Thousands of years of evolution enabled humankind to develop language, a skill that supposedly raises us above the apes. Yet how is this unique ability expressed in the classroom?
"We're on number five now, bogey," says Vijay to his Year 2 classmate Kyle. "Look, we done number four, dumb brain. It's this one, isn't it?"
"No," says Kyle trying to grab the pencil off Vijay.
Vijay scribbles on the group's answer sheet, at which point Kyle raises a fist and Vijay runs around the table yelling, "Don't hit me!" Meanwhile, a third child, Nuresha, sits playing with her ruler, saying nothing at all.
The academic who filmed these children drily noted in his report: "This is not productive from an educational point of view."
Neil Mercer of the University of Cambridge co-directed the Talking for Success project (part of the Thinking Together programme), which demonstrated the value of enabling children to work together more effectively by focusing on how they speak to each other.
More teachers in England may begin paying attention to his research soon. Although young people's speaking skills are already part of the national curriculum, the new version that will be introduced in 2014 is certain to place a far stronger emphasis on oracy.
A recent report by the expert panel leading the review of the curriculum was able to give little detail for most subjects, but devoted an entire chapter to how oracy should become a "strong feature" in teaching.
"Past versions of the national curriculum in England have not, in our view, focused sufficiently on this issue," they wrote. Although they felt that oracy had a particular place in English lessons, "it should also be promoted more widely as an integral feature of all subjects" because "encouraging higher levels of quality discourse, and its associated cognitive development, is not solely an issue for the subject of English".
The view that improved thinking follows from improving language is certainly one shared by Professor Mercer. "The only way into thinking is to focus on the language because language is the tool you use," he says. "When two people talk, they are both thinking - but the only way you know what the other is thinking is when they try to explain it. That is the kind of thing we want children to be able to do. It is an important skill for modern life."
In the Talking for Success project, six teachers were trained not just to ask children to discuss problems in groups, but to show them how to be clearer with other pupils; they did this by teaching them to set out ground rules, such as explicitly taking turns, and even suggesting specific phrases they could use in discussions, such as "Why do you think that?"
After six months, researchers found that the type of language used by the children had been transformed. The word "why" was now four times as likely to be used, for example, while the control groups found no similar pattern of change.
When the team returned to film Nuresha, Vijay and Kyle working together, they found more talking and more thinking.
When Nuresha and Kyle disagreed, there was no pencil-snatching, fists flying or chasing. Instead, Kyle explained his thinking and the others agreed. While the children failed to solve four problems in the first round, in the second they all worked together and only missed out on two.
The art of rhetoric
Believing that pupils should leave school with strong spoken-language skills is not a brand-new idea. The Art of Rhetoric was written 2,400 years ago by Aristotle, yet it is still a book that speechwriters turn to and can be found today on Amazon best-seller lists.
However, it was Quintilian, a Roman rhetorician, who was interested in getting speaking into schools. He proposed a curriculum in which boys were taught reading, writing and speaking - and the primary goal was for students to leave school as good orators.
Quintilian's curriculum was written in AD95. The legacy of learning the art of public speaking has survived the centuries - particularly in the independent sector. But this is not enough.
Debating is just one aspect of speaking and listening. Indeed, it is already in the national curriculum. The revised key stage 3 curriculum includes the expectation that pupils will learn to debate and give formal presentations.
Primary schools also have fairly recent guidance - issued in 2006 - that includes using talking in groups in Year 1 group work, performing poems in Year 3 and being able to respond constructively to criticism in Year 6. It is still not enough.
In 2000, Ofsted reported that, in a significant proportion of primaries inspected, there was a need to improve pupils' ability and confidence about speaking in class - particularly in schools serving areas of social disadvantage. The problem was identified as the fact that: "Many of the English lessons they experience require them to respond chorally or to answer questions posed by the teacher that require only a short comment."
By 2006, Ofsted found that many schools had developed speaking, listening and learning - but in English, not as part of a whole-school approach.
And in 2011, there was a more exasperated tone. Ofsted said that satisfactory teachers "tended to spend too much time talking" and that there were too many of them.
The teacher as listener
In 1975, a UK government report called A Language for Life - known as the Bullock report - estimated that teachers were so long-winded that pupils got an average of only about 20 seconds each per lesson to speak. In America, teachers asked more questions, but so rapidly that there was still "little opportunity for genuine thinking".
The report's conclusion was that teachers had to learn to listen, that pupils had to learn to speak and that oracy was for everyone, not just for English departments. Every school should establish every teacher's involvement in language and reading development throughout the years of schooling, it said.
In 1986, the five-year National Oracy Project was set up. It consisted of a network of local education authority projects and led to several hundred schools and several thousand teachers being involved in researching ways to enhance the role of speech in the learning process.
But such focus was not without criticism. John Marenbon, a lecturer in the history of philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge, wrote an essay - English, Our English - that was published by the Centre for Policy Studies in 1987. In it he criticised the "new orthodoxy" of child-centred learning and the Bullock report's embrace of it.
He argued that its promotion of oracy was just a fashion. He agreed that spoken language was as important as - in some respects more important than - written language, but argued that children learned to speak and listen without being specifically taught - that they could learn these skills better just through practice in everyday life.
But he also said that understanding more about the subjects they are learning would give children more to talk about, as would mastering reading and writing, which expands vocabulary.
Professor Marenbon argued that improvement in pupils' powers of speaking and listening would be achieved by improving their literacy.
The focus on literacy has intensified ever since. But while oracy may have been relegated, it still had its champions and the evidence of its importance slowly started to stack up. "Talk is education at its most elemental and potent. It is the aspect of teaching that has arguably the greatest purchase on learning. Yet it is also the most resistant to genuine transformation," the Cambridge Primary Review, led by Professor Robin Alexander, pointed out in 2009.
It can be done right here, right now
At Gilsland Primary in Cumbria, headteacher Christine Boucetla knows what it is like to encounter pupils who are nervous about public speaking. "I had one little boy, Year 4, who had one sentence to read out at Harvest Festival," she says. "He was so terrified that he crawled under the table."
That was four years ago, when Boucetla first arrived at the tiny 24-pupil primary, which was then rated satisfactory by Ofsted. Boucetla immediately made improving children's speaking and listening abilities a priority.
"The children could do a PowerPoint presentation or old-fashioned show and tell, but their language was superficial - they didn't elaborate and their sentences were short and limited," she says. "We had to smash that whole thing of fearing failure."
She and her staff decided to ask the children about their learning. They held a planning event in the school hall, in which children attached their wishes to the strings of helium balloons. The further away their wish seemed from being achievable, the longer the string. On the floor of the hall was a target and the more important the wish was to a child, the closer to the bullseye it was placed.
This was how Boucetla discovered that her pupils wanted to have a go at reading the weather forecast. Through Creative Partnerships, which has since had its government funding cut, the school arranged a year-long project that involved children working with TV presenter Kim Inglis.
The pupils learned about reporting and visited the University of Sunderland's TV studios - where they read the weather forecast - and were interviewed live on the university's radio station. The children were encouraged to speak and listen in many contexts all year and the effects were impressive. The project ended in June 2011; two weeks later Ofsted arrived. The school was rated outstanding.
Where content and pedagogy overlap
But oracy is not just about teaching children to face the audience when doing the weather forecast. It is about learning to talk to other people in your group without snatching the pencil or hitting them. And how can children learn to listen, if their teacher does not do so, too? Is it not true that oracy, in teaching children how to listen and speak effectively, has to mean training teachers? Oracy is where content and pedagogy overlap.
The curriculum review group's report tiptoed around this point, saying that, while the panel "supported the pedagogic significance of language in classroom practice across the curriculum", this was outside its remit.
Instead, it recommended a progression such as the one set out in Universally Speaking, a document from the Communication Trust (see panel, below right).
Jean Gross, former "communication champion", says that the Communication Trust and the charity I Can have looked at such tools from the perspective of helping teachers to spot children who might have special educational needs.
"However, I think there is a teachable programme," she says. "What I'm interested in is equity. In areas of social deprivation, you have to do extra to develop the language of those pupils. They are disadvantaged compared with articulate peers.
"I remember one head said to me that his pupils, from a socially deprived area, were not doing well at interviews. They knew the answers in their heads, but couldn't express themselves."
She acknowledges that there are sensitivities about the idea of teaching "correct" talk - Henry Higgins style - especially when it raises issues of dialect and accent. But she says the variety of terms for speaking and listening, oracy and oral development do not help proponents get the wider idea of language for learning across.
"It's a terrible irony that there isn't a good word for it," she says.
Gross' evidence to the national curriculum review panel began with a graph showing that, at the age of 6, the gap in reading age between children with good oral language skills and poor ones is only a few months. By the time they are 14, this gap has widened to five years' difference in reading age.
While the differences are set in motion before children reach school, she argues, teachers paying explicit attention to children's speaking and listening skills can start to reduce this deficit.
Professor Mercer is optimistic that the weight of this evidence, and more, in favour of strengthening the role of oracy in schools has already tipped the debate.
"Its time has come," he says. "It is not a case of whether it should be done. The issue now is what do we get them to do with talk? It's not just teaching pupils to do presentations or to speak in correct English. We need to be specific about what needs to be taught. We're now at a point where we can offer practical advice."
Or as Vijay might say, "We know it works, bogey. Let's start."
The Thinking Together programme looked specifically at the language skills associated with improved reasoning, which the researchers called exploratory talk.
Exploratory talk is talk in which:
- All relevant information is shared.
- All members of the group are invited to contribute to the discussion.
- Opinions and ideas are respected and considered.
- Everyone is asked to make their reasons clear.
- Challenges and alternatives are made explicit and are negotiated.
- The group seeks to reach agreement before taking a decision or acting.
Wegerif, R., Mercer, N., Littleton, K., Rowe, D. and Dawes, L. Talking for Success: widening access to educational opportunities through teaching children how to reason together (2004). Final report to the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. The names used in this article are the same as used in the report, but they had already been altered to preserve children's anonymity.
The Framework for the National Curriculum: a report by the expert panel for the national curriculum review (2011). Department for Education
The Bullock Report (1975) A language for life. Her Majesty's Stationery Office
Marenbon, J. (1987) English, Our English. In S. Brindley (Ed) Teaching English (1994). Open University
Hirsch, The Effects of Weaknesses in Oral Language on Reading Comprehension Growth (1996). Cited in J. Torgesen, Current Issues in Assessment and Intervention for Younger and Older Students. Paper presented at the 2004 NASP Workshop
Hart, B., Risley, T.R. "The Early Catastrophe: the 30 million-word gap by age 3" (2003). American Educator 27 (1), 4-9
THE SNOWMAN'S COAT
The exemplar lessons from the Talking for Success project are still available online.
One example is a lesson on "the snowman's coat", where pupils work together to plan a science test to discover whether a snowman will melt faster with or without a coat.
Pupils are asked to come up with ideas and share them with the class. The teacher uses phrases such as "What do you think would happen if ...?" and "What does anyone else think?", which encourage the children to give reasons and apply previous experiences.
The children then work together to agree on a test. They need to share ideas, give reasons and agree which snowman will last longer, the one with the coat or the one without.
Children learn to listen to others, evaluate reasons, change their mind and reach joint decisions. The plenary is used to share the outcomes and discuss ideas about why the clothed snowman lasted longer.
At these ages, children should be able to ...
- Understand that they need to look at the person who is talking to them.
- Use some irregular past tense - for example, "I drank all my milk."
- Retell favourite stories, with some parts in their own words.
- Pretend to be someone else talking during play.
- Be able to identify the key points in a question and ignore less important information.
- Use a range of descriptive words.
- Describe their own experiences in detail and in the right order.
- Learn that they need to use different styles of talk with different people.
- Infer meanings: "Now class, I'm going to count to 10" means "Mrs Jones is getting cross."
- Use intonation to help make sense of information.
- Add detail or leave it out according to how much is known by the listener.
- Keep conversations going by making relevant comments.
Universally Speaking: the ages and stages of children's communication development from 5 to 11 (2011). The Communication Trust