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Encouraging verbal engagement

Pupils should be talking in our classrooms. They may not want to and there are times when silent work is needed, but there is definitely a place for discussion, verbal feedback and the sharing of ideas. However, it is not always an easy thing to promote and with some classes, it may seem impossible. But you can get to a point where you use some of the strategies below on a regular basis. I have used all of these in both UK and international schools and regularly use them as my ‘go-to’ methods, especially if everyone seems (dare I say it) a bit too quiet.

I like to push pupils out of their comfort zone and encourage them to talk to anyone and everyone in the classroom, so I employ a range of different strategies in order to achieve this. Some require more formal planning and are embedded into a lesson activity, whilst others are quick and easy…and sometimes fun. One of the main things I’ve learned over the course of my career is that apart from the lower year groups, most pupils will recoil from giving feedback or sharing ideas if you give them the option. However, if you regularly promote speaking out and use discussion regularly, pupils will become accustomed to this and grow to expect it.

I try to make it lighthearted and fun as I accept it is sometimes daunting to have to talk to someone new. However the sight of me (often maniacally) shouting instructions whilst flailing my arms around, usually stuns all pupils into acquiescence ; )

Here are some of my favourite ways of promoting class discussion and collaboration; ensuring all pupils have a chance to speak; and using movement around the room as a verbal engagement strategy:

1. This one usually works best with KS3: 'pick someone who...' I often use this as an icebreaker with my new classes and it’s a type of ‘hands down activity’. Rather than ask for volunteers to give feedback, I will pick the 1st person to give their answer, then I will ask them to pick the next person and so on. However, in order to make it interesting (and to stop them picking their friends) I will give instructions such as: pick someone whose name begins with an A; pick someone wearing a blazer etc. You can use absolutely any criteria and when used to gather feedback from a starter activity, it engages everyone in a fun way right from the beginning of your lesson.

2. ‘I will ask you a question for…’. With quiet or reluctant pupils, it is better to give them time to prepare so I often let them know when they will be expected to speak. This gives them the time and space to think about their answer and how to deliver it. I use this regularly, so they begin to expect it rather than dread it. You can use this in a variety of ways: I will ask you for your response on the starter; I will ask you to share one idea your group discussed; I will ask you a question about the key character in 5 minutes. Just don't forget about them if you go around other pupils within their thinking time period!

3. Listen and advise - another way of hearing feedback but with a twist. This can be used on tasks that have used a success criteria. The teacher controls this to an extent, but doesn’t offer any feedback. Begin by picking a pupil to read out their answer then choose someone to ‘listen and advise’ i.e. Paul, you are going to read your descriptive paragraph and Hazel is going to listen and tell you one thing she likes about it and one thing you could add or improve for next time. This works like a chain with Hazel then reading her work out and a different person ‘listening and advising’.

4. Plenary - 'tell me one thing'. When pupils have packed away and stood behind their chairs (they could still be seated if you wanted), I ask them to ‘tell me one thing’. It could be ‘tell me one thing you’ve learned about Romeo’ or ‘tell me one thing you did today that was new’. I do this as a hands down exercise and sometimes even ask pupils to make their own up to ask each other.

5. Find someone with the same idea as you. When answering a question posed either for the starter or the main task, I ask pupils to walk around the room and find someone who shares the same viewpoint as them. This forces them to talk to several people and then once they have found their partner, they can discuss their thoughts in depth before committing them to paper.

6. 'Find a partner who...'. Rather than always resorting to ‘share with the person next to you’, I’ll sometimes ask pupils to move around the room in order to find a partner. I will give instructions such as: find a partner from a different table; find someone you haven’t said hello to yet; find someone you’ve never worked with. This works well once you know the class as you can spot any pupils who cheekily still try and pair up with their best friends.

7. Stand up and move! You could use this as a sort of ‘Simon says’ activity if you wanted to add a bit extra. I tend to use this with my y10 class if they’re looking tired or like they’ve had enough. After a writing activity (short or extended) I will ask them to stand up - which usually results in a whole room full of groans and ‘why Miss?!?' 'Please we’re tired’ - all of which is respectfully ignored. I then begin shouting random instructions: keep walking until I say stop; stop! turn 90 degrees and keep going; stop! take one step to the left, swivel round on your right foot and keep walking…and so on. When they start to enjoy themselves (which they will but won’t ever admit), I will end the game and ask them to sit down with a partner, this could be the closest person to them if they extend one arm or the person in their immediate eye-line etc. This is a great way of injecting energy into the room but also encouraging them to talk to others. Needless to say, y7s love this one as it seems more like a game!

8. One person from your group move. This is part of a more formal activity and the purpose is closely tied to the requirements of the task. When using group work, use this activity as a way of pupils feeding back to others and also developing their own ideas. When pupils have completed the group task, ask one pupil to move to the next group in a clockwise motion. Their job is to listen to the other group, make notes and feedback on their own group’s ideas. You can do this several times. Not only is the person moving required to discuss but also the static group is required to engage as they must repeat their own ideas or answers to each new individual who sits down.

9. Everyone must speak. I use this in group work, particularly during feedback. I set a minimum requirement for how much I expect each person to speak or engage with others. This stops pupils sitting quietly and not being as active. You could also take this further and add group roles: one person is the clockwatcher; one person must keep an eye on how the task is being met; one person must ask questions to keep everyone on track etc.

10. Post it pairs. Use post it notes and ask pupils to write a question. This could be a question they have about something you are studying or something more specific. I sometimes give them more focused instructions such as ‘develop a question that tests someone's understanding of the poem’. They then place these on the board. I then ask pupils to come back to the board and choose a question to answer. They write the answer (you may need large post it notes) and place it back on the board. You can let them write their names on or leave it anonymous. The initial person who posed the question must then find their question with the answer. Go around the room and ask them to read them out and say what they like about the response.

I regularly employ all of these and am always trying to think of more! It is sometimes difficult to ensure pupils speak out more and do so in a range of different scenarios, but you just have to stick with it and ignore all of the protestations! My classes are now so used to getting out of their chairs, walking around in a silly way or talking to others that I no longer have many (fingers crossed) protests.

I’d love to hear any strategies you use! Please add a comment with your own tried and tested ways of promoting discussion and feedback.

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