Practising speaking 1
“Excellent written and spoken English.” So begins the person specification for a job recently advertised with a major international NGO here in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
That first part – written English – gets a lot of attention from government, development agencies and school leaders. As we have noted before, there is growing evidence that Sierra Leone faces a literacy crisis. A major national inquiry into under-performance in public examinations noted that “prominent among candidates’ weaknesses was their ‘inability to read and write English.’”
But as this job advertisement and hundreds of others like it show, spoken English – oracy – is arguably just as important to students' future job prospects and life chances as literacy. Yet oracy gets much less attention. It does form part of the language arts curriculum. But it’s less obvious how to teach it, it’s harder to test how well students are progressing and, with no final exam, there is no certificate to say a student is proficient and no way of holding schools to account for whether they are developing oracy skills.
The result is oracy isn't taken very seriously. Indeed there is good evidence that the teacher-centric, rote learning based style of teaching that is still pervasive in many classrooms in Sierra Leone deprives students of the opportunity to practise their speaking skills. Speaking up in front of others also requires confidence and an understanding that the classroom is a safe space in which it is okay to make mistakes. Few classrooms create this atmosphere.
For students at Rising Academies’ three schools in Sierra Leone (22 of whom are currently being supported by donors to our GlobalGiving campaign) the expectations are different. The pedagogy puts much more emphasis on opportunities for students to practise their communication skills, by working collaboratively in pairs or groups, by sharing ideas, or by explaining their thinking about how they tackled a question. In addition, the timetable sets aside dedicated opportunities for students to practise speaking in front of others, including leading on certain parts of the whole school meetings that take place twice a week. Particularly popular with students has been a weekly moot-style debate, in which teams of students practise the skills of arguing for or against a proposition, and listening and responding to the other side’s arguments. Finally, as we have explained in a previous update, some of our curriculum is organised around projects, which usually culminate in some kind of set piece presentation to an audience.
In a recent set of interviews, three students asked to talk about their experience at Rising Academies all singled out the progress they had made in their speaking as one of their proudest achievements. “I was not expecting myself to stand in front of so many people,” says Mariama. “[In my old school] I was not taught how to stand, how to be bold to say my point…I feel proud of myself that I have the zeal to stand up and say something in front of people.” Mary, a fellow student and recipient of a scholarship through our GlobalGiving project, singles out the experience of debate: “Debating is a good activity for us here. I can even stand now and talk in front of people.” Another scholarship student, Sallay Matu, agrees. “There are many changes I have experienced. One is the area of my speaking. I was not good at speaking – still now I’m not good but I am practising how to speak more. Even when my parents send me to go and buy I am practising how to come and debate.”
To measure the progress might be harder for speaking than it is for reading. But that doesn’t make it any less important. For these students, finding their voice means a lot.
Practising speaking 2
Practising speaking 3
Practising speaking 4