Out of the mouths…

by Alan Howe |


We’re going on a bear hunt (again). This time my 3 year old grandson is sitting at a whiteboard in the kitchen with a marker pen. As I tell the story, he draws the map of the journey. When we get to the section where the bear is encountered in the deep dark cave he takes over, and draws the frantic retreat, over the busy road (this was his invention a few weeks before as we told the story together on a car journey), through the squelchy mud, the swishy grass, back home – whilst at the same time breathlessly retelling the story in his own words:

‘Run back through the cave, through the road nee naw nee naw, back through the mud squelch squerch, through the grass swishy swashy, back into bed, open the door oh no we forgot to close it! Back downstairs, SLAM (he hits the whiteboard with his pen) back in the cupboard… oh no, we’re never going on a bear hunt again!’


Joel has worked out that he has a captive adult listener when he’s on a car journey. On these occasions he often ask questions:

‘Grandad, does everybody have to grow up? (pause) I’m going to have a beard when I grow up. And a hook.’ (J M Barrie and Walt Disney have a lot to answer for!)

‘Do you know what an appetite is? It’s when you feel hungry. I’ve got a BIG appetite!’


‘Reading’ the menu at a café we often go to after swimming:

‘You can have spaghetti fraghetti. You can have pasta with poo sauce.’


Watching CBeebies, when an episode of Teletubbies comes on:

‘I don’t want to watch this…I’m a…I’m a…I’ve grown. It’s baby words. I speak people’s words now.’

There’s nothing unusual in all of this. At around the age of three, as we know, children’s spoken language explodes into a life of its own. It becomes distinctive: they develop a voice of their own, with an emerging grammar that seeks confirmation of the rules and patterns of syntax that they hear around them (‘we goed… go… went there yesterday, Grandad’), and an interest in words and what they mean.

Having some responsibility (if only every Wednesday) for, amongst other more material things, a child’s language development once again after a 30+ year gap has reminded me of a chapter in a book by Garth Boomer (‘Fair Dinkum Teaching and Learning’*) entitled ‘Oracy in Australian Schools or Doing What Comes Naturally’. (In Aussie English, ‘fair dinkum’ means something like: ‘true, honest, real’). Writing in 1985, Boomer draws on research into early language development and identifies a number of ‘conditions’ that enable the vast majority of children to master the basics of grammar, learn the nuances and subtleties of vocabulary and expression, and to communicate effectively in the contexts they know well: such as home, family, playgroup. I’ve put my own spin on Boomer’s ‘conditions’….

  • Attending and responding: the infant isn’t ‘fed’ language; rather, those close to her tune into what is being uttered and provide a varied diet of words by their responses. But it’s interesting to reflect on who is ‘leading’ this process. Often it’s the child.
  • Sharing activities: stories; games; joint activities, shared experiences – all of which get talked through and which ‘teach’ talk because words become intimately related to what they represent. There is a significant relationship between the common rituals, routines and repetitions of early childhood – the shared conversations around getting up, breakfast, going to the park, bathtime, bedtime – and the language patterns that accompany them.
  • Pleasure and play: the delicious mix of inventiveness, playfulness and the excitement that comes from ‘discovering’ that language is a pleasurable medium to mess about with.
  • Power and purpose: children learn to speak because they quickly realise that saying the appropriate thing can so powerfully meet their needs. And these needs are not just material but also cognitive – the need to make sense of things.
  • Story, structure and sequence: oral narrative offers children who are pre-readers the experience of words, expressions, phrases, in powerful and compelling patterns. It’s common to hear these suddenly pop up in everyday speech – as when my 4 year old son announced over breakfast: ‘I have seen the error of my ways’ – my initial astonishment giving way to recognition of a sentence from Allen Ahlberg’s ‘Burglar Bill’.
  • Running through all of these aspects is another key condition: the child being supported by others (adults, older siblings) who provide (implicitly) a mature language system for them to interact with and make sense of; who sort out misunderstandings; expand on half-formed utterances; explain things; and in the best circumstances, treat even very young babies as if they were ideal conversation partners.

We know, however, that not every child gets this level of support, grows up in a rich language learning environment, or experiences the confidence that power with language provides. We also know that, very often, children’s spoken language experience in school often runs counter to these conditions so that lively chatterboxes can appear inarticulate. As Neil Mercer says in the video on the homepage of this website, for many children school is a critical ‘second chance’ – to become articulate, to develop control and confidence with ‘people’s words’. Garth Boomer in the mid 1980s offered a challenge that is still acutely relevant today: how can schools become places where these conditions can be replicated, extended and intensified; and what aspects need to change for that to happen?

[*] ‘Fair Dinkum Teaching and Learning’ was published by Boynton Cook in 1985, and in the UK by Heinemann in 1994

What should be the scope of oracy education?

by Professor Neil Mercer
Director, Oracy Cambridge

The development of children’s spoken language skills has, thank goodness, been getting more and more attention in the media recently. Newspaper articles and broadcasts often relate it to issues of social inequality and opportunity, stressing the need to help every child to ‘find their voice’.

Sometimes this is linked to the difficulties which young people from less privileged backgrounds encounter in trying to enter the acting profession and other media occupations, or to their lack of confidence and fluency in job interviews; at other times it is linked to the need for ‘soft skills’ in many occupations, or to active participation in democracy.

Image: Pixabay

There is no doubt that the limited provision of oracy education should be an issue of social concern, and the more people express that concern the better. But I do worry that the conception of oracy being taken up in the popular media tends to be focused almost entirely on teaching individual children how to (a) make public speeches and (b) engage in formal debates. Those are certainly important kinds of skills for children to learn, and it is wrong that they are typically only taught in schools within the private sector: but equally important are learning how to (c) use talk effectively in a team, committee or other group to solve a problem; and (d) engage someone who you are trying to assist in a productive, two-way conversation.

I know from research with children in schools that being a skilful speaker in one kind of situation does not necessarily mean that a person will be effective in others. It is not uncommon to find children who are confident and effective public performers who are hopeless at working in a group because they still keep making speeches and do not listen. And there are others who are excellent at explaining ideas, asking useful questions and facilitating productive activity in a group, but who become tongue-tied when asked to speak to the whole class.

Image: Pixabay

As we promote the need for oracy education, I think it is vital that we focus not only public speaking performance, but also on the effective use of talk for collective thinking. As well as having practical value for getting things done, research has shown how purposeful, productive, equitable discussion promotes children’s intellectual development. By learning how reason together, children learn how to reason alone. If it is to serve the best purpose, then, the scope of oracy education needs to be kept quite wide.

Beyond those active kinds of language use, there is another topic that I think also should be included in an oracy curriculum. That is the ability to understand, in a critical way, how others use spoken language to pursue their goals. There have been studies of how famous political speakers such as Hitler, Gandhi, Blair, Obama and so on arouse and persuade their audiences. There have been studies of how smooth-talking con-artists can persuade large numbers of people to part with their cash. There have also been studies of how badly-conducted talk in a working team or committee can lead to poor solutions to problems being applied, foolish policy decisions being made, and opportunities for collective learning being lost (all of which Karen Littleton and I discuss in our book Interthinking).

Image: Pixabay

But, so far as I am aware, the ‘deconstruction’ of such uses of spoken language is rarely included in the mainstream curriculum. If young people were taught how to assess the quality of group discussions – their own, or those of others – it would help them learn how to make such discussions highly productive. And if their education involved the critical, comparative examination of political speeches, one might expect them to be better armed against the malevolent, persuasive influence of some famous and powerful political speakers of today.

Image: Pixabay

Further reading:

Littleton, K. & Mercer, N. (2013) Interthinking: putting talk to work. Abingdon, UK: Routledge

Mind the gap

by Wendy Lee |

Learning to talk is the most complex skill any of us will learn. It’s tricky learning to combine the various language components needed, with speed and accuracy, and to know how to use these complex formations in the right place, with the right people, to achieve the outcomes we want. Oh… and to know what to do when the whole thing breaks down, which so often it does.

Image: Pixabay

It is a miracle really that so many of us can learn these skills with such ease. However, even when we have our basic toolkit intact, we need to be able to use these skills effectively…

Oracy is about using these complex language skills to think and to learn and just like literacy or numeracy, it is something we can teach our children to do with great effect. Teaching these skills is about levelling the playing field a little, allowing the majority of children access to these important skills. However, these are not easy skills to teach; we’re not talking about “chatter” in the classroom. We’re talking complex communication skills, interaction and “inter-thinking” between children that can take their understanding and learning forward.

We have a lot of evidence about the importance of the spoken word for learning and for life; evidence that demonstrates the positive impact a focus on Oracy can have on many children’s thinking and learning and on their attainment [1].

In my various roles, I’ve had the privilege of working with countless teachers and support staff in hundreds of schools across the country. I’ve seen wonderful teachers creating learning environments where children are thinking and working together, where children from all social backgrounds are excited to engage and interact with each other and the learning process. Classrooms where the buzz of talk is palpably taking children’s learning forward.

Image: Pixabay

I’ve also seen teachers provide explicit structures and guidance for how children can work together in groups, modelling language for those children who are struggling, with the highest expectations for excellent work. Teachers who use talk, not just to give instructions and information, but to scaffold learning and weave opportunities for talking and listening into their lessons.

However, despite research evidence and examples of good practice, spoken language continues to play the very poor relation to the written word in our educational system. Many teachers aren’t aware of how important these skills are for learning or the strategies available to support them.

Teachers receive little initial training in the links between language and learning. The curriculum has minimal focus on spoken language. It isn’t the focus of accountability systems in our schools. It isn’t the number one priority for most senior leadership teams when considering their school development planning. It isn’t a regular element of professional development. This makes it difficult for teachers to give it the attention it needs.

And yet, spoken language is so important for thinking and learning. It is important in life.

Despite the challenges, there are very good reasons to focus on these skills. For many of the children we work with, a gap in good use of language can mean a gap in attainment and a gap in life chances.

Some schools are really making this happen; often it is down to senior leaders making Oracy a priority and sticking with it; training and professional development is key, as is bridging the gap between evidence and practice. It isn’t easy, but is a journey well worth going on.

Image: Pixabay

[1] http://thinkingtogether.educ.cam.ac.uk/publications/

Should we assess oracy, and can comparative judgement help?

| by Ayesha Ahmed |

Image: Pixabay

As a low stakes classroom activity, teacher assessment of oracy skills can have a positive effect on learning and teaching. Teachers using assessment for learning (AfL) strategies can get a picture of their students’ progress in the skills needed for tasks such as oral presentations and group discussions. Teachers can identify where individual students might need help, for example in improving their vocabulary, in turn-taking, or in listening actively. Students can gain an understanding of what good oracy skills are and how to improve their own skills. Teacher assessment as a progress check allows the teaching to be targeted towards the needs of the students. It doesn’t have to be formally labelled as assessment, or involve marks. The key is having some agreed criteria and being able to give specific, informative, useful feedback to students.

For high stakes assessment, the answer to this question is much more complex. We know that when something is assessed in a way that has an impact on results it is valued in schools, given curriculum time, and taken seriously by students, teachers and parents. Since Speaking and Listening no longer contributes towards GCSE English grades, it is perceived as less important by many who are under pressure to teach and learn what does count.

But there are many other challenges for assessing oracy in a high stakes situation. The main ones are:

  • The ephemeral nature of the evidence
  • The time consuming nature of collecting the evidence
  • The risk of narrowing oracy to what is in the assessment
  • The subjective nature of the judgements

This last point is the deal-breaker: the notorious unreliability of assigning marks or grades to performances (this also applies to art, music, drama, essays and any complex responses to open-ended tasks). This is the main reason that oracy is not included in high stakes assessments. Such assessments have to satisfy some necessary conditions, mainly validity, reliability and fairness. We have to be able to infer that those who get higher marks are better at oracy. At the moment we can’t do that with enough confidence, and that’s not fair. But hang on a minute, we do it for art, for drama, for music, for foreign languages – what’s the difference? The difference is probably the first two bullet points, and the perception of oracy as less important and therefore less worth the risk (and so a vicious circle).

Image: Pixabay

So how can we deal with the issue of subjectivity of judgements? How can we get more reliable judgements of quality? There is an interesting way round this problem. It is called Comparative Judgment (CJ), and like many ‘innovations’ is not entirely new, and originates in Thurstone’s (1927) Law of Comparative Judgement. We are very bad at making absolute judgments, but we are naturals at making relative judgements. Imagine two different shades of blue. It’s quite easy to decide which is darker but very hard to describe how dark the darker one is (without resorting to comparative language). Most of us can say which of two musical notes is higher, but few of us can say one was an A and one an F sharp. The important point for assessment is that the vast majority would agree on which note is higher, or which shade of blue is darker, if not on how dark a shade of blue is (Is it quite dark? Is it very dark? Is it a ‘1’, ‘2’ or ‘3’ in terms of darkness?). See https://www.nomoremarking.com/aboutcj for a more in-depth yet easy to follow explanation.

Comparative judgement is currently being trialled in a variety of assessment situations, notably recently with Key Stage 2 writing tasks. See https://www.sharingstandards.com/ and Michael Tidd’s TES article https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/comparative-judgement-a-world-pure-imagination.

Image: Pixabay

Can we use CJ for oracy assessment? It would involve judging pairs of performances, for example, videos of oral presentations. For each pair, judges (teachers or examiners) must decide which is ‘better’. Each judge sees many pairs and makes many such judgements, after which all performances can be rank ordered and put on a scale. A score can then be generated if necessary. The idea of ranking in this way can rankle, but CJ is just a fairer albeit more explicit method for ordering performances.

The advantages of this method are:

  • Reliability tends to be higher than when performances are marked in the traditional way.
  • It relies on judges being experts in the construct being assessed – they need to be able to recognise good oracy – but they don’t need to be able to define or describe it in advance. This resonates with many experts in disciplines where performance assessment is required.
  • There is no need to assign any marks or grades to performances. There is no need to do the difficult job of describing various levels of performance that should gain certain numbers of marks.

Some major challenges remain, such as collecting the evidence and the time and resources needed. But CJ is an interesting and promising approach to reducing the element of subjectivity in assessment. It is worth exploring as a way to assess oracy more fairly and perhaps therefore to give us a chance of persuading policy makers to allow oracy assessments to count again in high stakes qualifications.


Thurstone (1927) A law of comparative judgement. Psychological Review, 34(4), 273.

‘It’s a bit like making a Victoria sponge’ – discovering, exploring and using research and other evidence to make the world a better place.

by Nick Andrews |

The popularity of the BBC programme, The Great British Bake Off is proof that everyone enjoys a piece of cake, especially when it has been made to perfection. However, baking a good cake is more complicated than it seems. It requires creative and confident chefs and the careful selection of ingredients, which then have to be combined in the right amounts, in the right order and in right way. Careful attention also has to be paid to the cooking process, to avoid it being either burnt or soggy. It’s much the same when it comes to making good public services like health and social services.

The Developing Evidence-Enriched Practice (DEEP) approach to improving health and social services was developed and tried-out in five places in Wales and one place in Scotland, in partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation during 2014/15. In each place, a group of older people, carers, frontline staff and managers working in health and social services got together to explore a range of evidence, including research, and see if they could use it to improve the well-being of older people, carers and frontline staff.

The project found that in order to make these things happen, they had to pay careful attention to five elements, which had some similarities with baking a good cake! These were:

Element 1: Valuing and empowering all of the people involved in the project (the happy and creative chefs) – senior managers had to support participants to be creative and able to experiment with ideas. Trusting relationships needed to be developed between everyone involved, so people could be honest and feel safe. People needed to feel appreciated and their successes (even in little things) celebrated.

Element 2: Valuing and using a range of evidence (the ingredients) – it was important to consider ‘what mattered’ to everyone involved, which meant that four main types of evidence needed to be considered – research, the views and experiences of older people and carers, the expertise of frontline staff and organisational concerns including policy.

Element 3: Preparing the evidence, so that it was interesting and relevant (preparing the ingredients) – participants were able to understand and use the evidence when it was presented in the form of short summaries, stories, pictures, poetry or even song. Some of the evidence could also be summed up in provocative statements, which got people thinking.

Element 4: Facilitating the exploration and use of evidence (the careful measuring, mixing and baking) – this was perhaps the most important and complicated thing. Well-structured approaches to helping people think and talk together, enabled them to be better listeners and more open to learning. As a result, they came up with collective ideas and decisions and everyone felt that their contributions were welcomed. Different bits of evidence were weaved-in to discussions as they became relevant over time.

Element 5: Recognising and addressing national and local organisational circumstances and obstacles (making sure the equipment used, including the oven and baking trays is fit for purpose) – it was important to consider and tackle things that could get in the way of success. These included well-meaning national and local rules and regulations which did not always fit well with contextual decision making and what participants felt were the most important things in promoting well-being.

If you would like further information on the DEEP approach, you can contact Nick Andrews in Swansea University – N.D.Andrews@swansea.ac.uk (01792 606380)

Further details of the Developing Evidence-Enriched Practice (DEEP) project can be found at:


Learning to talk in schools

by Lyn Dawes |

Children develop oral language by listening to others and creatively copying and using what they hear to form their own words for their own purposes.  Once a child can talk, their thoughts are shaped by language, and language shapes how they express their thoughts. There is a clear and obvious link between talking and reading. The sounds of speech are encapsulated in written words; the symbols of the English language represent sounds. Reading is what happens when sounds are put back into texts, so that even silent reading may involve ‘saying’ words to ourselves. In effect, we literally or metaphorically breathe life into written words by reading them, aloud or silently. Although deaf children can learn to read and write fluently, for most English-speaking children reading and speaking are inextricably linked, and their capacity to read is profoundly dependent on their capacity to speak and listen.

For children who have developed good spoken language skills, reading skills may also be readily learned. For children whose speech is not so well developed, who cannot focus on what they hear, or who have had a less rich spoken language experience outside school, reading is made more difficult.  In school, we teach reading very carefully, knowing that it is the key to educational success and personal achievement. We teach collectively but children learn to read individually, each one making the creative and imaginative leaps that help them to decode text, make meaning from print, and add in the intonation and liveliness that good reading requires.  Children mainly learn to read in school, and are taught assiduously by means of phonics, story, poetry, rhyme, rhythm, look and say, whole book teaching; every child is carefully taught to read, for very good reasons.

In contrast the learning of spoken language is usually informal, casual, or oblique; it is untaught, in fact. Children do learn new ways to talk in school, but they are rarely taught how talk works with the same priority as that given to the teaching of reading. The direct teaching of speaking and listening is for many children their only opportunity to get to grips with the complexities of oral language use, to be shown what words can do, to be accorded insight into the ways people work with words to communicate, or to accumulate a working vocabulary in a range of topics. For every child, the chance to be taught to listen, taught to ask questions, to ask for and give reasons, to explain, elaborate, negotiate, summarise and present hypothetical or more established ideas, must be seen as an essential element of their early education.  Lucky the child that receives such tuition in a school classroom. The essential aims of such teaching are to ensure that every child is provided with the skills and understanding they need in order to become an articulate speaker, an active listener, and through these capacities, a fluent reader and thoughtful writer.

Children learn to talk in school – if they can. Whether they like talking, whether anyone ever listens to them, or examines their thoughts aloud with them, has immediate influence on their learning of how to talk effectively. Their starting vocabulary and their ability to join in with a group who is talking, taking turns and accepting challenge without feeling personally threatened, may stand them in good stead as learners of talk, or may be obstacles to their learning.  In addition, a child’s awareness of the value of talk for their own thinking and that of others affects how readily they contribute and gain from talking with others. Unless their awareness is raised, a child many never understand the link between talking and thinking, and the value of talk with others for their own learning and individual development.  It is regretful to have to admit that the title of this blog is inaccurate, and should instead be, ‘Only some children learn to talk in school’. Those who do, already can. A neglect of the teaching of oracy – the effective use of spoken language – is a recipe for continuing inequality and consolidating disadvantage. Most teachers know this. But the single most important influence preventing the teaching of speaking and listening in English schools is the bureaucratic drive for ‘evidence’. Teachers must teach things that produce immediate, written evidence which can be marked according to criteria of what is measurable, such as spelling, elements of grammar and punctuation, right and wrong answers. Instead of helping every child towards oral language competence, teachers are compelled to teach using arcane and divisive programmes that are used to measure, grade and demoralise their students. Because oracy is difficult to record, observe and assess, it never gets the attention that it deserves. In the interests of all our children, this situation needs to change.

Why teach oracy?

In this article, Professor of Education Neil Mercer argues that ‘talk’ needs tuition; state schools must teach spoken language skills for the sake of social equality.

The value of effective teamwork has become widely recognised in recent years. At their best, teams are excellent creative problem-solving units, demonstrating that two heads are better than one. Psychological research now encourages the view that human intelligence is distinctively collective, and that language has evolved to enable collective thinking: not only do we use language to interact, but we also use it to interthink.

This interthinking is the basis for the major achievements of humankind, though like most human capacities the ability to use language well has to be learned. It is not surprising that employers want to recruit young people who have not only relevant technical knowledge and skills, but who are effective public communicators and collaborative problem solvers. However, employers also complain that job candidates often lack such skills.

Skills in oracy (the use of spoken language) will be more important for most people when they leave school than, for example, skills in algebra. Yet I found it very hard to persuade the former Secretary of State for Education that ‘speaking and listening’ should remain in the National Primary Curriculum for English, and the oral language assessment component has been removed from GCSE English. There still seems to be an influential view that ‘talk’ does not need tuition, and that if children are talking they are not learning.

Some people may learn how to use talk effectively at home, through the examples of their parents and through discussions with various people. But, for many children, being encouraged to present their ideas and to take part in a ‘reasoned discussion’ may be very rare events. The British public schools, which educated many members of the present Westminster government, of course place great emphasis on developing the confident and effective use of spoken language. For the sake of social equality, state schools must also teach children the spoken language skills that they need for educational progress, and for life in general.

Through our own research and that of others, we know there are some very effective ways of teaching oracy skills, which are already used by some teachers. For example, one established way to make group-work more productive is to ask students to agree on a suitable set of ‘ground rules’ for how they will conduct their discussions.

Unproductive talk is often is the outcome of students using the wrong ground rules – for example implicitly following the rule ‘keep your best ideas to yourself’ rather than ‘any potentially useful information should be shared and evaluated’. When groups follow appropriate ground rules they are more likely to find good, creative solutions to problems. They learn how to use talk to get things done. And our research shows that when students learn how to use talk to reason together, they become better at reasoning on their own – and so improve their attainment in maths, science and other subjects.

If teachers are to help their students develop their talk skills, then they need to be able to monitor that development and provide formative feedback that will help progress. This is why a grant from the Education Endowment Foundation is currently enabling Cambridge colleagues Paul Warwick, Ayesha Ahmed and me to create a ‘teacher-friendly’ toolkit for assessing the development of children’s spoken language skills.

This article originally featured here.

Children’s talk in education: a potted history

by Alan Howe

Educational consultant and member of the Oracy Cambridge Management Team

The recent conference ‘The Power of Talk’, organised by the newly established Study Centre for oracy at Hughes Hall in Cambridge, was oversubscribed and very successful.  Speakers and participants from a range of contexts and professions explored the different ways in which the spoken word was essential to education, business, health and well-being, and the arts and sciences.

Half a century ago, children’s talk in school was an endangered species. Of course it was there; schools were full of it, especially playgrounds, but at best it was tolerated, at worst discouraged.  I remember, for example, in the early 1980s coming across a notice posted in every classroom in a Wiltshire secondary school: ‘SOS: pupils in this classroom are Seated, Occupied, Silent.’  As a recognised means of learning and a skill that teachers should give specific attention to, children’s talk was neglected and largely hidden from view.

In the late 1960s and 1970s this situation began to change with the upsurge of a number of important studies of the nature and value of informal talk. Andrew Wilkinson coined the word ‘oracy’ in 1965 because he wanted to assert that the spoken language was as systematic and worthy of study and promotion as written literacy.  Sociolinguistics fieldworkers collected and analysed examples of naturalistic talk in classrooms. New technology – cassette tape recorders – made collecting examples much easier.  Seminal studies published by, for example, Penguin Education such as ‘Understanding Children Talking’, ‘Language, the Learner and the School’ and ‘From Communication to Curriculum’ revealed the value of talking as a means of developing understanding.  Other studies focused on the relationship between the language of school and educational failure e.g. ‘Lost for Words’ and ‘The Language Gap’.

The publication of ‘A Language for Life’ (The Bullock Report) in 1975 was a critical moment. Set up by the then Education Secretary of State, Margaret Thatcher to enquire into the teaching of reading and other uses of English in schools, it went a lot further than that. Chapter 10, ‘ Oral Language’ picked up on the growth of academic interest in the language of classrooms, and set out a detailed account of the spoken language experience of children in schools. In just twenty pages it made a number of powerful and far-reaching statements about the importance of talk. Here is just one example:

‘Any one person belongs to a number of speech communities, and correctness therefore becomes a matter of conforming to the linguistic behaviour appropriate to the situation. Many people find this notion of relativity hard to accept, but it seems to us far more reasonable to think in terms of appropriateness than of absolute correctness.’

It was also in the Bullock report that for the first time official recognition was given to the importance of ‘exploratory talk’ as a means of learning.

With the introduction of a National Curriculum in 1987, speaking and listening was granted equal status with reading and writing. It had its own ‘Programme of Study’ and ‘Statements of Attainment’. Children in England were required by law to speak in class; teachers were required to give equal attention in their literacy teaching to talk and to foster its development.  A National Oracy Project, funded by the Schools Curriculum Development Committee (later renamed as the National Curriculum Council), ran from 1987 to 1993. It led to an upsurge in local projects in 35 education authorities in England and Wales, and involved thousands of teachers who worked with local coordinators to investigate and promote a wide range of talk in schools across all phases, from early years to tertiary instructions.  Collaborative groupwork; storytelling; oral history projects; spoken explanations in science; drama which enabled young people to find different voices and talk eloquently in role; and lively, thoughtful whole class discussions and debates. Official recognition, statutory regulation, national standards and assessment and were allied to on the ground developments and a wealth of local and national publications. Policy makers, schools and academics were, for a brief period, in synch. The endangered species had achieved protected status and was alive and flourishing.

Since that high point, talk has been in gradual retreat, suffering from successive waves of curriculum revisions that have reduced its importance. This retreat is in part the consequence of an accountability regime which through school inspections and publication of results has re-asserted standards in reading and writing as ‘English’.  It hasn’t been a full retreat.  Although the primary National Literacy Strategy (1988-2011) initially focused on reading and writing, it later introduced a strand of work on talk, which was also taken forwards by the Secondary Strategy (2000-2011). Now, in 2016, lessons are more likely to include opportunities for children to talk about their work with each other, with teachers who recognise the need to encourage participation, and who are interested in how what children say can be an insight into their learning. The development of carefully graduated and exemplified ‘levels’ in the ‘Assessing Pupil Progress’ materials (used by most schools) kept alive the view that for talk to be fully valued, it needed to be assessed as well. On the ground, however the reality was usually that teachers devoted their energies to assessing written literacy, and just gave a cursory nod to the separate assessment of talk.

The latest revision of the national curriculum (2015) was designed to reduce the level of detail and strip the statutory elements back to ‘essentials’. There is an irony that in doing so, speaking and listening has been significantly reduced to just a short list of desired features. Despite this, there are many residual pockets of good practice, although I detect a significant habitat loss. Although still visible, talk is less likely to be explicitly taught, assessed, and valued in its own right.  It is seen, in DfE publications at least, as the maidservant to the more important business of learning to read and write; and as a set of skills that favour presentation, performance and ‘public’ modes of speech as opposed to the fuller range that was originally enshrined in earlier versions of the curriculum.  As a counter weight to this, there is an extensive and rich back catalogue of ideas, resources and exemplification, and many teachers who were around during the past twenty years will remember that speaking and listening were much more prominent features of the educational landscape.  Some manage, despite the prevailing wind having swung round, to make their classrooms places where talk can flourish; their view of literacy is one that integrates oral and written language to the benefit of both.

The conference called for renewed recognition and understanding of oral language – to reassert its power; its relationship to power; and its varied use in life, in work and in learning. The time is right to redress a balance that has recently been tipped in the wrong direction.

Full steam ahead for Oracy Cambridge!

 by Professor Neil Mercer
Director, Oracy Cambridge, Hughes Hall

The conference to launched our new study centre, Oracy Cambridge, was held at Hughes Hall on the 22nd of April 2016. Ninety people attended – a capacity crowd for the Pavilion room – and it had been fully booked up well in advance. One of the main aims, which reflects the aims of the centre, was to bring together people from different professions and places of work who all shared an interest in developing the effective use of spoken communication to get things done, but who had probably not had the opportunity to discuss this common interest before. We were successful in this respect; although those from school and university education were the largest group, there were also social workers, speech therapists and lawyers, as well as representatives of the medical and business professions and from the world of performance arts. Organisations with a direct interest in developing public awareness of the importance of communications skills were also represented, such as the National Literacy Trust, The English Speaking Union, the Communication Trust and Voice 21.

In the spirit of practising what we preach, we organised a day in which formal presentations were balanced with opportunities for people to meet and talk in groups (which were selected to mix participants from different backgrounds) and to feed back ideas from their discussions to the full assembly.  The presentations were varied, including a storytelling session (by professional storyteller Ben Haggarty) as well as the more usual academic talks. One of the academic presentations, about talk in care homes by Nick Andrews of Swansea University, reduced many of the audience to sympathetic tears! The Hughes catering was, as ever, excellent and I am sure that it – and the wonderful organising skills of Rebecca Burtenshaw of the Hughes Development Office – helped create the positive atmosphere that we had hoped for.

A review of the feedback forms reassured us that our impression that people had enjoyed and valued the event was correct. And here are a few of the comments which I received by email, directly from participants, in the following week:

  • ‘First of all, a huge thank you to you and your team for organising the recent Oracy conference. It was a hugely informative day, and such a fantastic opportunity to meet so many people from different backgrounds with a clear and common interest.’
  • ‘You made me reflect on my own education and career.  During my gap year working for a small firm of family solicitors in Guildford in 1970 I now realise I learnt invaluable life oracy skills.’
  • ‘An overdue email of congratulations on the great success of the Oracy conference… As a delegate I enjoyed every aspect of the day.’
  • ‘Thanks for a really interesting day last Friday – I came away with my head buzzing with lots of ideas – and talk!’

Buoyed up by the success of our efforts, the task that now engages the centre management team is to use the contacts made and ideas generated on that day to build an ‘oracy network’ and plan a series of targeted activities and events to pursue our goals of promoting the value of oracy training/teaching in the wider world (with policy makers a particularly important audience), sharing relevant research and other practical knowledge about developing spoken communication, and organising some smaller events with more  specific aims and goals.

Welcome to Oracy Cambridge!

In the world of work, the value of effective spoken communication is almost universally recognised. Job adverts emphasise the importance of being a confident communicator, or a strong ‘team player’.

There is good reason for this. At their best, teams are creative problem-solving units, demonstrating that ‘two heads are better than one’. Research in psychology, linguistics and neuroscience now encourages the view that human intelligence is distinctively collective and that language has evolved to enable collective thinking.

We do not only use language to interact, we use it to interthink (Littleton & Mercer, 2013). Contrary to popular beliefs about ‘lone geniuses’, it is increasingly accepted that many of the major achievements of humankind have resulted from effective collaboration and communication in small groups.

Yet poor communication in workplace teams is common, and this can inhibit creative problem solving and lead to poor decision-making. The same applies to communication between staff and customers, carers and their clients, teachers and students, and many other occupational relationships.

Why is poor communication so common? The reason is that the ability to use spoken language effectively (oracy) has to be learned; and even highly intelligent people may not have learned how best to use talk to get things done.

It is also important, in a participatory democracy, that all people – not just those from privileged backgrounds – develop the ability to speak confidently in public, to present effective and persuasive arguments through speech, and to examine critically but constructively the arguments presented by others.

So it is very unfortunate that, unlike literacy and numeracy, oracy is rarely taught in schools. Government educational policy in the UK accords little value to teaching talk skills. This is also the case in most other countries.

And while educational research has shown that there are some very good ways of developing oracy skills, there is currently little contact between practitioners in school-based education and workplace training.

Oracy Cambridge aims to address this situation, by:

  • Raising awareness of the importance of effective spoken communication, and ways that it can be taught and learned, amongst policy makers and practitioners, within the UK and internationally.
  • Hosting events that bring together those concerned with understanding and developing effective spoken communication in educational settings, workplaces and communities.
  • Collecting and disseminating empirical findings and conclusions based on research that can influence education, work-related training and policy.
  • Creating and sharing practical support materials for developing and assessing oracy, in schools and workplaces.