy within that list. We believe that appointing an Oracy champion or leader could be the key to addressing the language gap for pupils by providing training and on-going support and leadership for all staff to become confident teachers of Oracy and true champions for change in their schools.

The Language Champions programme is on offer to schools in Leeds and also outside of the LA.  It’s a year-long initial commitment with a full day’s CPD in the autumn term followed by a further two half days in the spring and summer terms. There are gap tasks to complete in between sessions which encourage and facilitate new Oracy champions to do some action research by trying out some of the approaches in their own classes and providing much-needed CPD to their colleagues.

One of the key principles of the programme is teaching children ‘how’ to talk – making that process explicit. Staff in schools are often competent communicators but for many of us we are probably unaware of how we learnt it, or the level and types of skills we possess. So we may be very good, for example, at active listening or at speaking audibly and clearly, but we may not be able to describe what we actually do. Posters outlining the key elements of what makes a good active listener and skilled speaker accompanied by actions and visuals make this unconscious skill explicit for children. Establishing these clear ‘ground rules for talk’ makes the invisible skills staff possess more visible for children and will support the development of language and thinking skills (Mercer & Dawes, 2008).

Building on these skills of ‘Active Listening’ and ‘Skilled Speaking’, we also introduce ground rules for group work and advise that these are actively taught to ensure good quality academic conversations between groups where children can explore their thinking and learn from each other. Teachers often find group work hard to manage and report it as unproductive because pupils have not been taught how to do it. A set of lesson plans for setting up ground rules can be found at the University of Cambridge ‘Thinking Together’ website: https://thinkingtogether.educ.cam.ac.uk/resources/

There has been much discussion on how to teach vocabulary in recent years – and also much agreement- that vocabulary needs to be taught in the context of the learning and that children need between 8 and 12 exposures to new vocabulary to ensure it is embedded as part of their own repertoire. There are many suggestions and visual word mats for teachers on how to ensure they offer pupils these 8-12 exposures that they need including this one from the Leeds Community Speech and Language Therapy toolkit for schools: https://www.leedscommunityhealthcare.nhs.uk/our-services-a-z/childrens-speech-and-language-therapy-service/cslt-toolkit/

There are many other aspects of the Language Champions programme which may form part of another blog but I will finish today with a quote from one of last year’s language champions; Candice Syan from Pudsey Southroyd: ‘So many great practical ideas- massive to do list, but a great one! Passionate and inspiring course which I can apply to my own practice.’

With a further cohort of 16 Leeds schools joining us for the 18-19 academic year programme, there will be plenty more ideas to share during the year.

For further details about this programme, please contact therese.osullivan@leeds.gov.uk

Therese O’Sullivan

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