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Home > News and views > Back to school: Top tips for boosting discussion in the classroom

Back to school: Top tips for boosting discussion in the classroom

secondary school oracy workshops students public speaking

From our public speaking competitions to our in-school workshops like Discover Your Voice, the English-Speaking Union knows the importance of discussion in the classroom. Here’s a list of tried-and-tested games and activities that you can use in secondary school classrooms to get students talking after the summer break.

Best advice for building discussion in the classroom

Back to school after a restful, sun-drenched summer. Neat, tidy classrooms full of eager, joyful kids. You ask a question and every hand shoots up, raring to go and unafraid to get things wrong.

Too good to be true? Possibly.

But never fear: there are several steps that secondary school teachers, including those who engage in the English-Speaking Union’s programmes, can take to facilitate engaged and high-quality discussion in the classroom.

What’s more, getting students talking is a fantastic introduction to joining the English-Speaking Union’s three national competitions – Performing Shakespeare, the Schools’ Mace debating contest, and the ESU-Churchill Public Speaking Competition.

Class can be sluggish after the holidays, so a fun, rejuvenating ice-breaker might be just what the doctor ordered…

1. ‘Where Do You Stand?’ Holiday Edition

Students line up in the middle of class. Designate one side of the room ‘Agree’, the other ‘Disagree’. Say ‘We should abolish half-terms to have one massive, extended summer holiday’. Ask everyone to move around the room accordingly, and then to articulate reasons for their decision. (They can stay central if they agree and disagree, but they must express why!) Alternatively, allow two to three minutes in groups to devise detailed justifications, considering different stakeholders: pupils, teachers, parents, cooks, cleaners, school bus drivers etc. As they present arguments to the class, note who participates, encouraging contributions not just from the most vocal.

2. ‘Find Someone Who…’ Holidays Bingo’

Distribute worksheets with categories or boxes including ‘Someone who went to a new place this holiday’, ‘Someone whose birthday fell during this holiday’, ‘Someone who read a whole book’, or ‘Someone who learned a new skill’. Students mingle, asking questions to find people who answer ‘Yes!’. Next they share their findings, discussing books read and/or activities tried.

3. Tourism Debate

If students have gone on holiday, either in the UK or abroad, hold a quick-fire debate about tourism. Introduction: Is jet-setting across the globe so environmentally unfriendly that cheap, readily–available flights should be reduced or abolished? And, more broadly, do the millions descending on Barcelona each year truly explore its rich, diverse culture? Or do they just soak up the sun, take Insta-worthy selfies, buy tatty souvenirs, litter, make no attempt to learn the languages, and price the locals out of the housing market? That said, maybe it’s snobbery to criticise poorer families for low-cost seaside leisure… Designate Proposition and Opposition, have two speakers per team (with, say, two-minute speeches), and try it out!

4. Just a Minute!

Grab a timer and ask a student to speak – without repetition, hesitation, or deviation – for one minute. The topic could be ‘Summer Holidays’ or ‘Back to School’. Others may interrupt if they perceive that any of these missteps has been made, and it’s then your decision – or the decision of the student judge, if you prefer – to uphold or dismiss this challenge. Successful challengers then continue, aiming to reach the 60-second mark.

These activities help to develop the ESU’s four skill sets, essential for high quality oracy: Reasoning & Evidence, Listening & Response, Expression & Delivery, and Organisation & Prioritisation.

student talking in the classroom

General tips for discussion in the classroom

So far we’ve discussed ice-breakers that we at the English-Speaking Union have found to be successful at generating discussion in the classroom. But there may be times when, during a regular secondary school lesson, you wish to encourage more general best oracy practice. Here are our top tips:

1. Boost participation by deciding who begins, e.g. the person on the right; whose birthday is soonest; with the longest hair.

2. While students write ideas, gently read over their shoulders and verbalise encouragement (‘That’s fab! Say that!’) to quieter individuals.

3. Students pass around a beanbag/ball – only the holder can speak. This is especially useful for emotionally–charged topics.

4. If students are giving monosyllabic or fragmented answers, model coherent syntax and sentence structure. Beginning with a prompt or start-word can be invaluable here, starting them off with a springboard for rich discussion.

5. Be patient. It’s tempting to verbally respond to every point, but it’s sometimes best to sit back and let silences hang. Rather than signalling (‘mmm’) or validating (‘Very good’), nod quietly and let others fill the space. Thoughtful, reticent students may leave a few seconds before speaking, fearful of talking over others.

Lastly, boost discussion in the classroom by embedding a whole-school culture of oracy. Get the ball rolling by organising your own debating competition (reserve the room/hall ASAP), or sign up for the ESU competitions 2022-23 and join a national network of oracy rich schools. The deadline is October 7, so don’t run the risk of missing out – sign up today!

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