From Stage To Sage: Promoting Oracy With Strategies From Drama
By Adam Garrett
If oracy is something to be brought in from the fringes of the curriculum, how do we as a profession bring it front and centre of our pedagogy?
If your school is like mine, you may have noticed several meetings, twilights and CPD opportunities for oracy being made available to staff this year. Like many others, I’ve met this with cautious optimism. The presumptive Labour government is touting oracy as its educational cornerstone should they be elected next year.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and Bridget Phillipson MP have been talking up the importance of students using oracy both as a skill for life and as a tool to help manage mental health.
So, if oracy is something to be brought in from the fringes of the curriculum, how do we as a profession make it front and centre of our pedagogy?
Dialogic talk and the power of knowing how to debate healthily and passionately is paramount. Do the children in our classes need to know how to speak fluently at an Oxford Don’s dinner party? Perhaps. Do they need to learn how to agree to disagree when met with opposition in life? Definitely.
In my opinion, using drama and more importantly using drama correctly, is the most powerful way of promoting oracy and unlocking the ability to develop dialogic talk.
I must quickly declare an interest. I’ve been a teacher for eight years now but before that I trained at Italia Conti Academy in London and worked for several years as an actor, director and workshop facilitator, mainly in schools. The biggest trap I saw teachers and leaders falling into was trying to crowbar drama, acting and performance across the curriculum where it wasn’t always necessary.
In my experience, a lighter touch is key. Using drama games and exercises to work in tandem with overarching questions and themes across subjects is fine but they also work well as stand-alone activities to enhance skills in speaking and listening.
Before moving onto a longer, more in depth exercise, it’s important to establish that ‘offers’ need to be as positive as possible. An easy way to demonstrate this is through 3 mini games ‘Yes and…’ ‘Yes but…’ and ‘No because…’.
In pairs, pupils label each other as l A and B. A makes an offer e.g. let’s go to the cinema. B can only respond with a sentence that starts with ‘yes and..’ e.g. – yes and we could get tango ice blasts too. B then offers their own sentence for A to respond with another ‘Yes and…’ sentence. This highlights to the pupils that by making positive offers to one another, the conversation can only continue and escalate.
After this, change the instruction to answer every offer with the words ‘Yes but…’, thereby showing what happens when only negative offers are made. Pupils will generally find it harder to think up new suggestions because they keep being shot down.
Finally, give the instruction for the responses to all begin with ‘No because…’ an outright rejection of the offer. Once pupils are aware of the parameters of positive offers during the work, you’re ready to work on more complex activities where offers will hopefully be as positive as possible.
There are many different games and exercises that lend themselves well to oracy and you can use the Dropbox link provided if you want to have a look through the full list. For now, I’ll write in a bit more detail about one of my personal favourites. You’ll notice that this exercise doesn’t involve a lot of talking, more internalising. In my experience, I’ve found that by actually taking away the right to speak, students can gain more from the exercise, as long as they’re given the instant opportunity to share their thoughts of paper, laptop or oral discussion.
My favourite exercise to do with students of any key stage is the ‘Week in the Life’. This can be adapted for lots of different topics, themes or stories. I enjoy using it for Art too so I’ll use that as a recent example I did with a Year 4 class.
I began by showing the class ‘Going to the match’ by LS Lowry, a well-known piece, showing football fans on their way to a stadium. None of the class had seen it before or had any preconceptions about Lowry himself or the themes he explored through his art.
I gave the class a few minutes on their own with a copy of the painting and asked them to choose one person that appealed to them the most. In the painting, the majority of the peoples’ faces are hidden from view and they all look very similar to one another so it acted as a blank canvas for the pupils. They could create the person’s life from scratch. After giving them some time to choose their character, I asked them to sit somewhere comfortable in the hall or lie down if they preferred.
I said that for now voices weren’t allowed and I asked them to think about their character. Who were they? What was their name? Where did they work? What were the events that had happened prior to them attending this match? Did they enjoy football? Why were they there? I asked them to work on this independently and not to notice or interact with others unless directed.
After this, I asked them to imagine that it was 7am and they were getting up on a Sunday morning, visualising all that was around them. I asked them to think about their house, who they lived with, what they did for work or where they went to school.
Over the next 10-15 minutes, they lived a week in the life of their character, all leading up to the match itself on the following Sunday. I guided them through their week, asking them to act out what they did during the mornings, afternoons and evenings.
Sometimes these varied on different days. Pupils would decide completely independently what their character did- some worked every day and got up at the crack of dawn, some never went to work and spent all day walking around town or in cafes. One decided he worked in accountancy and only went to work on a Friday!
All of these offers were positive though, they kept the action going positively. About halfway through the exercise, I gave them the chance to speak but they could only say one sentence. The sentence had to sum up their character. Some examples were:
‘I’m not afraid to look at her’
‘If I don’t go to the football, I can’t get up in the morning’
‘Why did I have children?’
‘I don’t love you anymore’
‘Football is my life’ (I’m pretty sure this child hadn’t watch Ted Lasso in case anyone is curious)
At the end of the exercise I asked the pupils to create a mind map about their character, writing everything down about them, which could then be used in our writing classes and when we explored the themes of Lowry’s work.
Other simple oracy games can involve asking the class to find a moment to clap in unison. Often there’s a lot of trial and error and typically more dominant personalities take over. After a few tries though, the group listens together, not just to the sounds but to the feeling of the group, finding that moment to clap once in complete unison. When it happens, it’s an incredible moment of achievement.
‘Grievances’ is also a really good game to encourage pupils to think and speak on their feet. Working pairs, we establish that Person A has done something wrong but they don’t know what it is. Person B enters the scene, angry at whatever the grievance is, but only they know what it was Person A did wrong. It is up to the audience to decide what it was while watching the scene. Person B can express their displeasure but they can’t directly say what the grievance is.
This exercise promotes great dialogic talk. The children in my classes have had healthy debates about the grievances and whether the responses met by the characters warrant the level of grievance demonstrated. I have then used this to work in tandem with the larger questions posed by our topics in school such as opinions on government, morals and ethics.
Dialogic talk, oracy and simple speaking listening skills can be such a powerful tool for children of any age to succeed. This extends both in and out of the classroom. Using drama efficiently can be the key to unlocking its benefits. Using forum theatre, conscience alley, hot seating or thought tracking are all great springboards that the majority of us will have an awareness. From that point on, the debates and discussions can begin because the children will have ‘lived’ that feeling of being in the debate.
After that, the possibilities are endless. I hope you enjoy bringing this into your classroom during the year and starting those debates.