Want to improve exam results? Get your students talking first, says Rhona MacDonald…
It’s right that schools should be expected to produce the very best examination results for their students. But to do well in exams, students have to be able to write clearly, succinctly and at speed in the highly pressurised environment of the examination hall. For all students this is tough, yet for some getting their thoughts down on paper seems an almost insurmountable barrier to success. That’s why, at Hampstead School, where I am Lead Teacher Achievement for All (AfA), we have taken an approach to improve writing that is based on getting right back to basics and working on how the students talk.
Developing skills for life
At Hampstead School our mantra is: good talking means good thinking and good thinking means good writing. All three together mean good communication skills which are essential not just for exam success, but for success at work and developing happy, healthy personal relationships.
The evidence for taking this approach is compelling. Evidence from The Communication Trust, a coalition of over 50 organisations with expertise in speech, language and communication, tells us:
- In the UK, over 1 million children and young people – that’s two to three in every UK classroom – have some form of long term and persistent speech, language and communication difficulty. This can affect them early, severely and for life.
- In areas of poverty, over 50% of children are starting school with delayed communication skills. Their speech may be unclear, vocabulary is smaller, sentences are shorter and they are able to understand only simple instructions. The knock on effect of poor speech and language skills can be catastrophic.
- 50-90% of children with persistent speech, language and communication difficulties go on to have reading difficulties.
- At the end of Key Stage 4, the ‘attainment gap’ between children with communication difficulties and their peers is marked. Just 15% of children with communication difficulties achieve 5 GCSE A*- C or equivalent compared to 57% of all young people.
It’s easy to feel weighed down by such gloomy analysis, yet the good news is that many of these children can catch up with the right support. The even better news is that putting good communication skills at the heart of the curriculum helps every student regardless of whether or not they have speech and language difficulties.
Practising good communication skills
Neil Mercer, Professor of Education at Cambridge University, points us towards Vygotsky’s theories on ‘interthinking’ arguing that the development of language and cognition are bound up with students being given the chance to engage in ‘exploratory talk’ with their peers.
Convinced and inspired by these arguments, at Hampstead School we are now putting it into practice whole school strategies which ensure that students are enjoying rich opportunities to practise and improve their communication skills. We start with listening as the first link in the ‘Communication Chain’.
- Every Year 7 tutor group has two ‘Active Listening’ lessons as part of the PSHCEE programme devised by the Listen EAR team – a group of Speech and Language Therapists based in Camden who work with schools to improve students’ communication skills at a whole school level.
- These lessons are taught by tutors and involve games to help children to focus and concentrate, emphasising that just as you can learn to improve other skills such as reading, kicking a ball or playing an instrument, you can also ‘learn to listen better’. This is key. Children who can focus in class learn better.
- The Active Listening lessons are structured round the ‘Hampstead Listening Rules’ which are broken down into five separate skills. The Listening Rules are on display in classrooms and make a dramatic difference to the way teachers speak to students and to how students communicate with each other.
- Students will be asked to ‘Look this way, so I know you are listening’ and remember to ‘Take Turns to Talk’ respecting every one in the classroom’s right to be heard. It is worth emphasising here that the second listening rule is based around talk. The two skills are intrinsically linked. However, the most powerful message from the Listening Rules is that they apply, two-way to every person in the classroom, teacher as well as student.
- All Year 7 tutor groups carry a ‘Praise Book’ round their lessons so that teachers can note how well they have used their speaking and listening skills in class. The Praise Book is linked directly to the school’s reward system, which is framed around the five ‘R’s: Reflection, Reasoning, Responsibility, Resilience and Resourcefulness. Students are given ‘R’ points when they perform well in any one of these areas.
- All staff new to the school are given ‘core training’ on how to improve student listening, focus and concentration. Also how improved listening leads to improved talking. Whole school consistency is key.
- As part of the training we demonstrate the whole school method for getting student attention in class, which is to ‘Count UP’ to silence. Because it is consistently applied, every student knows that when a teacher starts to count up the expectation is that the class falls silent, ready to focus, ready to listen and to engage in purposeful talk.
- Other twilight training sessions are offered specifically on understanding and supporting pupils with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN).
Lesson study and evaluations at Hampstead show that a focus on pupils’ communication is making a tangible difference to their learning. Results indicate that, of the students who had known speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), 89% made at least one sublevel of progress, 63% at least two sublevels and 36% more than two levels on their national curriculum framework.
On self-rating scales, 118 students out of 179 rated improved listening after listening lessons and listening strategies in class. Anecdotally, school staff have reported that students were listening better, becoming more engaged in learning tasks and therefore were enabled to talk about what they were learning more accurately and use more complex vocabulary.
Prioritising speaking and listening
As speaking and listening go hand in hand, Hampstead School has just had its first ‘Speak Week’, which is intended to embed speaking activities into every day lessons. This year our focus was on ensuring that there was a ‘THINK PAIR SHARE’ speaking activity in ‘every lesson, every year group, every day for a week’.
We prepared for the week well in advance with:
- A whole staff ‘no pens’ training on THINK PAIR SHARE a month before SPEAK WEEK.
- Making sure staff were given a manageable task – to incorporate just one THINK PAIR SHARE activity into each of their lessons,
- Running assemblies about SPEAK WEEK the week before so students knew what to expect.
During the week, as well as the in-class activities, there were also competitions and the whole school community contributed to a huge ‘WORDLE’ about Hampstead School. THUNK MATS replaced table mats in dinner rooms encouraging students to ‘chew over’ some intriguing ideas during lunch changing the nature of their lunch-time conversations.
SPEAK WEEK was engaging, purposeful and fun. Most importantly for any whole school strategy we had a huge ‘buy-in’ from staff and students. They understood the pedagogy and experienced how THINK PAIR SHARE changed the dynamic in the classroom. Students who have time to think come up with better answers; quiet students feel more confident to speak up as they’ve already had a chance to rehearse their ideas. And when it comes to writing those ideas down, it’s much easier as students have had time to process language and literally ‘get their thoughts in order’ by talking to a partner.
The next step as a school is to turn our attention to student vocabulary. We are taking part in a research project run by City University in London on how to improve vocabulary acquisition in students with SLCN. We know from our previous experience that any strategies which benefit students with SLCN, are likely to be helpful for all students.
Impatient for improvement, however, we won’t be waiting until this time next year to start our vocabulary focus – Hampstead TALK FEST – a whole month of vocabulary based activities is already being planned for before the end of this academic year!
- Hampstead School has recently been awarded the Secondary School/ College of the Year Award at the Shine a Light Awards for their continuous commitment to communication, not only for those students with SLCN but for all students in the school. For further information, visit http://ow.ly/VqEue
- For further information on Listen-EAR (Enjoy, Achieve, Respect), contact Laura Cooper, Speech and Language Therapist on firstname.lastname@example.org
- Further information on supporting pupils’ speech, language and communication is available at www. thecommunicationtrust.org.uk
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