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Beginning with the word

Why are there still complaints that pupils can't 'talk proper' 1,000 years after a scholar cracked the problem, asks George Low

Even today computer spell-checks balk at the word "oracy", meaning the ability to communicate effectively by word of mouth. Yet it has been around for 30 years or more; in the late 1980s there was even a National Oracy Project, which lasted for five years. A government showing a sudden interest in speaking and listening is not a new phenomenon.

In education, if you stand in the same place, the bandwagon comes around again with a change of government or a new clutch of professors. The discovery of "oracy" as a concept analogous to literacy, is credited to Professor Andrew Wilkinson of East Anglia university, and his colleagues in the National Association for the Teaching of English, who gave it currency in their written and spoken output.

Actually the idea of oracy goes back 1,000 years to the early English scholar Aelfin who wrote the first textbook in Anglo-Saxon and Latin in the form of a catechism. "We children beg thee, oh teacher, to teach us to speak, because we are ignorant and speak incorrectly", the class asks.

"What do you want to say?" asks the teacher. "What do we care what we say?"

they reply, "so long as it is correct speech and useful and not foolish or bad".

Aelfin's model lesson was recalled by the Bullock report in 1975, when it looked at standards of reading in the context of the state of the English language as a whole. It was a time when sociology and linguistics were in fashion, teaching was seen as a kind of barter, or negotiation, between teacher and class, and NATE was in its heyday. One of NATE's high priests, Professor James Britton of London university, was on Lord Bullock's committee and greatly influenced the outcome. Teachers now had to learn about social interaction and negotiated meanings.

The Bullock Committee was set up by Margaret Thatcher when she was education secretary to find out the truth about standards, but by the time it reported Labour had taken over. Shirley Williams, her successor, set about implementing the report with a pound;2 million budget, and Bullock advisers were appointed all round the country. There were regional meetings and language was crowned king of the curriculum. "Oracy" was born in one of these meetings.

So what went wrong with the dream? First, the economy faltered and the Bullock report was never properly implemented. Then the government changed and schools minister Sir Rhodes Boyson went "back to basics". For Boyson, Bullock was a load of bollocks. Whole-class interaction went out the window and talk and chalk came back. The national curriculum followed by pencil-and-paper tests came in: primary teachers didn't have the time to "negotiate reality" or analyse the social interaction.

Perhaps the last great effort to implement Bullock was in Leeds in the early 1990s when a pound;10m primary improvement programme was introduced.

It failed and Three Wise Men were appointed by then education secretary Kenneth Clarke to find out why. Chris Woodhead (one of the "wise") pointed the finger at trendy primary teaching methods deriving from Bullock.

Teacher trainers stopped promoting a free-flowing discussion and debate, as they had been encouraged to do by the Schools Council Humanities project.

Grammar and phonics came back on to the menu.

It was not long before the heir to the throne was complaining about the Queen's English being abused. Why, he could not even find a typist in his office who could spell "recommendation" or "bachelor". It turned out that most of them had been privately educated but the education secretary of the time, Gillian Shephard, set up a national inquiry into spoken English with a view to ensuring that all children throughout the realm could "speak proper". But she didn't mention oracy.

When New Labour came to power, they erased all past projects, including oracy, from the computer memory. It was dedicated to "standards not structure" and the literacy hour was to contain a high proportion of whole-class, didactic instruction. Anything that was publicly-funded had to be tested, as often as possible. But it wasn't long before the Office for Standards in Education began to find a decline in speaking standards in both primary and secondary schools, especially among boys.

Graham Frater HMI, who has spent most of his career looking at standards of literacy, believes the fault lies in the curriculum and testing regime. "I do not subscribe to the fashionable theory that children lack oracy because they watch too much TV or their parents do not talk to them enough.

"Boys are only tongue-tied in certain contexts: it is amazing how quickly they recover their speech in the playground or with their mates. Often they are just speechless with boredom. The best schools still know how to unlock their language potential - both in speaking and writing. The problem often lies in the pedagogy; they have managed to turn English into a feminine subject."

He is not surprised that the powers that be have discovered "oracy" again.

He himself is about to publish a report with former HMI colleague John Taylor on the value of drama in literacy teaching. He is also looking at best practice in teaching children for whom English is an alternative language.

"Drama is a way of bringing literacy and oracy together and reaching the parts other forms of teaching cannot reach," he says.

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