How difficult to listen!

by Lyn Dawes

Some thoughts on teaching listening in primary schools

In a conference workshop, I asked a group of teachers to listen to an excerpt from a poem. There was an illustration on a slide, but they did not have the text to look at. They were working in talk groups, and I gave each a separate task – to listen and think about some straightforward ideas:

  1. What time of day is it?
  2. What plants are growing in the area?
  3. What sounds are referred to?
  4. What is the rhyme scheme of the poem?
  5. What colours appear in the poem?

I read the poem, and everyone listened attentively, then talked with their group to decide what to say to the rest of us.  Asked to volunteer information, one delegate was extremely keen to tell us what he’d heard, so we asked him to share his thought first. He said that one plant appearing in the poem was ‘blackened moss’. Yes – we all agreed that this was the case.

‘I didn’t hear any more,’ he said. ‘I had to remember those words and could not listen to the rest!’

Those words ‘blackened moss’ were the second and third words of the poem! The rest of it was a blank to him, blocked out by the need to retain this key piece of information at all costs. Around the room, we found the same effect. The group focusing on the rhyme scheme told us it that it was ababcc – but had no idea what the poem was about. The group listening for colours could not say anything about the story going on in the poem. And so on.  We were all highly amused by this – and slightly shocked.

‘How difficult to listen,’ said a delegate.

Teachers are amongst the brightest and best in our society, and speaking and listening are tools of the trade. These teachers expected to know how to listen, – but were surprised to find that the focus on a particular aspect of the content, coupled with the pressure of presenting to the whole group, took up their entire attention. In effect, they were distracted. As they noted, there are implications here for classroom practice. We commonly use talk to carry out important tasks such as conveying information, explaining things, giving instructions or advice and linking ideas together.  We also set the context for listening, and context makes a discernible difference to how speech is heard and interpreted.

A straightforward and important activity is to ask your class for their perceptions of listening, it problems and its interest. Perhaps they can talk together to decide:

a) what makes listening easier?
b) what stops you listening?
c) what do you like listening to?

Children can readily say what they experience as barriers to listening (and therefore to learning). They may identify simple things such as some rooms that have too much echo, or some places to sit that are too uncomfortable. They can identify people they enjoy listening to, and others that stop them listening. They can also say something about how long they feel it is possible to really listen, and what difference it makes to have visual or other information along with the talk.  I am not suggesting that we can offer every child a comfy sofa in a carpeted room with all information tailored to their wishes – this is neither useful nor necessary! But what we as teachers say is crucial for their learning, and if we want them to really hear us, we need feedback on what makes that more likely.

We can usefully consider these contexts for listening:

  1. Physical context: Acoustic properties of the room; lighting; heating; visual distractions; audible distractions; time spent listening; the child’s physical condition (hunger, lack of exercise, alertness); the child’s physical capacity to hear.
  2. Cognitive context: The child’s understanding of active listening; their interest in and knowledge of what is being said; their attitude to listening; their ability to process information received through talk; their understanding of what they are listening for.
  3. Content of talk: Appropriate vocabulary; interest level of the topic; relevance to the child.

Each of these factors (and there are certainly others just as important) can be analysed and reviewed to help listening seem less difficult. If you find that a child, or a group or class of children ‘just doesn’t listen!’ it may be worth evaluating the context for listening, because there is usually something you can change, and if changed in consultation with the listener, you can make a real difference.

My use of ‘advance organisers’ to structure the conference teachers’ listening task was a certain way to ensure a focus for listening, and at the same time, stop them hearing the bigger picture. A focus may be what we want. But in setting a context for listening in which only the first two words of a text make any meaning, or only certain words seem important, we must be aware that we cannot then expect the listener to make meaning of the entire piece.

Teaching listening

It’s tempting to link listening to behaviour, but beware. Being still and being quiet may look like indicators of listening but may really be signs of abstraction or apathy. Teaching listening really involves helping the child to understand their own mind. They need help to recognise that listening involves thinking. Thinking and learning are linked, as are learning and talking – so the process of the cycle ‘speak, listen, think, learn’ should be transparent to the child. They need to be able to identify when they stop listening, and when they need to speak to ask for clarification or to hear another point of view. Silent children – it’s an oxymoron really – how many of them are learning?  What do they have to say about it? Of course there is only one of you, and however willing, you cannot listen to every child. But they can listen to one another, if you get the context organised. If there are thirty children in a class, there are twenty nine other people that the child ought to have access to as a listener, and as a speaker. Starting with brief discussions or information exchanges, you can teach children to speak aloud to a listening classmate, then swap. Children can give positive feedback on who listened well or interesting things they heard. Making sure everyone has chance to talk to everyone else may need careful planning, but is perfectly possible; otherwise some children may go through an entire school year and never talk to others in the same room. This is unhelpful socially and educationally.

Children know that listening is not a certain consequence of being quiet and still. It’s obvious to every one of them that this is not the case. They are aware that they are asked not to talk because quietness is ‘good’ and stillness ‘sensible’. Sometimes we need children to be quiet and still. That is fine; they can understand that sometimes such behaviour is necessary. But it is not listening. They need more accurate and honest information about listening. Their understanding of listening must instead be linked to an individual recognition that when they listen and think, their mind is actively working on what they hear, and that they are putting effort into their own learning.  By learning this they can see that talking to a classmate is of mutual benefit; as part of a conversation, they are in the powerful position of helping others to learn.

One of my granddaughters attends a village school where stories, songs, listening games, rhyme, visual information and changes of pace are the order of the day. Humour and serious content are combined. Everything is interesting. She is in Year 6 and loving it. My other granddaughter is in Year 5 in another village school. She came home last week to say they were being told about the difference between mammals, reptiles, birds and fishes. She already knew all this. We suggested she say so. ‘I am not allowed to speak,’ she said. ‘We must be quiet.’

To start a topic by asking children to tell one another what they already know about it has been good practice in primary classrooms for decades. It has been equally common to forbid children to speak. But we now have the research evidence to show that encouraging children to speak and listen pays invaluable dividends. Teaching children the oracy skills they need to interact with their classmates, and creating a dialogic classroom in which discussion and the child’s voice are given as much time as more authoritative input from the teacher, can enable every child to develop their intellectual capacity. Listening is one of the skills children need if they are to learn more readily. It might seem that they know how to listen already, or that if they are quiet they are listening, or that by saying ‘Listen!’ ‘Listening ears!’ etc’, we ensure they will – but no. We need to teach about listening and how to listen and why.

Funnily enough some of the teacher delegates asked for a copy of the poem they had listened to but not heard. As adept learners themselves, the curiosity aroused by a glimpse into a poem was enough to make them want to find out more. Children are awash with curiosity, and if they are taught to listen, little glimpses into things they do not know can be enough to set them off on a personal learning quest. Especially before they can read fluently enough to learn from texts, listening and talking about what they’ve heard is their way in to the wonders of the world.

Further reading

A tutorial on advance organisers

Finding the voice to tell our stories

by Ayesha Ahmed

Image: Pixabay

In discussing the importance of classroom talk, Douglas Barnes reminded us how important it is ‘for teachers to make it possible for pupils to think aloud even when they are talking with the whole class’1 and how difficult this can be due to the many voices competing to be heard. Some pupils rarely if ever get heard due to a lack of confidence in speaking in front of others. We can address this in part by helping children to improve their oracy skills.

The Oracy Skills Framework2 is divided into four key areas: physical, linguistic, cognitive and social and emotional. Aspects of the cognitive can improve with knowledge of the subject being discussed. And aspects of the linguistic and physical can also be taught. But the social and emotional skills can be harder to teach. How do we help children to gain the self-assurance needed to speak up and share their ideas and experiences? To feel that their contribution is valuable enough to be listened to? And how do we teach them to listen in a way that shows that they value one another’s contributions?

Lots of this is to do with classroom culture. But more specifically, for children to voice their ideas and experiences, they need to feel that these ideas and experiences are important and that they matter to others. One way to help with this is to ensure that children hear examples that they can relate to – the voices and stories of ‘someone like me’ so that they are encouraged to believe that their voice will be listened to, understood and respected too.

In reading about efforts to improve minority ethnic representations in children’s literature (e.g. the recent report by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education3) I started to think about how this translates to the spoken story. Stories that children read or hear can influence their willingness to talk – to use their voice and to share their own story. If children repeatedly read or hear stories that are hard for them to relate to, and in which children from minority ethnic backgrounds are not represented, confidence that their own story is important can become harder to obtain.

Hearing a story that they can relate to can open up the possibility for children to be able to tell their own. Reading Hanif Kureishi4 in my late teens was a pivotal moment for me and I still keep ‘The Rainbow Sign’ on my desk. It was the first time I had read a story that reflected my own experiences – growing up in a mixed-race family in 1970s and 80s England. Plenty of children were experiencing what I experienced. It’s just that we weren’t reading about it and we weren’t hearing about it.

But as well as lack of representation of ethnic minorities in stories, there is also the danger of being represented as a stereotype. Stories are a powerful way to communicate, but with power, there always comes responsibility. Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie in her TED talk ‘The danger of the single story’5 reminds us how impressionable we are when listening to stories. When a person with power tells the story of another this can become their single story, representative of them. When stereotypes are perpetuated it can become difficult to see someone in any other way, to see a connection between self and other and to bridge gaps.

We saw this happen recently on millions of our screens in ‘Bodyguard’ in which a Muslim woman is portrayed as oppressed by her husband and as a terrorist. This is exactly an example of a writer with great reach (and therefore power) telling the story of another in a way that increases the danger of a single story. Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s powerful poem ‘A story for ourselves, this time’6 is a wonderful antidote to that and it’s worth watching her perform it.

So how can we use stories to encourage dialogue and to encourage children to take part and talk in the classroom? Representation while avoiding the danger of a single story is a starting point. So too is listening. Listening to each other’s viewpoints and experiences can enable us to enter a shared ‘dialogic space’ in which we can start to understand each other better and to see another’s perspective on the world. As Sara Ahmed puts it, ‘To hear, or to give the other a hearing, is to be moved by the other, such that one ceases to inhabit the same place’7. Hearing each other’s stories can move us into that dialogic space. So once a child has joined the conversation, the dialogue that occurs can help further to close that gap between self and others.

We need to help all children to develop the oracy skills and the confidence to join the conversation. Sometimes the tools that they need are simple to provide: a child from a multi-ethnic background recently told me that they were each asked to talk about their ethnic origins in a French lesson. He said he couldn’t join in the conversation simply because ‘there wasn’t the vocabulary for mine’.

Acknowledging differences and celebrating them is another way forward. The more diverse the viewpoints the more potential there is for important bridging to take place. Rupert Wegerif argues in his blog that ‘The bigger the difference that can be held together in the tension of a dialogue the brighter the sparks of insight and illumination that might result.’8 So it is critical that we encourage children to enter into dialogue – especially those who feel marginalised, side-lined, misunderstood or unimportant in the conversation. We all stand to gain the most from hearing their voices.


  1. D. Barnes, Exploratory Talk for Learning in N. Mercer & S. Hodgkinson, Exploring Talk in School, 2008, p8.
  4. Hanif Kureishi, The Rainbow Sign (Faber & Faber, London & Boston)
  7. Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), p155-6.

Teaching Tone of Voice

by Lyn Dawes

Talk is made human by the tone of our voices. The tone in which we speak carries some of the message of the words, and is powerful enough to be able to alter meanings.

‘Do you want an ice cream?’


You can say ‘No’ with true negativity; or you can say ‘No’ with uncertainty, as if ready to be persuaded otherwise; or you can say ‘No!’ in a jokey, ironic way meaning, ‘Yes!’ Most of us can apply an appropriate tone rapidly and we can readily pick up nuances in what is said by instantly evaluating the tone of voice used by others.  These capacities are learned by immersion in a range of conversations in various contexts, a type of learning that goes on throughout life. For children in classrooms, the lessons of what may be conveyed by voice tone are still being learned. Everyday chances to practice using their own voice to convey what they understand, know, think and feel and to listen to others, are invaluable.

By ‘tone of voice’ here I mean the way we speak using a variety of rhythm, intonation, speed, volume and pitch. This is necessarily a rather loose definition since it is intended to include a range of voice qualities that are put to use to affect meaning. Of these qualities, traditionally in classrooms we have worked on volume as a particular problem! Which it is, and would be in any circumstances in which multiple separate conversations were going on in an enclosed space. For example, you invariably encounter a similar volume problem in a well-known Italian restaurant which has wooden floors, ceilings and walls and no sound-absorbent fabrics. You have to leave in order to talk to your friends. We cannot work like this in classrooms, so volume of talk is always going to be a problem. One solution is to have fewer children in a classroom. Since this seems unattainable, another solution is to include work on volume specifically in the direct teaching of talk skills as part of an understanding of the nature and purpose of exploratory talk. Excess volume becomes less necessary to a child as members of a group understand that they will be listened to, and in any case voices are more measured when all are talking on task to get things done. Purposeful talk tends not to be shouted.

Tone of voice can convey the emotion behind speech. Strangely, the reasons for voice tone may not be always apparent to the speaker. It may take a careful listener to perceive that someone they are talking to is angry, upset or uncertain. But it is very easy to misinterpret tone of voice, deducing coldness, warmth, impatience, patience, cheerfulness or despair, and so on, when no such quality exists. Discussions about tone of voice can help children to understand that how they talk to one another matters; and to help those who appear perpetually cross, flippant or disinterested, and so on, to gain insight into what others hear in their voice. Children can learn to ensure that in discussion, the meaning conveyed by the words is given precedence over the way they are said. This is not to say that we want children to talk in robotic voices; just to develop a sensible awareness of how to avoid some cul-de-sacs in conversation by speaking clearly and in an appropriate tone of voice.

The Cambridge Oracy Skills framework provides a useful structure for teaching oracy throughout the curriculum.  Its categories of oracy skills – Physical, Linguistic, Cognitive, Social & Emotional – enable us to ‘see the wood for the trees’ when planning to teach oracy skills. Tone of voice is there:

Section 1: Physical.

fluency and pace of speech;
tonal variation;
clarity of pronunciation;
voice projection

Section 4: Social & Emotional

confidence in speaking;
self assurance

These brief descriptors provide the basis for oracy learning objectives to pair up with everyday curriculum objectives. For example:

Science investigation: Discuss and devise a group hypothesis; decide how you feel about the coming investigation then present your hypothesis to the class using a tone which will convey your approach (for example confident, hesitant, uncertain, interested, excited, certain, worried).

Effective talk in classrooms relies on teaching children the importance of the words they use, the nature of tone of voice, and an awareness of some aspects of body language. I must say that of these three features of talk, I would say that a knowledge of how and why to use talk to communicate ideas is by far the most important. That is, the language tools we need, simple things like ‘What do you think?’ ‘Why do you think that?’ ‘Can you say a bit more please?’ ‘Please explain what you mean by-’ are essential for making sense of things, and can be readily taught. Unless the child can convey their ideas in this way, and unless they know how to listen to others and give them oral feedback, talk is limited to chatter. I like chatter. But in classrooms we can use talk for learning, an exciting and satisfying process. We can chatter before and afterwards, but in class, we can take part in talk for learning – a rich experience.

But tone of voice can exert a powerful influence. Teachers think a lot about tone; they know that children take what they hear as a model for the way they use own voices. Teachers are good to listen to. They have individual ways to convey enthusiasm, interest, purpose, the desire to be on a quest for knowledge along with a positive attitude; their talk with children is often infused with a tone that conveys reliability and certainty. Their voice speaks of a history of a good working relationship with the children in their class, a mutual trust. Things are going as they should. Teachers can also use their voice to own uncertainty or lack of knowledge, which can be a very motivating experience for children. Teachers evolve powerful ways of talking with children that may not be immediately clear to those coming into the classroom. Once I was teaching my class in the company of a visitor, and Sam, aged eight, interrupted me to tell me some fact about the topic, which was crystals in metamorphic rock. The visitor immediately stopped the lesson by telling Sam that he should apologise for being rude. Everyone went quiet. We were dismayed. We – as a class – knew that Sam knew more about crystals than I did, and we also knew that interruptions were fine, if to the point and helpful. Politeness prevented me from correcting the visitor; she had not understood the tones of voice used in the room. But as a class, we discussed the incident later and came to some interesting conclusions about ‘us and them’ scenarios; about being part of a group, and how to include others in the group without letting them change it at least until they understand it.

Children are very sensitive and respond viscerally to tone of voice.  Some children know too much about listening to loud, angry voices, which may not be directed at them, but even so generate fear. Children overhearing shouting may believe that they are the cause of adult anger. Those shouted at directly learn to defend themselves often by silence and may avoid of any sort of discussion in which different points of view are negotiated. Others have been overly exposed to sarcasm, derision, indifference, unkindness or intolerance, all conveyed by voice tone. We cannot and should not protect the child from all lived experience, but in classrooms we can make sure that no-one generates in them destructive echoes of the fear, uncertainty, loneliness or confusion that is called up by a raised voice or those other awful tones. In contrast, some children’s most significant experience will be of overly-indulgent, placating voice tones, from which they will have learned nothing about considering others, reasoning or reflection. Talk about tone of voice can help every child to be a little more analytical about their own voice and the voices they hear.

Good authors can write believable and powerful dialogue; it comes to life on reading; so is tone of voice really so important? It seems so. It’s not uncommon for an email to be misunderstood because of the writer’s ‘tone of voice’; they may be perceived as brusque, casual, cheerful or indolent and so on, simply depending on their punctuation and sentence structure. We are required to teach children in their writing to use a range of words instead of ‘said’ – exclaimed, stuttered, bleated, sniffed – many of which are intended to convey tone of voice.

‘They are lost,’ she said.

‘They are lost,’ she shouted/whispered/claimed/commented/mumbled.

Funnily enough, all these descriptors seem to convey a kind of artificiality. The context for what is said is often enough to help the reader to infer tone. In the same way that speech really should not have to be written in full sentences, it is often best left as ‘said’ if the reader is to be engaged with the story. Finding synonyms for ‘said’ is possibly a good way to build vocabulary but probably will not help the child to become an effective story writer. Drama sessions and reading aloud can bring out the value of a range of tones of voice to convey meaning. And one of the best experiences a Primary Teacher can have is hearing a five or six year old reading a book aloud with the tones of voice pitched just right. It seems a miraculous thing for a little child to do. No doubt they are drawing on their experience of having had books read to them.

Tone of voice can be subtle and difficult to describe or analyse. To do so might seem like destroying the poetry of the rainbow; but some pertinent information and awareness of tone of voice can help children to understand what they hear, and feel more confident in speaking to others. I asked a ten year old in school today if she had been taught anything about tone of voice. She quizzed me for a few moments about what that meant.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘that will probably be one of those PSHE things.’

Maybe. But maybe many children would benefit from regular and frequent opportunities to talk about tone of voice as part of their learning of oracy skills.

What can we actually teach?

  1. Active listening. Listen attentively to a range of voices (film clips etc.) and discuss how to describe their tone and the feelings the characters convey. Does everyone agree?
  2. Ask pairs of children to listen attentively to one another taking it in turns to describe a hobby or interest for a minute. Listeners can ask questions. Discuss what tone of voice the speaker used.
  3. Playing with tone of voice. Devise a drama activity in which groups are given the same script and asked to act it out happily, indifferently, angrily, as if in fear, excitedly and so on. Provide this information ‘in secret’ to the group. Ask the rest of the class to talk together to identify both the emotion and how it was conveyed.
  4. Give groups a topic each and ask them to prepare a two-minute talk in which they give as much information as possible to the class in a rapid and monotonous way. Evaluate the value of the talks in terms of how much could be remembered. Next ask groups to prepare a one minute talk in which they explain two or three facts. Talk about the difference pace and tone of voice makes to how well listeners understand.
  5. Draw tone. Give groups drawing equipment. Read a sentence in a particular tone of voice – cheerful, fed up, hurried, uncertain, angry – and ask groups to discuss and draw an ‘emoji’ representing what they understood the emotion in the voice to be. They can add describing words to their picture.

Background information

Oracy across the Welsh curriculum

Download the report

Last year, Oracy Cambridge was commissioned to write a report entitled Oracy Across the Welsh Curriculum by the Newport Education Achievement Service and the Welsh government, to support teachers and school leaders in implementing some of the recommendations set out in Professor Graham Donaldson’s 2015 report Successful FuturesOracy Across the Welsh Curriculum was commissioned to serve three purposes:

  1. To report on a comprehensive Review of the relevant research literature relating to the development of speaking and listening skills in young people;
  2. To produce a set of Key principles derived from research evidence;
  3. To outline a set of Practical recommendations for teachers based on the research evidence and key principles.

Although this report was written with the Welsh curriculum reforms in mind, the bulk of its content is applicable to education systems throughout the world. In particular, it is hoped that this report will also be of service to the UK Parliament’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Oracy, which was established in May 2018 and which is due to report in September 2019, following a series of inquiries.

Please feel free to contact Oracy Cambridge should you have any questions relating to the report, which you can download using the link above.

Leading Oracy in School – Part 1: the enduring potential and the wicked issues.


by Pete Dudley

Image: Pixabay

I was privileged to be asked to do some work recently with the first national cohort of ‘Oracy Leaders’ as they neared the end of their second term on this one year Voice 21-led course.

We spent an interesting session exploring the challenges and successes so far of leading oracy in school.

In this blog I will explore the successes and some specific challenges these Oracy Leaders are currently experiencing. They are in the vanguard of many to follow.

In the two blogs that will follow between now and the National Oracy Leaders Conference in July, I will look at some of the approaches that can help Oracy Leaders and their colleagues to begin to address some of these challenges.

Early successes

I was impressed by successes these Oracy Leaders had already achieved after less than two terms in their role. Most were well on the way to gaining a not easily won, peer-bestowed permission from their colleagues: permission to lead on oracy with them, for them and on their behalf. Many had already led successful sessions with staff – with the whole school even – sowing the seeds that make the case for developing oracy as a tool that can for pupils unlock their ‘growth mindsets’ and ‘self-as-learner’ beliefs. These are pre-requisites for communicative confidence and sustainable achievement.

They gave vivid examples of oracy’s rapid impact on pupils’ abilities to think and reason aloud articulately when contributing in class; of how this was creating a hunger amongst teachers to build more oracy into their lessons and a desire to manage-down teacher-talk to free up space for this to happen.

I heard how their Action Research enquiries were revealing facets of talk, thought, curriculum and pedagogy that were opening the eyes and ears of adults and pupils alike. And I sensed how these changes in culture and confidence were beginning to hook senior leaders, parents and governors into the power and potential of an oracy-rich school. Pupils were loving their new found voices; both the voice we can all hear and the voice inside their heads that only they can hear; the one that gives them the power over thought and communication.

I was both grateful for and impressed by the Oracy Leaders’ candour, their honest analysis of the oracy leader role, and their reflections on what I believe are demands that are probably unique to leading oracy in a school.

Oracy Across the School

Forty five years ago the ‘Bullock’ report ‘A Language for Life,’ (DES, 1973) broke new ground in conceiving of language, in educational terms, as a whole-school phenomenon: language across the curriculum, and of leading it as a whole-school responsibility. The report’s recommendations were powerful and groundbreaking but also (in retrospect) blindingly clear, common sense. Yet many schools struggled then to bring the concept of language across the curriculum into practice successfully. And quite a number still do.

For reasons I will elaborate upon now, I believe leading talk across the curriculum is arguably one of the hardest aspects of leading ‘language’ across the curriculum – which has tended the past to focus in on reading and writing.

Currents below the surface

Spoken language is omnipresent in schools, classrooms, playgrounds and lessons, so much so that we are blinded to it by familiarity.

It is hard to know where or how to start to turn talk into something which we need to become conscious of, sensitised to, something which we constantly notice, tune into, and upon which we increasingly reflect in relation to the learning it promotes. The prospect of starting out on such an endeavour can be as daunting as hearing for the first time long, lilting, unbroken sequences of talk in an unknown language and trying to work out where individual words begin and end. Oracy is slippery and difficult to grasp.

This is one reason why I believe that oracy can be particularly challenging to lead. It may be a reason why it has failed so many times, despite efforts, to find its rightful place in and across the curriculum. We must not let it again evade such efforts which are to be felt in the momentum now building behind the current oracy ‘movement’.

So lets look at the issues that were providing most challenges to the oracy leaders.

Wicked Oracy issues

There are two distinct faces of oracy in school: (i) oracy as an overt skill set and (ii) oracy as an integrated pedagogy. The vast majority of what I will focus on here concerns the second, because this is the face that in school carries the power of oracy right across the curriculum and deep into subject expertise.

I want to examine three wicked issues that were experienced to some extent by most of the oracy leaders, despite their evident successes. I will explore them here and then in my next two blogs blog offer some ideas for addressing each of them in turn.

Many aspects of the three issues will I am sure be familiar to anyone who has had a whole school leadership responsibility. But the combination of all three creates a unique set of challenges for leaders of oracy.

Issue 1 is the existence of an invisible barrier that makes it difficult for some to grasp how oracy can be a powerful, pedagogical ‘means’ to almost any subject-knowledge ‘end’. It is sometimes hard for people to imagine or to accept how something as simple and commonplace as talk can be the tool that is essential for all wondering, hypothesising, struggling, re-thinking, and realising; and as such the ‘means’ that enables understanding to grow, knowledge to form, and learning to take place.

Issue 2 (a likely consequence of theme 1) is a view held by some that focusing on oracy in different subjects ‘waters down’a lesson in terms of its prime purpose – teaching the subject knowledge that is the object of that lesson’s learning. This view can even lead to oracy across the curriculum being seen as an ‘indulgence’ for which there is no time.

Issue 3 emerges as an impatient pressure from ‘on high’ for the oracy leader to demonstrate measurable pupil progress in order to provide evidence to senior managers that the oracy is having ‘impact’ and so justify continued investment. The need for such immediate organisational gratification leaves little room for teachers to experiment in their classrooms together developing the practices needed to overcome wicked issues 1 and 2 above, and so can quickly choke off development before it has had a chance to take root.

All three of these together suggest to me that there is something bigger at play here. And my belief is that this has to do with the invisible nature of what makes oracy powerful. This is the elision of thought and talk, and one’s ability as an oracy leader to imagine that elision vividly enough to model it and to shape it. This needs to happen firstly in one’s own mind and teaching, and then you need to engineer opportunities for the pupils of your colleagues to encounter that elision themselves in the mathematics-talk or music-talk or science-talk that one’s colleagues orchestrate for them in their lessons.

I am referring to the elision of talk and thought that an oracy leader needs to pinpoint, capture and bring to life in lessons, and to encourage and help colleagues do so too, in their classrooms and subjects. (My next blog will focus on this).

For many, leading oracy means, with one’s colleagues, breaking new ground.

Figure 1. Leading on something new and from the middle

We discussed the extent to which the wicked issues might have arisen as a result of the ‘novel’ nature of oracy as a curricular and pedagogical phenomenon, compared with what might have been the case had oracy been a more established, traditional curriculum subject or pedagogical approach.

We also discussed whether– whatever the degree of ‘SLT support’ – oracy leaders are often working amidst their colleagues. While they are doing a lot of ‘coordinating’, these oracy leaders were very clear they were ‘Leading’ oracy with a capital ‘L’.

While this complexity of innovation and role explains some of the challenges facing oracy leaders, it does not explain how to help them and their colleagues to get a handle on the invisible elision of thought and talk, or how then to place all this in the confident hands of fellow professionals.


It is hard to think about language and thought (a concept let’s say) because when we try to do so we are inevitably using language (the voice in our heads) to have the thoughts and so do the thinking.

Think about the words in the box below for a few seconds.

Is it?…. Or is it not?

This shows how difficult it is difficult for an item of language to refer to itself. It is similarly difficult for us to use our thoughts to refer to themselves. But to discuss talk and thought, one has to find ways of doing so. And to lead oracy one has to find ways of helping others to do so too.

Language, thoughts, concepts, utterances, all come out of our mouths as one and also go into the ears of our interlocutors – as one; and all unconsciously. We are conscious of the meanings we want to convey and of the meanings we make of what we hear. But we are oblivious to the mechanics of it all – mental and physical. (If we weren’t, we’d probably go mad after only a few sentences).

In addition to all this, is the almost impossible separation for some, of word from concept.

I remember a friend relating a conversation she’d had with a well-educated and professionally successful colleague who had expressed a view that the French word ‘eau’ was a crazy word to use for ‘water’.

If you can stop cringing for just a second, you can sort of understand what she meant. It is a very simple and clear illustration of the double difficulty of leading oracy in school. Most people who are not bilingual or who are not used to thinking about language as an entity, find it hard to process thoughts about language and to separate words from meaning, for long enough to do any serious moulding, shaping or ‘engineering’ of that thought and talk to enable it to facilitate learning.

So oracy as a pedagogy is a doubly difficult thing to lead because it is both intangible and difficult, even to think about. But it needs to be made tangible and visible and less difficult to think about by the oracy leader.

How are oracy leaders overcoming these wicked issues?

This is why I am interested in leadership of oracy and particularly in the leadership of oracy by people who are not in the highest echelons of power in their organisations. I believe that it is really only with the permission of peers that the agency of people in this kind of leadership role is given true licence. This agency extends to a range of very different roles and it needs to do so if it is to bring about truly transformational change.

Winning the trust and respect of one’s peers to gain such permission from one’s colleagues is therefore vital for the would-be oracy leader.

Our national oracy leaders saw themselves as fulfilling multiple roles with their colleagues. These roles included:

  • Cross-Curriculum innovator?
  • Whole school coach
  • Pedagogical demonstrator and modeler
  • Resident expert
  • Chief organiser of oracy events, days,
  • Initiator, writer of subject embedded oracy ‘units’
  • Talk champion
  • Leader of professional enquiry and learning
  • Team-builder of oracy enthusiasts
  • CPD leader
  • Project manager
  • Updater of SLT and governors.

These are twelve distinct roles and carrying them out demands very different sets of skills and knowledge. The National Oracy Leaders course was helping them to anticipate and research many of them. But when it comes to exploring and surfacing deeper conceptual knowledge and beliefs around relationships between thought, language, words and meanings in lessons, and about specific ‘subject knowledge,’ there is a need also to formatively assess the starting points of one’s colleagues.

Making a necessity out of virtue

It is when they see the impact that a focus on oracy has on children’s self-confidence and achievement, that practitioners start to believe that it may be something in which it is worth such an investment of effort and such a risk of change. Earlier I made a distinction between oracy as a skill-set and oracy as a pedagogy and said I would focus mostly on the latter – which I have. This is partly because people can consciously see and immediately grasp the oracy as a skill, conscious oracy, as effective in all these ways. But it is harder for them to do so where they perceive talk activities invading subject teaching as a dilution, rather than as an accelerant to learning.

Usually, it is changed-beliefs that change behaviours. Sometimes it is changed-behaviours that can change beliefs. Rarely do both happen simultaneously. But I am pretty sure this was what was beginning to happen for some of the oracy leaders who were so skilfully combining their multi-faceted role.

I believe that (in this particular strand of professional knowledge and know-how), being a trusted and informed peer-professional in the very midst of the fellow professionals that one is leading, is a vital key to achieving lasting, sustainable change in practice and in belief and in creating a community of practice in an organisation.

In my next two blogs (between now and July) I will examine a few practical professional devices that can help crack some of the conceptual, linguistic, cognitive, affective and cultural challenges that confront Oracy Leaders in developing professional capacity for improving oracy in school.

Talk is for learning

by Lyn Dawes

Out with a group of children looking at a local pond, one of them was watching rooks who had made nests and were evidently incubating eggs – a noisy process. He said that that they didn’t come down very often to breathe. When asked to explain, he said that he knew that there was less air as you got higher, and the trees were very high; he knew whales could go for an hour or so without coming up to breathe, so maybe rooks could go for an hour up in the trees without coming down to breathe. The creativity and imagination involved in this idea was a little breathtaking in itself; and it was only the chance to talk that allowed the child to make his thoughts clear to himself, and the rest of us.

Each child holds an individual conception of the world around them; the child’s imagination has worked on the raw material of experience and helped them to make sense of things. Children can generate informal explanations for what they notice without ever putting such concepts into words, because usually it isn’t necessary. The sun – or at least the daylight – appears in the morning and disappears at night; a ball rolling on grass will stop eventually, in the same way that they themselves stop when they run out of energy; caterpillars are a kind of worm, and butterflies a kind of fly.

A child may never have considered that there are other points of view or other explanations. We may only gain insight into creative thinking – or misconceptions – when a child tells you that a rainbow is a ribbon, or describes how waves bring the tide up the shore, or says that ducks have four legs; and it seems wrong to challenge such charming explanations. But the history of human endeavour in science has led us to a set of increasingly robust explanations of how things work, and it is our responsibility to help children to see this more scientific point of view (and it’s reassuring to remember that it remains perfectly possible to hold on to the idea that rainbows are ribbons even when you have learned about the spectrum of visible light.)

Most learning is social, and classroom activities can offer the chance to talk about a range of ideas with classmates. Talk fosters curiosity and prepares a child to open their mind to new information and evidence. Talking about marking the day’s succession of shadows in the playground, coupled with discussing simulations of the earth in space, can help the child’s thinking and understanding to develop. Talking about, looking at, and trying to touch rainbows made by crystal sun-catchers helps the child to see that they are light and to say what they notice. The authoritative scientific idea is really no less wonderful than what they imagined.

Both the opportunity to talk, and the type of talk, influence learning. A child playing alone with a wet sand and dry sand will have an important sensory experience. A group of children talking about types of sand, their textures, behaviour and uses, will extend their vocabulary and hear new ideas to think about. A group of children talking with a teacher who is modelling the use of exploratory questions, and adding in some helpful vocabulary, have more to think about when they are left to play alone.  Children need all of these experiences. A session where children play with sand and argue over who is next with the sieve is another sort of learning altogether.  In classrooms, planning talk for learning and teaching both oracy skills and curriculum knowledge can ensure the sort of conversations that keep moving children’s thinking on.

Children talking sometimes don’t know what they are going to say until they’ve said it. What children think they know is what they try to say.  There is no other way that this thinking will become so clearly apparent to you, or to them.  The language they use and what they know are almost the same thing, and are precipitated by talk with their classmates. Talk with and between children allows them to see where their understanding stops and raise questions that they are interested in answering. But we know that a child may feel they are tight-rope walking socially if they admit that they don’t understand or if they offer a tentative idea. A collaborative classroom ethos with explicit talk rules can provide a secure safety net, enabling the child to express ideas with no fear of judgement. Learning by interthinking becomes possible if every child feels that they have a voice.

One advantage of learning how to explain ideas and negotiate them with others is that the child is gaining experience which prepares them for future team work  – and future life generally. But the need to learn the most powerful genres of talk is really pressing for the child as they go through their everyday life. They need an oracy education for the here and now. Children directly taught how to talk to others are better able to access the education on offer in class, and better able to listen to and shape their own thoughts. Knowing some simple talk tools: What do you think? Why do you think that? I agree, because – I disagree, because – Can you explain please? Can you say a bit more about that? Can you repeat that? What do you mean? – knowing what ‘listen’ really means, and knowing that others are prepared to listen to you as you do to them – this education in oracy is essential for every moment of the child’s present. Communication is what children thrive on. And deferring or avoiding the teaching of talk skills limits a child to a smaller and much less comprehensible world.

The idea that birds in tall trees must come down to breathe is poetry really. The child dreams up such ideas when they notice things that their curious minds want to explain. Ideas that we teach as science have become currency through conversations over time and space, to enable us all to understand the world. Exploratory talk is integral to science. Teaching science through talk and vice versa is what the child of today deserves.


Loxley, P. Dawes, L. Nicholls, L. and Dore, B. (2017) 3rd Edition. Teaching Primary Science: Promoting Enjoyment and Developing Understanding. London: Routledge.

Dawes, L & Sams, C. (2017) 2nd Edition. Talk Box: Activities for Teaching Oracy with Children Aged 4–8. London: Routledge.

Dawes, L & Foster, J. (2016) Jumpstart! Talk for Learning: Games and Activities for Ages 7-12. London: Routledge/David Foster.

Oracy in action – conversations on the picket line

by Ayesha Ahmed


During the recent wave of strike action by University staff to defend our pensions, many of us have been standing huddled against the cold weather, in groups outside our workplaces. On the first day of strike action, I had no idea what to expect. A handful of us arrived and discussed where we should stand, then held up our signs and chatted fairly randomly about the pension valuation and the weather. We began to discuss the tensions involved in striking, and not doing the jobs we love. And we began to discuss some of the theories and ideas behind what was happening at Universities around the country.

By week 2, our numbers had grown significantly. We were a group that spanned different research groups, teaching programmes, roles and responsibilities, ages, stages and backgrounds. We were joined by students and by some local sixth-formers who brought us tea during their morning break. And we began to realise that something unique was happening. Whereas inside the building roles were fairly fixed and discussion happened within certain groups and followed certain conventions, outside the building there were no such rules. Instead of the more formal learning that takes place during teaching sessions or research seminars, discussion was more open and collaborative, and the learning was palpable.

For week 3, we decided to formalise this to some extent and hold teach-outs. Each day had a theme, and often someone who had done some work on that topic started things off. But the format was ‘open-mic’ or rather ‘open-megaphone’ out on the street, on one of the busiest routes into Cambridge city. We had a poetry slam, a session on accountability measures, and a session on the critical theorist Theodor Adorno, during which we warmed our frozen fingers at the brazier and jumped on the spot to stay warm.

The informal learning continued during week 4, through discussions, in groups, and without barriers. We realised the power of talk for learning. We realised that We Are The University.

The Language of Power: a one-day workshop

by James Mannion


Last year, I attended a fascinating talk by Simon Lancaster, a professional speechwriter. It was a variation on a TEDx talk he did a couple of years ago, which you can see here – it’s well worth 20 minutes of your time.

Ever since, I’ve become kind of obsessed with the way leaders use language to get things done. Simon’s talk covers just six techniques, but there are many more (see here, for example). Once you learn about these rhetorical sleights of hand, you start seeing them everywhere. And once you realise that you can use these techniques to argue just as passionately for something as against it, it makes you suitably suspicious of those with a slick way with words. So not only does learning about rhetoric make you better at speaking and writing, it helps you read the world more critically.

All of which begs the question: why wasn’t I taught this stuff when I was at school? Why am I only learning about this now, in my forties? Regular readers of these pages will know that the teaching of things like ancient rhetoric is currently under-represented in (most) schools, compared with written literacy and numeracy. However, this is quite a recent development.

Throughout the middle ages, rhetoric was a part of the Trivium (alongside logic and grammar), a core curriculum first established in ancient Greece. Indeed, as Simon points out in his TEDx talk, “In London, right the way through to the 19th century, it was possible to get a free education in rhetoric, but not in mathematics, reflecting the importance that was placed on the topic”.

More recently, the teaching of ancient rhetoric has primarily become the preserve of exclusive (also, notably, male) public schools such as Eton, Harrow and Rugby. Take, for example, this short clip of Boris Johnson talking about Churchill’s way with words. There’s a fascinating moment where Johnson says “now that is an ascending tricolon, isn’t it?” Here, he speaks as though an understanding of ancient rhetorical techniques is common knowledge. To which one might lament, “If only it were true”. However, a better response would be, “Let’s prove him right”. Time’s up on this, as well.

The Language of Power: a one-day workshop

Anyway. A few months ago, Oracy Cambridge was contacted by Villiers Park, a fabulous charity that works with hundreds of young people throughout the UK, providing intensive support and outreach for students in years 10 to 13, to help them transition to a successful life beyond the school gates. They asked us to run a series of workshops with their year 13 scholars, to help develop their confidence with public speaking before they leave the school system for good: better late than never, as they say.

So, I put together a workshop to teach students “how to speak like a leader”. Since the new year, I’ve been running these workshops up and down the country, from Hastings to Tyneside, and the feedback from the students has been extraordinary. Here’s a sample of comments from the Villiers Park scholars:

“Needs to be longer. Have it over a weekend with multiple teams debating controversial topics with each other.”

“Really enjoyed it. Personal as we could choose our own topic.”

“The workshop was very well set, I thoroughly enjoyed it and thus no improvement should be made.”

What did you find most useful?

“The presenting along with feedback coupled with the teaching of language devices.”

“The quiz – fun, good for learning.”

“I learnt effective techniques in structuring my speech. To deliver confidently, likewise learning and understanding the terms.”

“Looking at examples of powerful speeches – shows people what to aim for.”

“Learning the different techniques used in language.”

“Analysing and picking out techniques – the quiz.”

“The demo of how the speech can be done by the presenter.”

“The analysis of Oprah and Trump speeches, because it was real-life examples of the techniques we’ve developed.”

Now coming to a town near you… (if you book it)

Oracy Cambridge are now opening up the offer to run these workshops in schools and workplaces around the country. It would work well as a one-day workshop for children (years 5 to 13). If you want to embed high standards of presentational skills across your school, we also offer it as a training event for teachers and support staff. And we’re also offering it to workplaces, because apparently (or so I am reliably informed) there is a world beyond the education system.

To find out more, or to make a booking, drop us a line –

The Great Oracy Exhibition

by James Mannion


A brief summary of an inspiring day at the inaugural Great Oracy Exhibition at School 21 in Stratford, London. 

Today, I attended what was probably my favourite ever education conference. And for someone who once wrote six blogs about a single #researchED conference, that’s saying something.

I’ve been to a few oracy conferences before, but this was the first one that’s been hosted by a school, where the vast majority of presentations and workshops were run by practising teachers or involved students. I’ve argued on these pages before that oracy is approaching the point at which it ‘tips’ into the collective consciousness and takes its rightful place alongside literacy and numeracy, and today was perhaps the strongest evidence I’ve yet encountered to suggest that this might actually be more than just wishful thinking.

The heart of Harkness

It’s actually kind of difficult to describe the first session. Picture a packed classroom, with around 60 people staring at an oval table around which fifteen A-level politics students conduct a nuanced twenty-minute discussion about the statement ‘Theresa May is not a true conservative’. See what I mean?

In case you aren’t familiar, a Harkness Table is method for having a discussion that’s more open and collaborative than a lecture or a debate. This was a gripping session with students holding their own in the face of some quite challenging questions from the Guardian’s political editor Anushka Asthana. What was noticeable was not just the quality of talk, but the knowledge these students had to back it up. I learnt more about conservatism in these 20 minutes than in all my years as a news junky. Which is pretty crazy when you think about it.

Raising the bar, closing the gap with an oracy-based curriculum

In the next session, I gave a talk to another packed room about the study that’s the focus of my recently-submitted PhD. In a nutshell, it’s an 8-year evaluation of an oracy-based Learning to Learn curriculum that found significant gains in subject learning, with particularly accelerated gains among students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The slides are below; there’s a journal article here and another due out later this year, and a book in the pipeline. We’re really keen to find out whether these positive findings can be replicated in other settings – if you’re interested in finding out more, drop me a line (

Mind-blowing speeches by 8-year olds

Throughout the next session, I sat with fellow Learning to Learn enthusiast Becky Carlzon in open-mouthed incredulity at the quality of the speeches delivered by a group of year 4 students. I have never witnessed such compelling speechwriting and delivery among even A-level students before, let alone among 8-year olds. The quality of the writing, the sophistication of language, the passion, the drama, the delivery – it really was absolutely mind-blowing.

As the School 21 head Peter Hyman said in his opening address, oracy is a really complex and layered thing. It’s certainly about much more than just public speaking. That said, I strongly suspect that if all children were taught and encouraged and supported to speak to this standard throughout their school years, in the space of a generation we would transform society on a tidal wave of confidence and eloquence that we can’t even imagine. So we should probably do that and see what happens.

Adventures in social mobility

The final session was a fascinating conversation between Beccy Earnshaw, Director of Voice 21, and Hashi Mohamed, who came to the UK as an unaccompanied refugee aged nine, and who later became a barrister. Hashi wrote an influential opinion piece for the Guardian last year, and you can hear more about his story, and his take on social mobility, in an excellent programme for Radio 4 that you can listen to here.

One of Hashi’s central messages is that his success is far more down to luck than hard work. He spoke of the countless times as a youngster when he made bad decisions and was ‘shown mercy’ by a teacher or police officer. Food for thought for advocates of zero tolerance and no excuses discipline. He concluded by saying something we don’t hear often enough: that teachers are amazing, and that we are incredibly powerful, and that we need to wield our power wisely.

He’s not wrong.

‘Sounding people out’: talk and acupuncture

by Alan Howe

Image: Pixabay

As a contribution to Oracy Cambridge’s exploration of spoken communication in the world of work, I discussed the value and role of workplace talk with Janice Booth, a traditional Chinese acupuncturist. Janice has been practising acupuncture for over thirty years, and also lectures in Chinese medicine training would-be acupuncturists.

When Janice sees a patient she allows up to 90 minutes for an initial consultation, with successive treatments lasting between 45 minutes to an hour. Whilst a significant proportion of this time is taken up with the range of treatment approaches that she uses – for example: taking pulses, scrutinising physical aspects such as tongue, eyes, skin tone, inserting and manipulating needles – consultations are also characterised by a particular kind of dialogue. We talked about how she uses oracy skills to carry out her consultations and to take a patient through a course of treatment. In so doing we touched on some interesting aspects of the relationship between talk, professional decision-making, and patient self-awareness. I have reproduced the bulk of our discussion largely as it unfolded.

How important is oracy to you in your work as an acupuncturist?

If I don’t listen then I’m not a receptor of what comes to me at all levels. My listening skills involve picking up the nuances of someone’s complaint and that also entail me being perceptive enough to ask the right questions to narrow down into the details of someone’s problem, whether it be physical, mental, emotional or even spiritual…and the only way to find that is to take the patient to another level either with the specificity of words I use or picking up on anything emotive in what the patient says that is inviting me to ask another question. It could be that someone repeats something or that they seem to skirt around something so that there’s no disclosure, or something that they emphasise. It’s in the initial diagnostic discussion where the most narrative happens, where the ‘I don’t know you and I’m getting to know you and establishing the roles’ occurs and there’s a certain weight to getting facts and then for me to interpret them. My mission is to diagnose and that’s what the patient comes for and so clearly close listening is vital because that’s when I am at my best for observing. Someone coming for the first time is totally new so in that sense the dialogue is really key.

And as the treatment progresses?

Probably the most interesting therapeutic dialogue isn’t in the first session even though that is really important. Where it becomes more interesting and more critical is probably from the second treatment onwards when you have embarked on a journey with someone. In many ways it’s a verbal/linguistic journey. I might kick off with some leading questions and prompts that pick up on the first session – things that I need to know more about if I am to work wholistically, where I have felt there’s something there that has or hasn’t been said or in the way that its been said that I want to allow the patient time and space to look at themselves a little bit more.

Do you always start with dialogue?

In the first session most people come in and they sit there and wait for me to lead so I might say “OK, so tell me a bit about why you’ve come”. In the next session my prompts depend so much on the patient and what they ‘ve already said to me. There’s a whole spectrum of people. Some are very matter of fact and they model their coming to see me on a typical GP appointment although they know they’re paying me and they expect it to take a bit longer but they still model it on a biomedical model so it almost like, ‘OK so what do you want to know?’ or before I’ve even started they’re already rolling up their trousers to show me their bad knee! There are other people, quite rare…but they might say, ‘There’s kind of nothing wrong but I’ve heard that acupuncture is good for well being,’ and that’s a whole different starting point of course.

I’m interested in the relationship between the dialogue, the talking and listening, and how that relates to the treatment?

I think that’s really interesting because I’m not a counsellor or a psycotherapist, where the talk is all and that’s all that is done, what people call ‘talking therapy’ – talk and silence, talk and silence – I do that but not fully. There’s a point where I take a more proactive role because I have to wrap up what people have told me towards a diagnostic decision and subsequent use of needles.   Where there hasn’t been much talk – for example where a patient doesn’t want to say much, or where there might be issues with English as a second language – I sometimes struggle to be really clear about the depth of treatment I’m going to offer. I obviously have other skills I use to make a diagnosis – taking the pulse, looking at the tongue, taking the temperature, observing colour on the face – all of that which can give some clues but without getting to know someone it’s so much more difficult. It’s almost like the chit-chat at the start that goes further and then I turn to my use. It’s building the rapport, so that there’s a working relationship. It is a relationship, there’s no doubt about it, and that’s so different to what a lot of people usually experience in a typical ten minute consultation with their GP. There is time for talk between two people to take you to a very creative place of understanding on both sides and it is a gift to me as a practitioner because of the insight into how someone has put or is putting their life’s meaning together: I am facilitating that. And that potentially has a profound impact on someone’s well-being.

So you partly use talk to help you to a clearer diagnosis? 


But you just started to talk about how getting the patient to talk could be seen as part of the treatment itself – as having an impact itself.

Well, I think that’s the most interesting area and many patients eventually realise that too. They bring to me all their disparate ailments, memories, all the disparate aspects of their lives and sometimes they come to ‘see’ themselves differently. Through a prompt such as, ‘Tell me a bit more about that…’ or, ‘I’m really interested in…’ or, ‘Have you ever thought there’s a connection between this and that..?’ you know, for example, ‘Might there be something between your fear of failure and how your immune system is so compromised?’ I might nudge someone towards that or even better if they start to do this themselves. For example a patient might say, ‘You know it’s odd isn’t it, but I’ve just been wondering the reason why I seem to get ill every Autumn is because that’s the time of year when my parents died, that’s twenty years ago, do you think that’s possible?’ and I might just say, ‘Well it is interesting isn’t it, that’s worth thinking about…’ You kind of leave it hanging but it’s language that’s taken the patient and me on that little route to looking at something a bit more deeply.

What is it about that, helping the patient to talk that through, to find the words themselves, that’s part of the work that you do?

Because as a traditional acupuncturist, one of the key tenets is that nothing is unintegrated, nothing happens – OK trauma, car accident, whiplash, they are random issues, yes – but once something’s become chronic, we have a world view that’s become established, we’re grown ups, then the narrative that we tell ourselves, it’s complex and sometimes it’s helpful to unravel it a bit…

And is that part of the cure…if that’s the right word?

And that’s not a word to ever use, I agree (OK, so what…?) I wouldn’t use ‘cure’, I wouldn’t use ‘healing’, although I’ve touched on taking someone into deeper places of themselves. I think ultimately the patient does the work. I think the needles… I think they’re great actually, because they create an end point to the discussion and once the treatment starts there isn’t much talk.

Do some patients ‘get it’ in the sense that they come not just for the needles but to have a chance to talk things through in a way they never normally do?

Yes, people say things like, ‘Gosh, I’ve never spoken as much’ or, ‘I’ve never told anybody this,’ or, ‘How interesting, I’ve never thought there might be a link between this and this…’ I often talk about ‘the artistry of practice’ and there are times when I almost don’t want to start needling because I think the work is being done at the level of talk, of listening and responding, of being there. You’re just holding onto that very delicate web that’s being woven where words come out, they evaporate but they’re being held by the practitioner, being held just long enough to explore them further. I do write stuff down, however!

But do you also revoice…?

Yeah, I do revoice. I’ll sometimes say, ‘Can we just pause a minute because you’ve said some really useful things there,’ and then I might say, ‘Can I just read something back to you that you said to me,’ or ‘You said to me and I don’t quite understand ‘ or ‘Can you just tell me more…?’. But sometimes I’ll just use the pause, especially with some patients who are talking so much they can’t hear themselves….

What’s going on in your head while the dialogue is unfolding?

This is where I’ll hold what I feel is most significant. But I’m making the whole thing sound very esoteric; often I do really need to know whether a pain is for example: stabbing or sharp, bruisey, achy, dull, easy, heavy, impedes movement, better in the summer, better in the winter, after a bath; and that takes up a long time because you want the exact word. And people go, ‘Oh, yeah’, or ‘I don’t know how to describe it, goodness, it’s just pain…’ and I’ll probe with words: ‘Is it…?’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh yes, it’s a bit like that‘ and we’ve established a word. There’s something useful because two treatments down the line you return to that description and ask again…’’Two treatments ago you told me that your pain was…is it still like that?’

In your professional practice you have specific acupuncture skills…but in addition, in terms of talk, what skills do you also have to use? (You mean what would I tell a practitioner in training?) Yes, what do you have to be good at?

At one level there’s a role that involves totally engaging with the patient through the session to listen fully, to develop rapport and create an environment of trust and safety.

Then there’s the constructive use of language to scrutinise the issue: ways of asking questions that take the patient further in their understanding of themselves. And often that involves echoing back a patient’s words.

There’s a being there with someone at an emotional level, at an empathetic level (not sympathetic because I think sympathy can be quite destructive) – the heart level.

There’s the creative level – I have to take stock of where I am, that I am who I am and beware of not letting my own stuff get in the way: why do I go off in directions, why am I interested in certain things? The creative level is not knowing: not knowing where a patient’s narrative is going to take them…and not knowing because although someone comes in with a main complaint (‘I’ve come to see you because’), down the line you find out that you’ve gone a long way from that initial starting point. You’re on another level of discourse, which is about self, connecting the threads, asking for understanding rather than just on a functional level or mechanical need.

Language at the transition point between the initial dialogue and the treatment – that’s an area that really interests me. If I allow best part of an hour, usually after about twenty minutes I have to move us towards the treatment, so each session involves a certain amount of wrapping up.

It has the trappings of friendly conversation, of chat, but it’s not like that at all really is it? You’re controlling it to some purpose…

Well it’s also about power. I’m the practitioner, they’re the patient. It’s professional. Ultimately you have to step back, have a clear mind, a clear intention, wisely use everything you’ve heard and seen and perceived and then formulate a treatment. I suspect that the needling may be more powerful if the patient is receptive to it, which is linked to all of what’s gone before: the narrative, the understanding, the trust. Though sceptics do also get better!

Can you sum up? How important is oracy to you as a therapeutic practitioner?

Well…it’s obviously important but not essential, because you can do a treatment, for example on a child, without all the talk. But then there is something really important missing that supports the treatment, that becomes part of the treatment. The best treatment session is often one between two people where you have a backlog of really close understanding, a patient having felt totally heard (not intimately, not everyone wants to tell you everything). Some people come for the long haul, patients who I know very well, who I’ve been seeing periodically for years. Some people don’t want to stop having treatment. Undoubtedly the actual treatment I’ve formulated for them has to be the right one, but I do have a sense that it’s not just about the treatment: it’s about the dialogue, it’s about a real sense of having been heard. In my filing cabinet I have narratives from all the people I’ve seen over the past thirty years. And it’s also all there in my head, all of the endless conversations towards something fruitful…

It’s interesting, isn’t it?

Alan Howe was in conversation with Janice Booth, Lic Ac FBAcC.