St. Joseph's School (Onehunga) - Oracy review

A distributed leadership approach to school internal evaluation at St Joseph's Onehunga means that one staff member takes responsibility and is given release time for leading a review of a particular curriculum area or a particular initiative. This has helped to build capacity to undertake review. Teachers also analyse and respond to assessment data in their own classes. They set class targets which are reported each term to the senior leadership team. Reviews at different layers of the school are integrated and inform one another. Curriculum area reviews reflect insights from teaching as inquiry cycles, and vice versa.

The senior leadership team and board of trustees establish priorities for improvement through a variety of processes. The senior leadership team is focused on providing the information the board needs. The principal provides robust achievement information and gives the board members access to whoever has the relevant knowledge. This means recognising that sometimes the results "don't look that good”. However, the board understands this, and with frank advice and support from the senior leadership team, is able to respond appropriately. Board trustees spoke to ERO about how comfortable they feel raising concerns and asking questions. Once review priorities have been established, further data is gathered through meetings with parents, parent surveys, and group interviews.

This is an evaluation where the school identified an approach in research that they felt would be a good fit for their context and students. The research had implications for teaching practice and partnerships between home and school. Implementation of the approach necessitated deliberate improvement of their professional development model. The response has started to raise the oral language capabilities of their learners.


St. Joseph’s School (Onehunga) has focused on oracy since 2009. In this, they have drawn heavily on the research of Dr Jannie van Hees, 1 with whom the school has had a long-standing relationship. The school sees oracy as the foundation stone for all learning – “the power house of meaning making and literacy” – and a prerequisite for improved student achievement, particularly in literacy. Conversely, poor oral language is seen as a major inhibitor to improving educational outcomes. Student assessment results and feedback from teachers and support staff indicated that this was an area of concern for the school, particularly for English for speakers of other languages (ESOL)-funded students.


Why is this important?

Should we be concerned?

The school focused on building a professional learning community and opening up teaching practice. Teachers were given Expanding Oral Language in the Classroom as professional reading, and discussed their practice regularly in staff meetings.

They formed three professional learning groups (PLGs) organised by junior, middle and senior school. Dr van Hees gave explicit guidance and detailed feedback, as well as providing expert modelling of oracy strategies, and templates for teachers to structure their own critical reflection. Teachers in the PLGs observed and deconstructed each other’s practice. They also took videos of their own practice, and critiqued these collaboratively.

Collaborative sense making

What does good practice look like?

What does our practice look like?

Is this good enough?

Early in the review leaders set goals for students to improve their:

  • ability to articulate clearly and comprehensively
  • levels of contribution and participation
  • vocabulary usage and understanding
  • levels of engagement and meta cognition.

Dr Van Hees’ research suggested that students’ levels of oracy were impacted by the quality of interactions between students and teachers, and between students and their families. To support the students to reach their goals, the school aimed to improve the ability of teachers to maximise professional development opportunities so that they would be able to optimise learning conditions in the classroom. The focus was also on helping parents to understand their child’s learning and how they could help at home. Leaders and teachers also wanted to increase parents’ confidence to engage with the school.

To be really clear about the intent of the changes, improvement goals were set for students, teachers and parents.

For teachers, they wanted to improve their:

  • ability to uptake and maximise professional development opportunities
  • ability to optimise learning conditions for students
  • ability to develop classrooms that are linguistically and cognitively rich
  • pedagogical knowledge and understanding in oracy and literacy
  • ability to establish a collaborative culture of professional learning.

For parents, they wanted to improve their:

  • understanding of children’s learning and how they can help at home
  • capacity and confidence to engage with school
  • talking with their children at home
  • recognition of the importance of first language and culture.

The implicit theory of change was that these improvements would lead to improved student outcomes. So, for students, the goals were to improve their:

  • ability to articulate clearly and comprehensively
  • levels of contribution and participation
  • usage and understanding of vocabulary
  • levels of engagement and meta cognition.

From 2012 onwards, the junior school began to trial the intensive oral language (IOL) programme. Teachers planned lessons focused on the quality and quantity of oral language, building linguistically and cognitively rich classroom environments and supporting students to build their vocabularies. Support staff also became involved at this stage, attending workshops along with teachers.

Prioritising to take action

What do we need to do and why?

How big is the change we are planning?

What support is needed and for whom?

Measuring student progress presented a challenge, as there are not many established assessment tools for assessing oral language. However, through ongoing monitoring of student work and classroom observation, teachers and the senior leadership team noted that students were participating more, producing more detailed and elaborate sentences, and were more engaged and independent inthe classroom.

Teachers enjoyed the challenges and opportunities of working in PLGs. The use of the video tool, and structured critical reflection,led to profound changes in practice. Teachers have also become more confident and comfortable in giving and receiving feedback. The professional development strategy helped to build collaboration between teachers. Coherence between teaching as inquiry, appraisal and professional development processes was also improved by aligning processes and practices.

The more we open up our teaching practice the better we willbe at optimising language acquisition and expansion, and ensuring learning is occurring for each and every student.− Leader.

Parents were supportive of the IOL programme and the focus. They gave positive feedback through home and school meetings, and were more confident to talk about their children’s achievement. Attendance at home and school partnership meetings increased.

More parents were volunteering their time as helpers in classrooms, and reported feeling more engaged in the life of the school. A former board chair reported that the programme “makes sense… storytelling is the essence of Pacific culture.” He had seen the benefits with his own children.

The next steps for the school are focused on sustainability by:

  • further embedding the most effective practices through the collaborative activity of the PLGs
  • continuing to monitor the impact of their professional development programme on student outcomes
  • celebrating and sharing success.

Leaders plan to use the professional development model developed through the oral language review in other learning areas.

Outcomes for students

National standards data over this time show incremental gains in the students at or above in reading.

Percentage of students at or above the reading national standards:

This is a small graph showing for reading above the national standard in 2013 77% and in 2014 81% of students

Monitoring and evaluating impact

How well are our strategies working?

How do we know?

Are we getting the intended results?

What are we learning here?