It is time to stop paying lip service

2nd March 2012 at 00:00
Oracy is going to be given much greater weight in the new national curriculum down south, but are there lessons for Scotland too? Helen Ward reports

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 grabbing the pencil.

Vijay scribbles on the group's answer sheet, then 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.

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 coming in 2014 will place more emphasis on oracy.

A recent report by the expert panel leading the review of the curriculum gave 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.

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, 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. While the children failed to solve four problems in the first round, in the second they worked together and only missed out on two.

Art of rhetoric

Believing that pupils should leave school with strong spoken-language skills is not a new idea. The Art of Rhetoric was written 2,400 years ago by Aristotle, but is still a book speechwriters turn to and can be found today on Amazon bestseller lists.

But it was Quintilian, a Roman rhetorician, who wanted to get speaking into schools. He proposed a curriculum in which boys were taught reading, writing and speaking. The primary goal was for students to leave school as good orators.

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, and is already in the national curriculum. The revised key stage 3 curriculum (S1-3) includes the expectation that pupils will learn to debate.

Primary schools also have fairly recent guidance (2006) that includes using talking in Year 1 group work 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, there was a need to improve pupils' confidence about speaking in class - particularly in areas of social deprivation. By 2006, it found many schools had developed speaking, listening and learning - but in English, not as part of a whole-school approach.

And in 2011, Ofsted said satisfactory teachers "tended to spend too much time talking" and there were too many of them.

The teacher as listener

In 1975, 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 the US, teachers asked more questions, but so rapidly that there was still "little opportunity for genuine thinking".

It concluded that teachers had to learn to listen, pupils had to learn to speak and oracy was not just for English departments.

In 1986, the five-year National Oracy Project was set up. It led to several hundred schools and several thousand teachers researching ways to enhance the role of speech in the learning process. But it was not without critics. John Marenbon, a lecturer in the history of philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge, wrote an essay - English, Our English - in 1987.

He criticised the "new orthodoxy" of child-centred learning and Bullock's embrace of it, and argued its promotion of oracy was just a fashion. He agreed that spoken language was as important as written language, but said children learned to speak and listen without being specifically taught. 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 also argued that improvement in pupils' powers of speaking and listening would be achieved by improving their literacy.

A focus on literacy has grown 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 pointed out in 2009.

Content-pedagogy overlap

But oracy is not just about teaching pupils to face an audience when doing a presentation. It is about learning to talk to others in your group without snatching the pencil or hitting them. And how can children learn to listen if their teacher doesn't either? 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 review group's report tiptoed around this point. It said 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.

Jean Gross, former "communication champion", says 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 concedes that there are sensitivities about the idea of teaching "correct" talk, 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 convey the wider idea of language for learning. "It's a terrible irony that there isn't a good word for it," she says.

Gross's evidence to the national curriculum review panel began with a graph showing that, at the age of six, 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 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. 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 experience.

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.



Wegerif, R. et al Talking for Success: widening access to educational opportunities through teaching children how to reason together (2004). Final report to the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.

Names in this article are the same as in the report, but they had already been altered to preserve children's anonymity.

Universally Speaking: the ages and stages of children's communication development from 5 to 11 (2011). The Communication Trust http:bit.lyy X3qAo


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