A few years ago, inspired by some excellent CPD, I introduced the verbal rehearsal to my KS3 students before they completed their assessments. I wrote a little about it here. I did this in a variety of ways – heavily planned questioning, argument tunnels, paired discussion, whole class verbal assessment, group verbal assessment, using the diary room – with varying degrees of success. I found that the most significant impact it had was on the quality of the supporting knowledge students provided in later written responses: having squirmed through the scrutiny of their peers and found the it-just-does-ok? argument to be lacking, they went back to the facts with a vigour that was new to me.
In spite of the success, my verbal rehearsals had rather fallen by the wayside of late, and finding myself with half the curriculum time in my new post I was not convinced I could spare the time for it. However, finding myself with an extra lesson with one year 8 group before Christmas, thanks to a quirk of timetabling, I went back to it and I have regained my enthusiasm.
In that case, students were preparing their answer to the question of whether the action of Charles I or Parliament were more to blame for the outbreak of the Civil War. Having given them prep time, I asked the students to divide in the classroom – Parliament to the window, King to the wall. One student could not make up her mind. “I can see both sides!” she wailed. I couldn’t have planned this better, as both sides then had to attempt to win her by making their arguments. This was so successful we overran into break and nobody noticed. The written up responses were robust: more so than those of the group with whom I did not verbally rehearse.
So, today I gave over part of a lesson to the quietest year 8 class I teach, and we completed an argument tunnel. It was period 1 and they were silent: I was a bit nervous that nobody would say anything, but I needn’t have worried. It was a good sign when, after the first pass, all the students who’d left their books on their desks got up and fetched them. After about 10 minutes of arguing, they went back to their seats and wrote in silence for the final half of the lesson. Marking is yet to take place, but my in-lesson peeks suggested success.
The other thing that has inspired me to revisit this is a student in my year 11 class. She wrote nothing but her name in the mock, which I surmised was fear of failure rather than lack of knowledge, so we sat down together to do the first three questions. It quickly became obvious that she knew a great deal but was not able to articulate it: she literally did not have the words to be able to write it down. Her KS2 scores are at the lower end but she has no specific need: she’s just very quiet. Talking through the answers with me helped her to find the words she needed to be successful.
Reading would obviously help with this too, but I don’t think we should underestimate the value of class discussion here either. How many of us have read a student’s conclusion and been unable to find a single historical fact in it? That sort of thing does not pass muster with a gang of mardy teenagers who are just itching to win, and using discussion and argument in the classroom is the best way I have found to demonstrate what really makes a strong argument to students. I think teenagers are naturals when it comes to arguing, but using evidence to support their points is an area for development.