SPOKEN LANGUAGE OBJECTIVE 1: Listen and respond appropriately to adults and their peers

 Later objectives refer to questions, debates and collaboration, so the skills intended here are quite basic.  Most of the suggestions below are about making pupils aware of the conventions of classroom talk.  Most of them can be reinforced by acknowledging positive behaviour:

‘Timothy, thank you for waiting your turn. What did you want to say?’

‘Jodie, I like the way you listened carefully. I saw you smiling and nodding, and that was very helpful.’

‘You asked very politely, John.  Well done.’

‘I liked the way you asked Tracy to join in. Well done, that was very thoughtful.’

At the outset:

  • Teach courtesy – Please, Thank you, Sorry, May I..?
  • Teach simple body language – nodding, smiling, leaning in to listen
  • Teach simple conversational strategies – eye contact, turn-taking, following on, acknowledging, agreeing
  • Different language for different situations and people – teachers, family, friends, other pupils, guests, important visitors.

In whole class discussions:

  • Waiting your turn
  • Putting up your hand
  • Not shouting out
  • Attending to the person speaking
  • Being courteous and respecting other people’s feelings
  • Keeping to the main topic
  • Speaking up loud enough for others to hear
  • Responding to the teacher’s signals e.g. for quiet

In small group discussions

  • Encouraging quieter group members to speak
  • Keeping a conversational level of noise
  • Useful phrases such as
    • I agree with Jay about…
    • Another idea is…

Later on, more sensitive skills:

  • How to disagree courteously
  • How to ask someone to explain something to you
  • How to get into a conversation
  • How to end a conversation


SPOKEN LANGUAGE OBJECTIVE 2: Ask relevant questions to extend their understanding and knowledge

At the outset

Encourage pupils to flush out all the questions they have about a topic. In this way, they are able to deal with shortfalls in their understanding.  You can stick post-it questions on a board and then invite answers or provide them yourself.

Make pupils aware of different kinds of questions they can ask, such as

  • Factual questions e.g. ‘What is…?’ ‘Where is..’ ‘Who is..?’ to which there is usually a single answer.
  • Explanatory questions e.g. ‘Why is…?’ ‘How do you…?’ which ask for an explanation
  • Speculative questions e.g. ‘What if…?’ ‘Is it possible that…?’ which invite listeners to hypothesise
  • Collaborative questions ‘Should we…?’ ‘What does John think…?’ which seek participation
  • Evaluative questions such as ‘How far do you agree that…?’ ‘Which do you prefer and why?’

Invite pupils to think of questions that they want answered about a particular topic.  This is a great way to start investigations because it starts with a real query. Genuine questions are motivating.

You can also ask pupils to categorise questions raised in order to achieve a spread of challenging and simple issues.

Questions directed at others

Plan ahead for a visitor and the questions they may be asked. Discuss which questions are likely to elicit an interesting answer.  Notice the difference between open and closed questions.

Teach pupils to keep a note – mental or written – of questions to ask later.

After a visit, reflect on the questions which achieved the most interesting responses.  This will help pupils to recognise the value of genuine and open questions.

Sharpening the questioning tool

Ask pupils to sift questions to identify those which are well-expressed and likely to bring out a useful response.

Compare different ways of asking the same question to identify what makes a question specific and clear.

Teach questioning as part of critical thinking. This involves thinking about which question is most fundamental.

Teach questioning as an important strategy in discussions to check assumptions and understandings, and to challenge them. Periodically ask pupils to contribute as questioners only. This can liberate pupils who are otherwise reticent or over-assertive or prone to disagreement.

Make pupils aware of higher order question starters such as:

  • ‘Why should we…?’
  • ‘Are there any circumstances in which…?
  • ‘Is it always true that…?’
  • ‘Why isn’t…?’
  • ‘Is there another way of…?’

Keep question starters on a wall poster.


SPOKEN LANGUAGE OBJECTIVE 3: Use relevant strategies to build their vocabulary

This is an important objective for reading and writing as well as spoken language, and a particular challenge for pupils who are new to the English language.

From reading

Many pupils pick up new vocabulary from their reading, so they do need to be enquiring when they come across unknown words. Strategies include:

  • Identifying etymological clues such as roots
  • Identifying morphology such as tense endings
  • Working out what kind of word might fit in the context  – grammatically and semantically
  • Looking for familiar elements that link it to known words.

It helps if pupils can see a word being used in different sentences. New words don’t often stick after a single encounter. They need to see it in different contexts to appreciate its exact meaning and understand how it works in a sentence

Similarly, in writing, pupils will need to use the word in context two or three times before they feel confident about the correct way to use it.

From reference

Make sure that pupils can use a dictionary swiftly. This means having command of alphabetical order as it is applied in the first, second and subsequent letters of a word. Dictionaries with thumbnail letters help them to work quickly, and coloured keywords are helpful, too.

Keep an etymological dictionary in every classroom to look up the history of a word and its parts. The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology edited by Hoad is probably the best.

Give each pupil a vocabulary book to record new words and their meanings. Encourage them to use the word again in context to make it stick.

Encourage an interest in vocabulary

Include new words in wall displays so that they stay in sight.

Collect up word families with pupils based on shared roots.

Set puzzles and quizzes that challenge pupils to work out or match vocabulary e.g. word dominoes to match up words and their meanings.

Invite pupils to generate synonyms and define the exact difference between them e.g. house, home, cottage.

Invite pupils to categorise or sequence related words for their formality or intensity e.g. warm, hot, sweltering

For EAL pupils

  • Start first with key words and phrases for everyday greetings, places, instructions, days of the week, numbers and time
  • Move on to match the most common nouns, verbs and instructions that relate to school, food, the classroom, times of day, number, days of the week
  • Continue to expand topic vocabulary – animals, occupations, family relationships, flowers, buildings, etc
  • Introduce basic sentence starters so they have a way of deploying their new vocabulary
  • Develop this into basic sentence structures
  • Introduce the most common words in each word class e.g. crib sheet for prepositions
  • Encourage many simple conversations to use words in context
  • Give out bilingual vocabulary books in which they can record new words
  • Explain synonyms, antonyms, comparatives and superlatives and how they are formed
  • Distinguish between formal and informal words

From here, you can use the National Curriculum, but keep up the pace of acquisition.  Also push hard on formal vocabulary because EAL pupils develop conversational quickly but not formal English.  They will not pick it up from everyday experience, so you need to teach it vigorously.


SPOKEN LANGUAGE OBJECTIVE 4: Articulate and justify answers, arguments and opinions

This objective demands higher order skills. In oral use, it means that pupils have to think on their feet, have a command of rhetoric and strategies for opposition.


To answer a question well, you first have to understand the question.  Early teaching should focus on listening carefully to the question and analysing exactly what it is asking.

At the same time, you might discuss why someone is asking the question and in what manner it should be answered. Consider, for example, the difference between an introductory ‘How are you?’, an impatient ‘What do you want now?’, and a formal ‘Why do you consider yourself a suitable candidate for this job?’

The question cues the answer.

Try putting pupils into groups and then pose a series of questions – factual, explanatory, speculative, etc – asking each group to come up with their best answer.  Comparing their responses will allow you to identify the importance of clarity, tone, brevity, language choices and use of conventions.

Ask pupils to collect up examples of questioning for homework. This may throw up diverse examples such as celebrity chat shows, grilling on the news, Prime Minister’s question time, teachers’ questions and household checks (Are you ready fro school? Have you got your lunch box? Have you remembered football tonight?). These collections will offer rich material to analyse the purpose of question and answer tactics.

Teach a range of useful connective that lead to justification: because, so that, with the intention of, in order to, etc. Also study the logic between the assertion and the justification. Does one prove the other?  Is it is a valid justification?

Opinions and arguments

In years 5 & 6, link this to the reading objective about distinguishing between fact and opinion.

Distinguish between I think, I feel and I believe.

Draw out different ways of backing up an opinion e.g.

  • Providing evidence
  • Providing examples
  • Providing statistics
  • Providing precedents and parallels
  • Quoting wider opinion
  • Citing well-respected supporters
  • Associating the opinion with well-supported ideas
  • Getting down to first principles

Identify tactics e.g.

  • Using ‘we’
  • Using positive language of your own ideas
  • Using negative language of the opposition’s ideas
  • Appealing to vested or personal interests
  • Appealing to morality
  • Appealing to fair play
  • Appealing to supposed ‘common sense’

Analyse opinions and arguments on TV or radio for the use of these and other tactics.

Set topics and give pupils 5 minutes to prepare and then present an opinion lasting no more than one minute.  Pick out the use of tactics and invite the class to pose further questions.  This is a challenging task, and it does teach pupils to present a bulletproof case.

Sample topics for under-a-minute speeches:

  • Convert to a continental school day (0800-1400)
  • Lower the voting age to 10
  • Pedestrianise the town centre
  • First aid should be a compulsory subject in the curriculum

To stretch pupils, invite someone else to respond to the opinions expressed.

Alternatively, organise a knockout competition with a new topic for each round, reducing the number of entrants by half each time. Use the ‘losers’ to vote for the ‘winners’ in subsequent rounds.

Establish a formal debating club or a more informal discussion group to air opinions about hot topics and hone the skills of argument.


SPOKEN LANGUAGE OBJECTIVE 5: Give well-structured descriptions, explanations and narratives for different purposes, including expressing feelings

This is a wide-ranging objective that needs to be layered across the years to ensure coverage and increasing sophistication.  Many adults will admit to not having conquered it entirely. Luckily, this objective had a higher profile in the last English curriculum so teachers who remember teaching text types will be familiar with the conventions.


Description is challenging because it does not follow a necessary order. Chronology, sequence and causality do not play a large part in it, though they can be worked in. The art of description is knowing what you want to pick out and what order to put them in without reading like a list.

Great descriptions create a structure, perhaps using direction (moving from a mountain peak down to the valley) or contrast (what is lovely compared with what is unsettling) or moving from the most to the least prominent feature.  Finding a structure that suits the subject is the essence of description.

Use a large picture to model this yourself in front of the class, then begin to draw them in by asking for suggestions, alternatives and ideas.  Get them to join in the construction and improvement of your oral descritpion. This will give you a good basis for choosing a great idea straight from the pupils and saying why it works. Useful prompts:

  • Where could I start?
  • What’s the main thing I want to say?
  • What would be a good word to use here?
  • Can any one suggest a better word?
  • How can I describe this bit?
  • Can I compare it to anything?
  • How can I show that this  is scary/wintery/beautiful?

Activities to try:

  • What am I? Play this game in which the speaker gives several facts and features of an animal without saying its name.  The task is to guess the animal.  There are variations on this game using famous people and famous events. Good for infants.
  • Put up a screen between pupils and present them with shapes or objects to describe to a partner who then draws what is described.  This gives great feedback to the speaker.  Change roles.
  • Wanted! Invite a willing colleague to dress up as a villain making a brief appearance in front the class before making an escape. The task is to agree an accurate description for a radio appeal to the public. In writing, this can be extended to create a WANTED poster.
  • Ask parents to contribute 30 photographs from holidays. Pupils get one photo each and prepare a brief oral description to present to the class. The class must then identify the photo to which it relates.


  • Build oral explanations into the opening moments of a lesson when you recapitulate what was learnt last time. Instead of asking a series of factual questions, invite a confident pupil to explain the main points.  This is relevant if you are recapitulating a process, cause-and-effect or sequence of linked events e.g. the rain cycle, a scientific experiment or the course of an historical event.
  • Time for tea.  Bring in your tea tackle and ask a pupil to turn a back and explain to you slowly how to make a cup of tea. Follow instructions to the letter, with hilarious results. A literal demonstration prompts them to make immediate amendments to their wording and improves accuracy. Fill the kettle with cold water, by the way.
  • Collect up useful explanatory phrases and display them on the wall e.g. because, on account of, resulting in, causing, producing.
  • Have ready a bank of questions that beg an explanation.  Dip into them occasionally or give one to a group to research and prepare.  After time to plan, ask someone to give a brief explanatory answer.  Others can then ask for clarifications. Sample questions:

Why does it snow?

Why do dogs bark?

Why are some people vegetarians?

Why is it warmer in summer?

Why do we sleep at night?


Oral storytelling is different from written narrative.  Useful sources of short oral stories are anecdotes, funny family stories and fairy tales.

  • Use a ‘snowball’ to collect good stories. Ask pupils to come prepared with an anecdote about something interesting, memorable or funny that happened in their family. Ask them to swap stories in a pair.  Then they choose the best one and swap it with that of another pair.  The four then choose the best one and take it to a group eight and so on until you have a ‘best of the bunch’ handful.  Ask pupils how retelling the story led to changes to make it more effective by adding detail, emphasis or more suspense and punch at the end.
  • Collect up common features of fairy tales such as wording (‘Once upon a time…’), stock characters (e.g. the evil stepmother, the cunning wolf), stock scenes (e.g. abandoned, left behind or lost in the woods), repetition of key lines (Who’s been eating my porridge?) and the sequence of three (three little pigs, three bears).  Bring out the way these features support the memory of storytellers.
  • Consider inviting a professional storyteller to work with your pupils.  They have had experience in helping pupils to perform stories with confidence.

Expressing feelings

Feelings are best stitched into the fabric of the school day so that there are opportunities for pupils to share them and see ways of using them productively.

  • Circle time is a good place to help pupils articulate feelings because you can invite other pupils to talk about similar experiences in their own words.  Some circle times can be built on a particular emotion, inviting pupils to contribute their personal experience of it and how they dealt with it and learned from it.
  • Similar lessons can be built around events in a class novel, history of religious experience.
  • Dramatic improvisation is a good way to explore a feeling without committing to personal experience.  Freezing the action to ask participants for their imagined inner thoughts is also liberating.
  • Collect and display words than pinpoint feelings, and invite pupils to distinguish between them.
  • Most emotions have near-synonyms to sort by intensity (e.g. glad, pleased, happy, content, delighted).


SPOKEN LANGUAGE OBJECTIVE 6: Maintain attention and participate actively in collaborative conversations, staying on topic and initiating and responding to comments

This objective is mainly about disciplines of collaborative work – listening, joining in and staying focused. Some children come to school with strong social skills and a co-operative outlook, but others need coaching. The key is to be open about the behaviours you are after.

 Listening and staying focused

  • Most of us need strategies to help us listen attentively. Leaning in, watching the speaker’s gestures, taking notes, making a mental list of 5 main points and having a silent conversation with the speaker about the points made are all worth teaching.
  • Ask 8-10 pupils to sit in front of the class facing other pupils tandgive each one  a card allocating an audience role such as bored, interested, distracted, enthusiastic, daydreamer, supporter, opposer, fidgeter, etc. Without revealing their roles, ask them to act out their behaviour for 2 minutes whilst the rest of the class watch them face-on to see their behaviour and guess at their roles.  This gives pupils an amusing perspective on inattentive behaviour.
  • Invite a speaker from the community and use it as an opportunity to prepare pupils to listen carefully by taking notes. Give each child an A4 sheet on which they can take notes of the main points and questions arising.  Children will need help to take manageable notes of the main points. (They tend to note hard facts rather than key points). After the event, pin up the notes and with the benefit of hindsight, ask which notes captured the gist of the talk and were easiest to understand.  Draw out some guidelines for making good notes.
  • Move on to suggest making mental notes e.g. the 5 main points, the most interesting moment, the speaker’s conclusion.
  • Listening is encouraged when pupils know they have to feed back after the discussion e.g. in a jigsaw arrangement where pupils take their points to share with a new group.
  • Appoint someone in each group to be Topic Guardian.  Their role is to keep the group on task: ‘We’ve wandered off topic.’ ‘How does this relate to the topic?’ ‘Can we get back to the question in hand?’
  • During substantial group work build reflection points when pupils are asked to reflect on how the group work is going.  Has everyone spoken? Are we still on task? Are we getting close to an answer? Has everyone has a say? Have we explored all the options? What is going well? What’s not helping?

Joining in

Many children lack confidence or skill to enter discussion. Shyness in itself is not an acceptable excuse for poor collaborative skills; indeed, some children are quiet because they refuse to share. Others, however, need strategies to cut into a conversation. It helps if they:

  • are well-informed on the subject
  • have had time to think through or rehearse their contribution
  • start in pairs, move to small, friendly groups and move over time into larger and more mixed groups
  • have a specific role allocated to them that requires contribution but does not overload them e.g. summariser at the end, questioner, supporter
  • observe others who can get into discussion easily to identify strategies
  • are expected to speak e.g. by taking turns in the group, by having a role to perform
  • do not have to compete immediately with the most assertive and garrulous children

Participation takes many forms, though pupils often perceive it as entering a scrum.  It can be helpful to give children experience of different roles.  These may be administrative roles such as :

  • Chair
  • Scribe
  • Spokesperson
  • Timekeeper
  • Evaluator
  • Topic guardian ‘Can we get back to the topic?’

Or the roles can be participatory in style:

  • Proposer
  • Seconder
  • Opposer
  • Questioner
  • Summariser
  • Sceptic
  • Supporter
  • Encourager
  • Confirmer

Some of these roles are easier than others. They can offer an easy structured entry into discussion for quieter pupils.  They can also push dominating speakers into new, more supportive roles.


SPOKEN LANGUAGE OBJECTIVE 7: Use spoken language to develop understanding through speculating, hypothesising, imagining and exploring ideas

How refreshing to find this objective in the new curriculum!  It promotes enquiry, open-mindedness, creativity and risk-takingIt is also relevant across the whole curriculum.

Collect and display sentence starters and connectives that encourage speculation:

What if…?

Supposing we…

Let’s pretend that…

Assuming that…

Another way of thinking about this is….






I wonder…

I suppose…

I guess…

This objective offers a context for the introduction modal verbs and subjunctive verbs in expressing degrees of uncertainty and certainty. Both feature in the new English curriculum. Modal verbs include: may, might and could. The subjunctive expresses imagined or as yet unfulfilled states e.g. If I were a rich man… If it were true that…

Speculation and hypothesis are well placed in science experiments, the interpretation of data use in mathematics, historical mysteries or the interpretation of landscape in geography.  Structure the discussion to include these stages:

  1. Throw up as many possible ideas and answers as possible
  2. Identify their strengths and weaknesses
  3. Keep fishing for ideas, strengths and weaknesses – don’t shut off the options too quickly in the rush for a ‘right answer’
  4. Consider the possibility of overlapping reasons or solutions
  5. Gradually reduce the number of options by eliminating unlikely or inefficient solutions
  6. Order the most likely and valuable of them. You might need to think through the criteria for a great solution to your specific problem e.g. cheap, easy, quick, familiar
  7. Test the very best ideas to see if they work in all situations (i.e. test the hypothesis)
  8. Agree the most likely solution

Imagining can be a quiet personal experience, but building up an imaginary proposition with others can be exhilarating. Examples:

  • For infants: Imagine and then describe in detail an amazing new animal by appearance, behaviour, habitat, diet, etc.
  • For juniors: Create an imaginary island – its features, laws, social customs, etc
  • In history: Imagine a day in the life of someone in a period of history you are studying
  • Make up a recipe for a perfect day
  • Imagine a very different education system and its advantages and disadvantages

Drama is a prime tool for speculating and imagining.  Through improvisation, pupils can safely imagine other lives, different worlds, motivations and alternative ways of approaching problems.  For example, stage a confrontation then rerun the drama in pairs to test out alternative approaches.  What defuses a confrontation? What makes it worse?  Pupils can suggest real-life awkward situations to work through e.g. making a complaint, being wrongly accused, having to apologise, accidentally causing an injury, putting it right after you’ve hurt someone’s feelings.

Exploring an idea is something we all do inside our own heads when we have a problem to solve or an idea to develop.  Groups externalise this inner debate and in doing so they model an important thought process.

Exploration is more about mapping an issue than solving it. Explain the metaphor of ‘exploring’ to pupils.  Instead of exploring places, they will be exploring ideas. Uncovering points of interest is the main aim.

As a teacher, the key to exploratory discussion is to ask a truly interesting yet open question worthy of exploration. Follow up with prompts to send them off in useful directions. For example: ‘Explore the idea of being a fan. What is a fan? What are people fans of, usually? What do fans have in common? Discuss your thoughts and feelings about fans of any sort and whether you find the idea attractive or unattractive.’

Also tell children how long they have and how they will feed back. ‘You have 15 minutes to discuss this, then I will ask three people to share their personal thoughts with the class’.

As a pupil, the key to success is keeping the ideas flowing and not shutting down too early. If you choose a controversial issue, you can ask pupils for a certain number of points for and against, and this will signal to them that you are not looking for quick decisions.


SPOKEN LANGUAGE OBJECTIVE 8: Speak audibly and fluently with an increased command of Standard English.

Children who have little experience of formal language will not know the features of Standard English.  Here are some of those features:

  • Choose a more formal vocabulary.
  • Avoid colloquial, dialect, affectionate or swear words.
  • Make sure your nouns and verbs ‘agree’.
  • Use the standard form of verbs, especially be, have, go, do.
  • Use the standard pronoun e.g. Get I and me the right way round.
  • Say things once and say them plainly
  • Remember to put - ly on the end of adverbs.
  • Choose the English rather than the American word.
  • Avoid abbreviations as they can sound too casual.
  • Avoid cutting corners by missing out words e.g. Get out the door.

Teach Standard English as an additional language that children can add to their repertoire. Don’t denigrate their local dialect or get picky during everyday conversations: the local dialect represents their community, their family, their own ways of thinking and feeling.  Teach Standard English so that they can, in the end, have the choice of which one to use.

  • Drama offers a great context for practising Standard English.  Improvise formal situations and coach them in the idea of appropriate language. Children like to understand social rules. This might include a visit to the doctor, a post-match interview or meeting a friend’s parents for the first time.  Create a TV box or record onto video as pupils broadcast a weather forecast, a news bulletin or an interview.
  • Real-world tasks requiring a sense of formality include assembly presentations, showing visitors around, introducing and thanking speakers, meeting and greeting new arrivals and running a stall or help desk.  They all require interaction and a degree of formality.

Speaking audibly can be a challenge for reticent pupils. Speech therapists recommend ‘strong voice’ exercises before working with words so that children are geared up when they start. Stand well away from them when they speak and brief them to turn up their volume to reach you.

Stance can affect delivery so remind speakers to stand up and face forward. Reading from notes can cause pupils to speak downwards, so advise them to hold up the notes. Audio recordings of their presentations can give children helpful feedback about volume and delivery.  Grown–ups deal with projection problems by using a lectern to keep their notes in vision.  They also use microphones if their voices won’t reach the back of the room.  Some children would benefit from the same aids.

However, some children mumble because they don’t feel confident or worthy to be heard. They need more encouragement, more practice and a gradual introduction to public speaking starting with small audiences and short tasks and working up over time to bigger, less familiar audiences and more ambitious tasks.


SPOKEN LANGUAGE OBJECTIVE 9: Participate in discussions, presentations, performances, role play, improvisations and debates.

No-one will contest the importance of the six oral types listed inside this sentence, but it’s a great example of how not to write a curriculum objective.  Not only is too vast, it is also too vague and it doesn’t specify any learning, just an experience.


Embedded in this tokenistic objective is the last sad vestige of the drama curriculum. (O, what a falling-off was there!)  Don’t be put off: short improvisations and role plays can support all subjects of the curriculum. Drama still leads to a GCSE in secondary school and remains one of Britain’s outstanding contributions to world culture.

Improvisation and role play are useful tools for getting under the skin of an issue.  They work particularly well for history, literature and PSHE. Improvisation doesn’t need special facilities or complex management: it can be as simple as a couple of minutes of paired work at the desk to help pupils think through the turning point of a story, a contentious issue in RE, a moment in history.  For example:

  • Ask pupils to act out a conversation or event at the centre of an important sequence in history e.g. receiving call-up papers in the first world war.
  • Freeze an improvisation to allow pupils to speak aloud the thoughts of their character e.g. what the mother was thinking when the son told her he was off to war.
  • Ask one pupil to go into role as a character in a novel or an historical figure. Others can then ask questions. For example: Florence Nightingale, Joan of Arc, the wolf in the Three Little Pigs.
  • Easier roles can be offered. For example, after studying an historical event such as a famous battle, invite pupils to be participants or observers who can be interviewed for a news report.  e.g. The Christmas football incident on the front during the first world war.
  • Ask pupils to anticipate a crunch moment that is coming up in the class novel by improvising how they think it will unfold. Ask them about the choices they (and their characters) made, then go on to read the moment in the text. Pupils will be interested to see how the author managed the same moment.

Literary drama is listed in the Reading section of the curriculum, but only Shakespeare is specified.  Here, ‘performance’ might cover choral performance of poems, acting out plays, poetry recitals, sung lyrics, readings and video productions. Some of these might have been written by pupils themselves.


This casual one-word reference to discussion in the NC is remarkable. Our lives are constructed of discussions and all of them are different. This is one objective that needs attention throughout school, but its enormity means that it is often practised but rarely taught.

The main thing you can do as a teacher is construct discussions in a way that gives them the best chance of success.  Putting pupils into the same old pairs is easy but not always appropriate. For example, friendship pairs are easy to organise but they are unlikely to turn up several arguments during discussion of a controversial issue because friends like to agree. Here is what you should plan in advance, and it will be worth it because a really good plan leads to trouble-free group work:

1. Set a clear the task.  Include:

  • The purpose of the task
  • A clear sharp task that will be obvious to pupils
  • Time allowed
  • What output is required
  • How they will feed back at the end
  • Groundrules
  • Any roles that need allocating e.g. chair, scribe, spokesperosn

2. Composition of group

Decide which composition is most appropriate for the task e.g. mixed ability, ability groups, friendship groups, random mix, single sex.

3. Size of group

Decide which size of group is most appropriate for the task – pairs in which both partners have to contribute, small groups (3-4) for confident sharing, larger groups for a range of opinion but more need for a structure to keep discussion on track, or whole class discussion (will you chair?)

4. Roles

See Objective 6 for more on roles

5. Feedback

Consider alternatives to taking repeated feedback on the same topic.  It can be dull and children stop listening. Try instead:

  • One group feeds back then the others are asked if they have points to add.
  • Give each group a different task so there is a point in listening to different feedback.
  • Rearrange pupils from their original groups (different topics) into new groups composed of a rep from each of the original groups to feed back.  This is a jigsaw. Everyone listens because everyone has to feed on the information to their new group.
  • Ask groups to stick up post-it notes, one for each of their best 3-5 points.  You can then use this to invite contributions that do not overlap.
  • Ask groups to represent their findings on a flip chart sheet which a spokesperson can speak to.  They may list their points but they may find more innovative ways of showing them e.g. star chart, spider diagram, flow chart.
  • Use ‘spies’ to listen in on parallel group discussion and use them to feed back to the whole class.
  • Use ‘envoys’ in each group who can be sent out to collect intelligence from other groups working on the same topics.

6. Lesson structures.

Variations on the familiar formula of group discussion followed by spokesperson feeding back to the teacher:

Snowball – in which each person in a pair makes a contribution, then the pair take their best points to a group of four where they share this with another pair.  The group of four doubles to eight and follows the same routine until the whole class has collected up all the main points.

Home-jigsaw-home – in which a home group is jigsawed (see above) and then returns to their home group with information and ideas or even a second topic from the jigsaw group. The class end up seated where they started.

Part to whole – in which each group explore one aspect of the topic bit only access the whole when they meet with others from each group. For example, to study classical poetry, pupils are arranged in ability groups and each receive a different poem by Christina Rossetti. The poems are chosen to suit the abilities.  After a few minutes discussing this poem, each group splits apart and joins a mixed group. Sitting at the table are 6 pupils of differing abilities, each with a different poem to read and explain. Having heard all the poems, the mixed groups are then asked what they can deduce about the poet and her favourite topics. After this, the teacher reveals a short tour of Rossetti’s life and pupils take home a simple poem to read and write about.

Debates and presentations

For more on this, see earlier objectives.


SPOKEN LANGUAGE OBJECTIVE 10: Gain, maintain and monitor the interest of the listener(s).

It sounds so easy and so right, but the art of holding the listeners’ interest involves more than just a few techniques. The best way to hold attention is to have something to say that is important and interesting for the listener. The second best way is to entertain or intrigue them about a topic they might not otherwise consider.

Start by asking pupils who they most like to listen to.  Who holds their attention? Collect up suggestions which will range across teachers, celebrities and TV personalities. The key question is the follow-up question: what is it about these people that makes them interesting and easy to listen to? Pupils may suggest that they have a sense of humour, speak in ‘real’ language, don’t speak for too long, have warm personalities and interesting voices . Now ask the opposite, but instead of asking for names (which can be sensitive) ask pupils to generalise about times when speakers bore them.  What goes wrong?  They may say: they talk for too long, they talk in jargon, they have an irritating voice, they don’t talk about things that interest me. By the end, aim compile a list of behaviours that gain and keep attention and things that don’t help.

Ask pupils to think about conversations they have had (or set this as homework observation) and ask them how they know when people are paying attention and when they are bored or distracted. Ask them to act out some of these behaviours. (See Objective 6 for more ideas about cultivating positive listening.) Aim to gather a list of clues about the listener’s attention.  Good signs include eye contact, smiling, nodding, asking questions, using facial expressions that follow the subject, taking notes.  Negative signs include loss of eye contact, looking over the speaker’s shoulder, looking around, fidgeting and increased movement, drooping eyes, sighing, glazing over.

Give some pupils a card with a single word on it such ‘bored’, ‘drowsy’, ‘interested’, fascinating’, itching to speak’, ‘inwardly fuming’, ‘lost the thread’, ‘distracted’ and ask them to act out the listener who feels like this.  The rest of the class can guess the word and then act out some new ones of their own.

Ask pupils how they might respond if their listeners were showing signs of disengagement. They might suggest: wind up quickly, move around, change tone and pace, make points more briefly, ask for contributions, smile more.

Combining this objective with others in the Spoken Language curriculum, give the class time to prepare a one-minute talk to the class about their hobby or an interesting place they have been or something unusual that once happened to them. Take one talk at the start of the morning and afternoon so that you get through the whole class in three weeks. It offers you the chance to sit back and assess their presentation skills, but it also offers pupils the chance to reflect on the best way to plan, deliver and improve their skills. You can give the class time to ask questions of the speaker. Sensitively, you can ask the speaker what they noticed about the audience’s reaction. The rest of the class can give back two or three points of commendation and one thing to improve next time.

For source materials, you might find TV snippets useful – a newsreader, a comedian, a chat show host, a politician, a young children’s show, a popular children’s presenter e.g. Tony Robinson.

When a pupil presents a speech, he or she can be acutely aware of their audience’s reaction.  To deal safely with lapses in attention, you can ask pupils when they felt they had attention and when they it slackened and why.


SPOKEN LANGUAGE OBJECTIVE 11: Consider and evaluate different viewpoints, attending to and building on the contributions of others.

Exchanges of views take place on a spectrum that ranges from formal debate to a casual exchange of opinion.  The key teaching points are: listening to evidence, constructing an argument, respecting others’ views and sustaining the forward-flow of the argument.  This objective is best placed in upper KS2.

The topic does not have to be controversial. In fact, it is better to start with cases that focus on evidence rather than personal conviction. Suitable topics may be historical or criminal, for example:

  • What happened to the Marie Celeste?
  • Was Richard III a good king or a bad king?

After evidence-based topics, look for topics that involve discussion of first principles, such as:

  • Should crimes of passion be judged differently from planned crime?
  • Who should be allowed to vote?

Teach pupils to gather arguments for and against in two columns, and a third column for interesting facts that do not fit in either.  Invite them to rate the source of the evidence and its trustworthiness. Ask them to number the points in order of clout because they are persuasive or morally strong.

Now model the way to present a convincing case orally by giving a short presentation yourself (or persuade a student or another member of staff to give you a few minutes for this) on one side of the argument, then ask the class to prepare a similar presentation on the other side of the argument.  Tell them they can respond to your points if they wish. If you have two classes in the cohort, you can set them on different sides and conduct a formal debate. If you have used an external person to present the first case, they may be willing to stay and give feedback to the class on the points they raised.

Consider setting up a debating club.  Advertise the discussion topics as this will bring in more people.

Informal exchanges of opinion are less ritualised and require more management. Start by leading a whole class discussion yourself that invites quieter pupils in and prompts contributions on each side of the debate. Manage the tone to be enquiring rather than confrontational.

Explain that you are going to split the class into large groups to conduct their own discussions, but first you wish to agree groundrules such as ‘Never raise your voice’; ‘Listen carefully to what others say’, ‘Don’t cut in when others are speaking’ ,etc. Ask them to suggest more groundrules.  They may suggest that everyone should be offered a chance to speak.

Next, explain that in the first part of the lesson, you took the role of chair so that everyone got a fair say and all the points were fully made, and to see that they kept to your groundrules . Ask for 3 or 4 volunteer chairs.

Break the class into mixed groups of approximately 8 people and give them a new topic.  Appoint a chair, and consider using roles suggested under Objective 6 (in the Joining In section). The debriefing for this activity should focus on the quality of discussion, how well the group kept to the groundrules, and what made for good discussion. The chairs will be in a good position to comment on this. Ask what happened when the conversation ran dry. Ask what happened when the conversation became heated. Develop your class groundrules for future use.

Next time, remix the groups.


SPOKEN LANGUAGE OBJECTIVE 12: Select and use appropriate registers for effective communication.

Register means the appropriate style of language for the situation.  It means getting the tone right, choosing the right sort of words and degree of formality right.

The best way to get the register right is to hear a lot of examples and generalise from them. It also helps if the speaker has thought about the context – Who is my audience? What are they expecting? What is my task? How long have I got? and so on. Give pupils scenarios for speaking which fall just a little outside their experience. Ask them to discuss how they would tackle it, what they would say and what sort of language they would use. Encourage them to improvise the event and speak it out loud. For example:

  • Welcoming infants into juniors
  • Showing new parents round the school for the first time
  • Thanking the speaker after assembly
  • Making a short farewell speech to give a present to a popular member of staff who is leaving
  • Stopping a scrap between two younger pupils that has started in the playground out of range of a supervisor
  • Explaining to the deptuy headteacher your plans for a vegetable and herb patch in the school grounds
  • Making a phone call to the garden centre to enquire about the purchase of plants for the patch above, to cover cost, variety, planting time, space required and discounts
  • Informing the headteacher on behalf of a group of pupils that has accidentally smashed the new greenhouse during a game of football.

Some pupils will have insufficient social experience to know the right register.  They need to hear the attempts of others, and your praise for successful efforts, as this will be their main source of knowledge about the best language to use in different situations.