In this blog series, we have explored ways in which we can develop students’ spoken answers so that, in turn, we can help them to improve their written ones. Strategies such as probing, restating, rehearsing, scaffolding, and mapping can help to push students to the next level of understanding and articulacy. But why is this important? Why should we give this time and focus to developing spoken answers, especially when our time in the classroom can be limited already?
Encouraging Deeper Thought
To think at a deep level about something, we use our internal ‘voice’ to ask ourselves probing questions. We can ‘wonder’ about things by examining them at length and by elaborating on them internally. However, when we come across a topic we know very little about, it is difficult to know what probing questions to ask ourselves in order to think about it at a deep level.
According to schema theory, this is because to develop our understanding of something, we need to be able to link it to our existing knowledge of the world. We learn by connecting pieces of knowledge together, which is difficult to do if a topic is complex or completely new.
When students find themselves in this situation, the teacher can act as the substitute for that internal voice by providing the right probing questions. As teachers, we have a large schema already internally activated in our specialist subject, so we know the correct questions to ask in order to develop a deeper thinking of the subject. We can use this knowledge to draw on things that the students already know, helping them to form connections in their own brains. By encouraging them to explore a topic in depth through speaking, we are also helping train their internal ‘voice’ in what questions to ask themselves in future.
Thoughts and speech are similar in that they happen at a quick pace. It is very difficult to choose the perfect words in the most effective order unless you have had time to prepare. However, the more we practise speaking, the more structured our speech can become and the easier it is for us to speak in an articulate manner. This is why it is extremely important to help students to restate very simple or limited spoken answers.
By providing them with scaffolding tools such as vocabulary, sentence structures, and model answers, we are helping students to actively pick the correct words and choose an effective structure. We can use ‘spaced learning’ to return to these scaffolds at regular intervals, meaning that students’ familiarity with (and knowledge of) them is strengthened. Eventually, they should be able to recall effective vocabulary and structures by themselves, meaning that they can make the leap between complex thought to articulate spoken answer more quickly and more naturally.
Encouraging students to speak in a confident, powerful, and thoughtful manner is essential for ensuring that they are able to express themselves effectively in their daily lives as well as in the future. Schools such as School 21 give speaking the same status as reading and writing so that students can ‘operate at a high level and engage fully in the world around them’. Debate and discussion of important and complex topics in these schools are encouraged, meaning that students learn to bring their internal thoughts into the outside world in a powerful way.
Assessment for Learning
As humans, we use our voices to vocalise our internal thoughts. It is the main vehicle we use to interact with others around us and to bring our thoughts into the outside world. Speaking imitates our thoughts, which makes students’ verbal responses a great initial tool for ‘assessment for learning’. When we ask students for verbal responses, we are assessing three things: their current level of understanding, their confidence in their own knowledge, and how successfully they are able to articulate their answers. We can then use this assessment to inform our teaching and to develop all three of these outcomes.
Speaking becomes Writing
In the majority of cases throughout the world, children learn to speak a number of years before they can write. Of course, they can think before doing either of these; then they learn to articulate their thoughts through language; then they learn to write this language down using complex combinations of symbols and grammatical structures. It takes time to be able to jump from thinking complex thoughts to being able to write these thoughts down in a clear and concise manner. In fact, isn’t the very process of editing (which most adults do almost automatically) very much like having a conversation with ourselves?
That sentence is too long. How can I split it up? Oh, I’ve used the word ‘process’ three times – is there a better word? Is this sentence clear? I should probably use a colon here.
As teachers, we can encourage students to use rehearsal strategies to internalise this process. Instead of expecting them to jump straight from thoughts to writing, we can add the rehearsal step to give students the opportunity to organise their thoughts, receive feedback, and discuss the best ways to explain something. Students are required to do all these things in silence, inside their own heads, and under intense pressure in written exams (and later in life) so it is the teacher’s responsibility to show them how. In fact, we believe this is so important that we’ve created a resource to help you plan carefully how to help students make this leap.
Moreover, we’ve ensured that all of our educational content has been designed based on educational research so that students are fully prepared for the demands of the current curriculum and the new 9-1 examinations. At Get My Grades, we have worked hard on our platform’s questions (we have over 75,000 of them!) to make sure that they probe students effectively. Many online learning platforms rely solely on multiple choice questions, but at Get My Grades, we have developed questions of different formats including single word questions, short written questions, questions using images, questions relying on diagrams, and questions that become increasingly difficult as a student develops their knowledge of a concept. These questions help students to restate their answers and develop their knowledge at a much deeper level than multiple choice questions ever could, helping them to elaborate on existing knowledge.
We also give students the option of testing their knowledge at a concept level, sub-topic level, topic level, and unit level. This ensures that students are pushed and their understanding is constantly being developed, instead of just tested. This also helps them to benefit from the ‘spaced learning’ technique, where students repeatedly return to a topic at regular intervals rather than covering it once a year and hoping that they remember it.
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