Tes focus on... Oracy

Research shows that teaching children how to talk effectively can have a profound effect on learning outcomes, yet many schools aren’t giving oracy skills the attention they deserve, finds Dan Worth
4th October 2019, 12:03am
Tes Focus On... Oracy
Dan Worth

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Tes focus on... Oracy

https://www.tes.com/magazine/teaching-learning/general/tes-focus-oracy

How much talk is there in your classroom? Not low-level chatter, but time given by you for pupils to speak their minds, answer questions, discuss lesson content and debate with each other? For some teachers, the answer will be "most of the lesson"; for others, it will be "as little as possible"; and some might ask: "Does it really matter?"

Neil Mercer, emeritus professor of education in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge and director of Oracy Cambridge in the Hughes Hall Centre for Effective Spoken Communication, believes it does matter. A lot.

He concedes that the idea of promoting questioning, elaboration and participation as a good classroom tactic isn't "rocket science" but believes that this sums up the issue oracy faces: it sounds obvious, so is overlooked. "Talk is taken for granted," he says.

Partly, this is down to a belief among some that "talking" is natural and that teaching oracy skills is less important than other literacy skills. Often, that's not a conscious thought but, he says, you can see it in action when teachers give children discussion or group work tasks without any training on how to structure those conversations.

"You don't say to children, 'Right now we're going to do some long division and I'm sure you all know how to do that so just get on with it', and it's the same with asking children to work in groups and have discussions and debates," says Mercer. "If you don't prepare them for working well in groups, then they won't. But if you do, it's dynamite - and the research backs it up."

Research studies are very clear that teaching children spoken-language skills has measurable benefits - from improved reasoning and debating skills to confidence in public speaking and problem solving.

For example, Mercer is the author of a recent paper titled "Teacher-student dialogue during classroom teaching: does it really impact on student outcomes?", which was published in the Journal of the Learning Sciences. It had some eye-catching results.

Three fundamentals

The study involved monitoring 75 primary school teachers, observing how they conducted lessons with regard to promoting relevant oracy-related skills. The research found that teachers who did three simple but fundamental things were the ones whose pupils scored best on their Sats tests, as Mercer explains.

"The first thing is to engage students in questioning each other's ideas, asking, 'What do you think of that?', 'Are they right?', 'Do you agree?' and so forth," he says. "The second thing is that teachers have to get pupils to elaborate on ideas and prompt them to do this, not just let them say something and then move on. The third is to try to get everyone in the class involved, not just the usual suspects."

The research found that all three of these components are required to achieve the best outcomes. The paper states: "The implication is that elabora[tion], querying, and student participation comprise a relatively straightforward combination of dialogue features that ... could be promoted to teachers and manageably achieved in practice. Achievement of this combination alone should pay dividends."

Mercer adds that a similar study at the University of York - where some teachers were given training in using these techniques and another group were not - had similar outcomes, with children taught by teachers given the oracy training performing better than those who were not.

He also cites an older research project he was involved with in which pupils were tested on their non-verbal reasoning skills. After being taught how to reason effectively in groups through active teaching on these skills, there were clear improvements on the tests, both when tested as groups and also as individuals.

"Our findings indicate that if teachers provide children with an explicit, practical introduction to the use of language for collective reasoning, then children learn better ways of thinking collectively and better ways of thinking alone. The implications for educational practice are clear," the paper's conclusion stated.

Mercer says the evidence for the benefits of oracy is overwhelming. "I'm certainly not worried about any contradictory evidence appearing," he adds.

There are those who have already heeded this and are putting it into practice. As noted in recent issues of Tes, schools such as School 21 in London have put oracy at the heart of much of what they do.

However, there are also many schools opting for more direct forms of instruction that prioritise teacher talk over pupil talk, and there is a concerted effort in some classrooms to minimise or eradicate group work. Meanwhile, compared with other elements of literacy, such as phonics and writing, oracy gets very little attention in policy terms: we don't, after all, have a speaking test as part of any of the extensive primary assessments.

For the above schools, a lot of the move against group work has been put down to behaviour and "opportunity cost" - a belief that such work promotes disruption and is a less efficient way of reaching the learning goal.

As for policy, Mercer says the lack of focus on oracy is partly a hangover from the early days of education, when the idea that the skills that oracy covers - debating, public speaking, complex verbal reasoning - were deemed unnecessary for the majority of those receiving education.

"In the past, education of the 'lesser orders' was just about making them literate and numerate, but skills such as speaking well and confidently were for the upper classes, to become judges, lawyers, MPs and so forth," he explains. That's perhaps why "the one place you will find talking skills being taught is at elite private schools - and [thus] it's perhaps not an accident pupils there end up becoming politicians", he adds.

Nevertheless, Mercer is hopeful that things are changing - noting, for example, that there is an all-party parliamentary group looking into oracy, and that the word itself is gaining awareness with those who wield pedagogical policy power. "[Education minister] Nick Gibb has started using the word 'oracy', which is a massive breakthrough from where we were 10 years ago," he points out.

Indeed, Gibb, speaking at an event at the start of 2019, didn't just use the word so much as give it a ringing endorsement: "Oracy is still too often understood as 'talking more'. But it is not random, chance exchanges in the classroom. Instead, it consists of purposeful, productive discussion, which enhances understanding and stimulates thought."

Get controversial

So, if you want to boost oracy in the classroom, what should you be concentrating on? As noted, participation, elaboration and questioning are key but there are other ways to help promote relevant oracy-related skills.

Mercer outlines three tips to start doing this. The first is to ask students to consider what they think makes for a good discussion and how this can be achieved.

"You need to get children to actively think about how they use talk," he says. "So, for example, before you start a lesson where they will be discussing ideas in groups, you ask them to consider what makes a good discussion or a bad discussion. This is about getting them to consider things such as how making sure everyone gets a chance to speak is a good thing, or one person dominating the conversation or going off topic is bad."

A second principle is to have a set of ground rules that the group agrees to for that discussion, such as asking questions respectfully and listening to everyone and their ideas. The third is to set specific activities for practising oracy skills and give pupils constructive feedback on their progress.

Mercer notes that a good way to do this is to pose controversial statements - rather than questions - as this creates more of a sense that there is not one answer that the teacher "wants to hear", but that it is more open-ended and a discussion can be had.

He suggests statements such as, "Britain should not take in any more immigrants" or "Animals should not be kept in zoos" as the sorts of things that usually elicit strong responses, and get children to speak and put forward opinions that can be discussed widely, while adhering to the three key principles of elaboration, questioning and participation.

This is not just about boosting test scores or creating a generation of debating geniuses but about ensuring that every child has the chance to learn key skills that will serve them well in later life, whatever they do, says Mercer.

"We know that children who come to school without a rich language experience at home tend not to do as well educationally," he says. "The only thing that can transcend that is school but, if they are not taught there how to use language more effectively, then they won't do as well either."

Dan Worth is a content writer at Tes. He tweets @DanWorth

This article originally appeared in the 4 October 2019 issue

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