How to boost oracy in the maths classroom

|6 min read

When we talk about oracy, maths isn’t the first subject that springs to mind. But your maths lessons are a great place to boost this essential skill.

We know that talk in the classroom is great for learning. Theorists like Bandura, Vygotsky, and Piaget highlight how children learn from each other and benefit from verbalising their thoughts.

What is oracy?

Oracy is to speaking what numeracy is to maths. It’s the ability to communicate verbally and structure your thoughts so that they make sense to other people. Oracy skills fall into two broad categories: presentational and dialogic.

Presentational oracy is the ability to use spoken language for effective communication, while dialogic oracy is the ability to use spoken language to solve problems and negotiate solutions.

So, how can you develop a high level of oracy in the classroom? Believe it or not, your maths lessons are a great place to start.

Strategies to boost oracy in your maths lessons

Each subject that we teach has its own language, and maths is no exception. To become fluent in a spoken language, learners need to be able to think in that language. When we think in maths, we speak in maths terms and express mathematical meanings.

Here are some strategies to help you boost oracy in your maths lessons.

Use talk threes

‘Talk partners’ can sometimes be a helpful strategy for building oracy skills. As the name suggests, children talk about their ideas with a partner before feeding back to the class. The downside of ‘talk partners’ is that talking in pairs can be daunting for learners who have trouble articulating their thoughts.

Using a ‘talk threes’ strategy helps to alleviate this angst. Working in threes gives a less confident learner the chance to listen and learn. They can then join in with the conservation when they feel ready.

Think, pair, share

When I ask a question, I see the same four or five children volunteer to answer every time. Some children hesitate to speak up, not because they can’t answer the question, but because they haven’t worked out what to say.

The think, pair, share strategy gives learners more time to think about their responses so they’re encouraged to participate.

Start by posing the question. Then give the class one to two minutes of silent thinking time. The key here is the thinking time — it gives learners the space to process the question and answer it in their minds. Now ask them to think of the sentence they are about to say before discussing their answer with their talk partner (or talk three).

Finally, everyone can put their hands up to share with the class. Hopefully, you’ll see more than the same four or five children volunteering the answer this time.

Give prompts

Instead of asking a closed or leading question, it sometimes helps a child to expand on an answer by saying something like “tell me more”, or “how did you get to that answer?”. If they struggle, you can ask them to ‘phone a friend’ to help them explain their thinking before going back to the first child to check whether they can now articulate the answer as well.

Encourage stem sentences

Stem sentences are a way of modelling full sentences. Having a structure gives children extra confidence to use a full sentence to explain their thinking. Stem sentences are used in maths mastery lessons to encourage children to give focused answers when explaining their reasoning.

At the start of a topic, I use cloze sentences (sentences where words are blocked out) with the correct vocabulary on show so children can just fill in the gaps and essentially read the explanation. As their confidence grows with the subject matter, the sentences can become more open.

For example, at the start of the place value topic in Year 2, I could ask them to say “56 is made up of 5 tens and 6 ones”. At the end of the topic, they could articulate an end to the stem “When adding a two-digit number and a one-digit number, the tens will change when…”.

Teach learners to build on

If one of your learners wants to help a peer or add further explanation, you can teach them to ‘build on’ what has just been said. Instead of putting up hands, the ‘build on’ hand signal involves making fists and alternately hitting one on top of the other to indicate they wish to continue the current class discussion and add to what is being spoken about at the time.

They can also be taught to start this with the stem sentence “I want to build on _____’s thoughts about _____” to make sure the conversation is focussed and on topic.

Encourage sentence repetition

Letting children repeat a correctly modelled sentence (or their own sentence that has been correctly remodelled) lets them practice oracy skills discreetly. Repetition also helps to embed learning and build maths confidence.

I frequently ask several children to say the same sentence (usually when working with stem sentences) to help them embed the learning. Hearing the explanation several times from several different voices gives the other children in the class a chance to process the learning.

This has been especially effective for encouraging children with low self confidence because they are able to hear, learn, and offer the correct answer in class.

Have high expectations

This may seem like an obvious one, but it can be easy to forget in the hectic and time-limited world of teaching!

It involves a school-wide pact made by all staff to both use full sentences themselves and insist children answer in full sentences in response. As well as improving oracy, this also helps to teach children the structure of sentences and can improve the complexity of written work too.

Use the 5:2 rule

One school I worked at encouraged teachers to consider this as a way to limit didactic, teacher-led, passive learning. We made sure that for every two minutes of teacher talk, there are five minutes for an activity of some description.

For example, a two-minute explanation followed by giving children five minutes to talk to a partner to work out an answer to a question, working in a group to practice a skill, or completing an activity with resources before coming back as a whole class to further the learning.

All the techniques above involve effective modelling from adults and children and rephrasing and remodelling of incorrect or incomplete sentences. As well as using practical strategies to help with oracy, it’s also important to create a safe and friendly environment. Supporting and praising children gives children a confidence boost, but also helps them feel calm enough to think through their thoughts and present articulate answers.