I’ve been thinking about conversation. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘conversation’ as: ‘informal exchange of ideas by spoken words’ from the Latin ‘conversari: to keep company with’ and ‘companio ‘, one who eats bread [pane] with you’. Interesting: conversations as food for the mind.
The word ‘conversation’ itself is ubiquitous and used variously. Is conversation the same as chat, gossip, tête-à-tête, heart-to-heart, head-to-head, exchange, parley, consultation, conference? Are ‘conversation’ and ‘dialogue’ (about which much has already been written in previous blogs on this site) synonymous? Can you ‘converse’ only through talk, or does it also include written exchanges? Where do online ‘conversations’ via, for example, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp or WeChat fit in? Some would argue that the ‘heads down, thumbs up’ nature of online chat is destroying the art of face-to-face conversation (a question for another time).
If ‘oracy’ is a flexible toolkit of skills, strategies and choices that enable a person to use talk to make sense of and get things done in the world, then ‘conversations’ must be at the very centre of this activity.
A friend recently gave me a copy of Theodore Zeldon’s little book: ‘Conversation: how talk can change your life’Sometimes you read something that isn’t a revelation because it introduces completely new ideas, but by clarifying something you kind of already knew without knowing it precisely. That’s what this book did for me. It gave my vague thinking about conversations clarity and focus and led to a new train of thought. Here are a couple of quotations (the book is full of quotable gems):
‘Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought.’
‘Real conversation catches fire…you emerge from a good conversation, or a series of conversations a slightly different person.’
As I read the book I found I was having a conversation with myself about the case Zeldin makes for ‘what conversation can do to your life’. I started to see how the different strands of activity that I am professionally caught up in could all be woven together as examples of ‘good conversations’:
Making the case for oracy (again!)
Arguing for the value of dialogic teaching and learning.
Promoting professional development that leads to lasting change.
Training teachers to be coaches with other teachers (and doing this in a culture and education system that is very different to where I have spent nearly all of my working life).
Paul Warwick makes a powerful case for the importance of dialogue in teaching and learning in his recent blog:
‘…if there is a ‘holy grail’ of developing learners’ 21st Century skills – particularly collaboration and critical thinking skills, such as evaluating and integrating information, forming ideas, and justifying and communicating in and across knowledge domains – then dialogue lies at its heart. It seems that dialogue is therefore one central core to the development of wider oracy skills and capability, and it may be a good place for schools to start.’
Paul also cites ‘Lesson Study’ as a powerful way of supporting professional dialogue about effective teaching and learning. At the core of Lesson Study is the conversation that participating teachers have about the evidence in front of their own eyes.
Recently I have been working in Brunei as part of a team that is helping the Brunei Ministry of Education to start a process of transforming the quality of literacy and mathematics teaching in Brunei state schools. The programme is based on building local capacity to effect and sustain change through training teacher coaches to work in every school with a focus on dialogic teaching and learning. Sixty International coaches started working in schools in January, and there is a parallel programme to train over a hundred local teachers as coaches over the next two years. At the heart of the training is the concept of a ‘coaching conversation’. Coach and coachee (in Brunei we use the title ‘learning partner’) engage in a series of sustained, focused conversations about teaching and learning, as part of a wider programme of support, involving lesson observations, modeling strategies, team teaching and engagement with training materials and resources.
The theory is that as a result positive changes will occur and are more likely to remain in place. Early evidence from the programme indicates that participating teachers have quickly trialled and adopted some core aspects of dialogic teaching. For example, Brunei classrooms typically are often characterised by lots of ‘chorusing’ – pupils responding en masse to a teacher’s question with a single repeated answer. Changing an ingrained habit like this can be frustratingly hard, but many coached teachers are now asking more open questions, with follow-up invitations to pupils to explain their thinking.
Why might this change be the result of good coaching conversations?
A coaching conversation is different to staffroom chat, or department/phase meetings. It is more structured (in Brunei we are using an adapted form of the GROW model: Goal, Reality, Opportunities, What next?).
The participants are colleagues but the coach has the main (not sole) responsibility for the rhythm, flow and practical outcome of the conversation.
The emphasis is always on ‘drawing out’ ideas from the learning partner, based on a belief that teachers are able to identify and solve their own problems, or develop areas for improving their practice.
A coaching conversation is sustained (typically lasting at least 20 minutes, often longer, up to an hour in some instances) and uninterrupted.
A good coaching conversation can liberate a teacher from being stuck with the private interior monologue that many engage in as a way of thinking about what they do. You are no longer isolated in a private way of making sense of what you do; you can be brought to see your teaching, and pupils’ learning in a new light.
These conversations, if they start to ‘catch fire’, also have another outcome: they help to develop, for both coach and learning partner, a better professional language for describing the practical business of teaching and learning. They result in more precise and concrete ways of noticing, analyzing and explaining what happens in classrooms.
They are cumulative: building up over time both for the coach and learning partner, but also in the way that the ideas and accounts of lessons can spread across a school. They create a conversational momentum.
A good coaching conversation exemplifies another of Zeldin’s ground rules for conversations that ‘change how you see the world’:
‘There can be no satisfactory conversation without mutual respect.’
I have had many professional guises – teacher, teacher trainer, examiner, researcher – stretched over more years than I now care to contemplate. The central spine of each of these roles has been a concern with enabling children, and adults, to both acquire the tools for learning and to develop the ability to express their learning in various ways. As a teacher I initially had little idea how to do this, beyond trying to ensure that the facts underpinning the subjects I was teaching were communicated in as ‘effective’ a manner as possible. For me, good teaching was about my ability to instruct and explain, and little to do with the learners in front of me. I was concerned for their development, of course, but I paid little attention to ‘the other side of the coin’ in learning – the fact that all information, opinion, reasoning, speculation and debate that a learner encounters is filtered through their existing understandings, perspectives and prejudices, and accepted, rejected or modified as a result. I knew this about myself of course!, but hadn’t quite translated this interior understanding to an understanding of others.
Time and space to reflect and digest
As I read and thought more, it became blindingly obvious that my students needed more than just well-presented (I hoped!) information and practice in using it. They needed time and space to digest experience, to consider their existing perspectives in the light of the views of others, to present their understandings, justify their reasoning and present the evidence that supported their ideas. Most importantly, they needed time to talk; in broad terms they needed to acquire and develop the skill set associated with oracy, so that their talk might be productive for learning. These skills include the physical, linguistic, cognitive and social skills associated with the various contexts in which talk may be required, which might be expressed as follows :
These skills can perhaps best be thought of as a toolkit, which people who are ‘good at talking’ draw upon, as needed, in the different circumstances in which they find themselves. In a presentation, for example, attention to voice projection, gesture and posture, and the structure and organisation of talk (to pick just three) are likely to be very important; when engaging in a group problem-solving task, building on the views of others, summarising and listening actively (again to pick just three) are likely to be more important. How do we come to know this, and become more adept in unconsciously selecting ‘the right tools for the job?’ We do so by being made aware of the myriad contexts in which talk is different, by being given time to practice different types of talk in different contexts, and by being given the time to reflect on how effective we have been in deploying the skills at our disposal to suit the context. In others words we need to be taught oracy skills in the same way that we need to be taught how best to develop and use literacy or numeracy skills. It will not have escaped your notice that other bloggers on this site have referred variously to the social equity issues surrounding this imperative, and to the fact that it is far from co-incidental that those schooled in the public sector in the UK seem to have been taught such skills and have, in the main, a clear ability to use them appropriately to different contexts.
What’s dialogue got to do with it?
One substantial element of all of this is how learners come to develop the skills of dialogue, which might be thought of a sub-set of broader oracy skills. The intention of learning how to be ‘dialogic’ in classrooms, usually when working in pairs or small groups, is that learners become tolerant of the differing perspectives of others, able to probe their views sensitively, and able to express and justify their own ideas clearly; the ultimate purpose is that people should be able to genuinely co-construct knowledge with others, an ability that employers say is desperately needed in the C21st. workplace. In order to achieve this, developing dialogue requires that learners experience the sharing and evaluation of ideas, and situations where there is a requirement to build ideas collectively, reason, provide justifications and elaborations, and employ evidence to support arguments. This can be done within the parameters of the existing curriculum content, but it takes conviction on the part of teachers, at any level, that the gains in understanding, confidence and engagement are worth the effort. Hopefully the argument so far is convincing you that it is, but we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that commitment to an education framed in this way requires effort.
Developing dialogue through Lesson Study
The time needed, and the constraints apparent in busy schools, lead some to the idea that this is all too difficult, even if they can see the various arguments in favour of promoting dialogue, or developing oracy more broadly. This is understandable with the continuing wave of accountability demands being placed on schools. But there are ways of combining teacher development and the development of teaching and learning that may help. For example, I recently attended a Lesson Study research lesson  as an ‘external expert’, where the focus was on reception children who had been observed not really participating in any lesson discussions, either whole class or in groups. The school was using Lesson Study as a way to examine interventions, and they wanted to look at inclusion aspects of their recent focus on dialogue in lessons. In line with Lesson Study protocols, I was to focus on the involvement of one ‘quiet’ child in the lesson, with other teachers focusing on other children. The questions we were addressing were: to what extent did the focus children actually engage in classroom talk? Was the teacher missing something? Were they more actively engaged than suspected? In devising the lesson, on how to make the best sandcastle (it’s a joy working with younger children), a key point to note is that the teacher had specific talk intentions for the class embedded in his plan (as Lyn Dawes suggests in her practical guides to Thinking Together). He’d thought about getting the children to build on one another’s ideas and provide reasons to explain the order of a sequence of building and testing. He’d considered oral sentence starters – ‘And it would be better if…’ etc. – resources to stimulate talk, and grouping of the children. He hadn’t previously emphasised listening as a key skill, and it became clear that in ‘talking partners’ activities the children in each pair tended to speak at the same time, often to the front of the class. This was one clear finding from all observers. For ‘my’ child, it was clear from detailed observations that she was fully engaged in quite scientific discussions with her partner during practical work, was willing to answer teacher questions, but was reticent in independently offering her ideas in front of others. The subsequent discussion with the teachers was fascinating, raising many issues about how to develop dialogic teaching and learning further.
Personally, I felt that I was watching a lesson that was highly dialogic in character, with the teacher committed to the idea that dialogue improves both thinking and learning outcomes for students. The teachers involved were developing their practice, though each would freely admit that it has taken time and effort to develop a dialogic ethos in their classrooms and to embed dialogic intentions into their practice. A central point here is that, in this school, such developments had the full support of the school management. Several members of staff were released by the head teacher to make classroom observations and to engage in the post-lesson discussion around the quality of observed talk. Management had bought fully into the promotion of dialogue as a generic ‘frame’ for examining and developing learning, both that of students and of teachers. They had understood that if there is a ‘holy grail’ of developing learners’ 21st Century skills – particularly collaboration and critical thinking skills, such as evaluating and integrating information, forming ideas, and justifying and communicating in and across knowledge domains – then dialogue lies at its heart. It seems that dialogue is therefore one central core to the development of wider oracy skills and capability, and it may be a good place for schools to start.
 Mercer, N., et al. (2016) An oracy assessment toolkit: Linking research and development in the assessment of students’ spoken language skills at age 11-12, Learning and Instruction, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2016.10.005.
Please do not cite without permission.
To be clear from the outset, the title is no click-bait: I genuinely believe this to be true. It’s not that I consider written forms of literacy and numeracy unimportant; far from it, I agree with the prevailing consensus that they are really, really important. I just happen to think that oracy – defined simply as the project to help young people develop effective speaking and listening skills – is really, really, really important. To explain how I came to believe this, I need to take you back to the beginning.
An odyssey into oracy
In 2004 I had a kind of mild early-to-mid-life crisis. Stuck in a rut and unable to see a way out, finally one day I quit the job I hated and cycled to Morocco. Traveling to “find oneself” may be clichéd, but in terms of personal development it remains the best thing I ever did. As I was leaving, I grabbed 3 books for the journey: Bob Geldof’s autobiography Is this it?; ‘Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life’; and a book about third world debt written by my cousin, a journalist. Each had been written either by or about someone whose life had been shaped by their exposure to injustice; each had tried to “do something about it”; and each had met with only limited success. My cousin’s book, though well written, was not widely read; the Live Aid money, though well intentioned, had a questionable impact in Ethiopia; and Che Guevara – as a friend once memorably described him – was a beautiful, selfless soul who wanted to bring about world peace through nuclear Armageddon.
As I sat on Essaouira beach reflecting on all of this, it became clear to me that if you really want to change the world – and to paraphrase Ken Loach, if you aren’t angry then you aren’t paying attention – charity fundraising, investigative journalism and indeed armed struggle will only get you so far. It was then that an idea first occurred to me that has returned with increasing frequency, clarity and conviction ever since. To be precise: whenever I contemplate one of life’s many and varied problems, invariably I find myself returned to education’s doorstep. It’s not that I think our education system causes the world’s problems directly; however, I do strongly suspect that if we had a different education system, the world would not be in quite such a mess. And so, like many before me, my decision to become a teacher was accompanied by some naïve and fairly vague intentions about making the world a better place. In particular, having previously worked for the Probation Service I was interested in the idea of helping create an education system that prepares young people for how to deal with the vicissitudes of life; an education system that produces young people who are both knowledgeable and able to view the world with a critical eye; an education system that works for all young people, and not just those who ‘make the grade’ within a system that insists on failure for some. I returned to the UK and enrolled to become a Science teacher.
I am genuinely passionate about the idea of helping the world become more scientifically literate, and following the usual teething difficulties I embraced my new vocation with gusto. However, there was a fly in the ointment: a significant minority of my students – perhaps as many as half – just did not seem interested in Science at all. If I spoke to them in another context – in PSHE lessons say, or during tutor time or over lunch – they would come alive in discussions about current affairs, bullying or animal rights: typically, any topic with a moral dimension. By contrast, conversations about bio-fuel generators, electromagnetism and the reactivity series of the halogens were, for many of my students, pretty much a non-starter. As time went on I became increasingly frustrated by my limited scope for talking with my students about things that they really care about.
Then one day, I went to a Gifted and Talented conference where a local primary headteacher spoke passionately about Philosophy for Children (P4C). In case you aren’t aware, P4C is a teaching method where you sit in a circle and discuss ideas at length in such a way as to develop a broad range of cognitive, social, emotional thinking and reasoning skills. My mind was immediately blown. I got trained in the approach and started using it as soon as I could – in PSHE mainly, but also in the occasional Science lesson.
Once my classes had learned how to interact in this way, the lessons would fly by – and I could see my students growing in confidence and eloquence almost in real time. The better you get at running P4C sessions, the less you have to talk. Observing quietly as my students politely and articulately questioned their own and others’ ideas; looking on as they deconstructed arguments and developed new shared understandings; witnessing the forging of new identities… this was what I came into teaching for! I signed up for an MA in person-centred education, through which I learned that philosophical enquiry is part of a wider tradition within education: the field of oracy.
The bigger picture (of a skewed playing field)
The word ‘oracy’ first entered the literature more than 50 years ago in an attempt to place speaking and listening on an equal footing with written forms of numeracy and literacy (Wilkinson, 1965). Given the history of schooling, where ‘speaking and listening’ has traditionally played second fiddle to written forms of literacy and numeracy – in state schools, at least – this was a welcome development. Since then however, oracy has had a turbulent history in schools, swinging in and out of favour as outlined in this blog by Alan Howe.
I attended secondary state school from 1987-1992, a period which coincided with the National Oracy Project. However it can’t have been very ‘national’ because speaking and listening was not on the menu at my school. There was no philosophical enquiry; no debating club; no emphasis on public speaking. Once, I entered a debating competition with some classmates, where we found ourselves in a head-to-head with the neighbouring independent grammar school. Needless to say, we got torn to shreds. It was embarrassing.
It was only this year that I discovered what I think is a staggering fact. In one of the most common forms of competitive debate, the team proposing the motion are referred to as the ‘government’, and the team arguing against are referred to as the ‘opposition’. The individuals opening the debate are referred to as the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, and those opposing are referred to as the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition.
Just take a moment to let this sink in. At schools like Eton, which recently spent £18 million on a new debating chamber, students regularly get to play a game of ‘government versus opposition’. In state schools, children are regularly told to sit down and shut up. This is a sweeping generalisation of course, but I would venture there is more than a grain of truth in it. In state schools, ‘stop talking in class’ is a common refrain: the slogan of the pro-oracy organisation Voice21 – ‘get talking in class’ – is well-chosen. And people wonder why so many children from independent schools seem to graduate with unflappable confidence. I wonder where this might come from?
Meanwhile back at the odyssey…
My MA dissertation almost broke me. I spent an entire summer bashing away at a keyboard, chipping away at the marble to reveal what turned out to be a fairly ineffectual early attempt at using philosophical enquiry as an approach to teaching Year 8 PSHE. One day, I dragged myself away from my darkened room to attend a friend’s 30th on Hove Lawns. “There’s a homeless guy eating your buffet”, said one guest to the birthday girl. “No that’s just James. He’s doing a Masters.”
By the end of the summer, I was spent. “No more academia for me” I resolved, shaken. “I have scraped the bottom of the barrel, and I don’t like the noise it makes.” I submitted my dissertation and returned to the classroom. When I did however, something was different. Not just something – everything. I planned, taught, spoke differently. The children spoke differently. They behaved differently. And I responded to them in ways that were different again.
The process of writing 20,000 words over the summer – reading, thinking and reflecting deeply on the role of speaking and listening as drivers of thinking, reasoning and learning – had been utterly transformative. Ideas that I had previously grasped only on an intellectual level, I now felt in my bones. Without wanting to overstate the case, it was as though my very professional identity had been disassembled, reconditioned and put back together by people who knew what they were doing.
By coincidence, that year my school introduced a year 7 ‘thinking curriculum’ for 5 lessons a week. I jumped at the chance to help develop what essentially became an oracy-based curriculum. You name it, we did it: riddles, thunks, role-play, philosophy, exploratory talk, paired talk, ground rules for group talk, story-telling, active listening, forum theatre, public speaking, structured debates, problem solving, project-based learning, consensus building, conflict resolution, the explicit teaching of thinking and reasoning skills… this was not pedagogy; this was the curriculum. Our teaching methods were traditional: modelling; explaining; providing regular, scaffolded opportunities for deliberate practice; and plenty of rich, detailed feedback. Progressive ends through traditional means, you might say.
We delighted in witnessing students progress from awkward inaudible mumbling to confident, independent campaigners and leaders of assemblies. The students spoke and wrote about how the course helped them find their voice; find their identity; learn to stick up for themselves; to get along with people they never would have usually spoken with; to make their way in the world. I signed up to do a PhD to study the impact of the Learning Skills curriculum, as it became known. This 5-year impact evaluation revealed some considerable success: there were statistically significant gains in subject learning across all subjects combined, and a significant closing of the Pupil Premium gap from the bottom up (from 25% to 2% within the space of a single school year; see Mannion & Mercer, 2016, for details).
Reasons for levelling the playing field
We humans are alive for the blink of an eye and, since the world is far from perfect, we should probably do everything we can with the time that we have to make it a better place. I remain convinced that teaching is the best way to shape a better world. However, most of the time being a teacher does not feel like you are changing the world. Often it feels more like you’re in an unethical social psychology experiment from the 1950s about obedience to authority, or to see how far people are willing to stretch a reckless disregard for work-life balance.
Within teaching – for me at least – oracy is the thing. Helping young people develop their speaking and listening skills – and seeing their confidence and their sense of self bloom as a consequence – this is the thing that makes me feel like I might just be helping make the world a better place.
In no particular order, here are some reasons why I think teachers should place oracy at the forefront of their practice:
Standards. When it’s done well, teaching through oracy boosts academic attainment.
The Pupil Premium gap. It is students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have the most to gain from an education centred around the development of high quality speaking and listening skills.
Moral purpose. Oral development at a young age is a powerful predictor of many quality of life indicators such as future earnings, mental health or life expectancy. Some people arrive on this planet having been dealt an enviable hand. Many are far less fortunate. Teachers are uniquely positioned to actually do something about this.
Retention. Teaching through oracy helps teachers find (or relocate) their mojo. And on a related, more practical note for the time-pressed teacher: when you teach a predominantly oracy-based lesson, there is less written marking to do. Why slave away your evenings writing feedback which is far less effective than some well-chosen words, fed back and responded to in real time?
Participatory democracy / power. People who are in (or vying for) positions of power speak very differently to people who aren’t. Typically, although not always, politicians have greater verbal fluency than members of the general public. This is apparent on Question Time every week. Verbal fluency does not make people more knowledgeable or more moral, and nor does it make them act in the interests of the people they seek to represent. All it does it give them the appearance that they know what they’re talking about – and the confidence to pull it off. Speeches change the world perhaps more than anything else. How can we hope to run a society along the lines of participatory democracy when only a small (wealthy) elite are taught how to speak the language of power?Let’s give the power of verbal fluency to everyone, and not just the privileged few.
The survival of the species. Let’s be frank: the future of human civilisation (and indeed the present) is looking decidedly dicey. If we are going to avoid some kind of self-inflicted mass extinction event, we really need to learn to get along with one another. As it happens, you can teach that in schools, and you do it through talk – how to establish common ground, how to disagree constructively, or how to resolve conflicts in an equitable manner – to name just a few.
How Oracy Cambridge can help
If you would like to hear more about how to develop oracy skills in your organisation (not just schools), we can help you with that. Drop us a line at email@example.com – we’d love to hear from you.
Let’s introduce ourselves. I am an ex-teacher – and someone who wants the best from education for all children and young people – and I think there is a lot to gained from paying more attention to ‘oracy’.
And I am a social worker. I guess I also want the best outcomes for all – from my own professional perspective. And I don’t know that much about oracy yet. It’s not been part of the social care curriculum. So tell me, why do you believe so firmly that oracy is going to be the thing that has that kind of effect on people?
In part, it is because ‘talk’ is the operating system of choice for the conscious human brain; talk is no.1 for receiving, thinking and communicating ideas. Reading and writing come way down the list. Our thought is brought to our consciousness by a voice in our head that tells us our thoughts in a way that we can become conscious of and understand them. We then give our thoughts voice – we make them public. We talk. And our talk is the most accurate expression of ourselves – of us.
And the process reverses…
Yes. People listen to talk and their brains use the common organ of spoken language to build and understand these ideas in their own minds – occasionally checking for meaning.
But that hard-wiring for talk makes us acutely susceptible to talk – much more so than writing. Talk is persuasive, evocative, compelling and at best powerful. People who talk effectively get their way, become leaders and influencers.
And that’s only ‘part’ of the importance of oracy?!!
Yes. There’s a big down side to all this. Our own talk is mostly invisible to us. Talk forms much of how our consciousness operates. And it’s hard for a person to be consciously aware of their own operations and still keep operating effectively. Producing talk is almost beyond our comprehension. Even thinking about what we are saying as we speak gets us tongue-tied. So, talk is great for getting thoughts into the open but it’s hard to manage and edit one’s talk to get the point across with the greatest effect.
And of course we feel vulnerable making our ‘selves’ public by voicing our thought. Especially once we’ve hit puberty when how our talk sounds becomes a fixed facet of the ’us’ that’s becoming an adult.
So ‘talk’, while magically delivering the gift of transmittable thought, cruelly hobbles it as well.
So how does oracy help? This sounds more like personality differences than communication.
Oracy is a set of understandings and skills that make our talk ‘visible’ to us as we use it. And helps us hear it with the ears of our listeners so we can consciously intervene in order to adjust its meaning and improve its effect. Oracy gives you rear view mirrors with which to see your talk, and instruments to examine how it is affecting your listeners; without causing you to ‘crash’ mid-sentence. It gives you tools to plan your talk well in advance, and to manipulate it seconds in advance. Rather than just coming out with… stuff, you can self-regulate your talk, as you talk.
I’ve seen children as young as six confidently using structures like ‘I agree with X and would like to add Y…’ or ‘I would like to disagree with X because ….and suggest…’. At first it’s like speaking a foreign language. But when you use it and it works, you find that you soon stop trying to be like ‘it’ and suddenly, ‘it’ becomes part of you. You become a more effective communicator – and thinker – because you have the oracy tools to think, speak and be fully understood: ‘Accountable Talk’ as they say in the States.
Right – we’ve started doing something at work when we are discussing complex family situations, where we agree to ‘step out of’ the ‘professional’ conversation in order to test out whether we are making the right decisions and not missing any important angles. It makes it okay to check out simple things and even okay to sound inexperienced or stupid, because that way we know we will make better decisions collectively as a result. Then we ‘step back in’ to the professional conversation and make our professional judgements.
We can step in and out of the formal professional dialogue (in and out of role really) whenever we want. It takes some getting used to – and you have to trust the people you are working with. But it really helps to get things right. And it also helps to build trust.
And you know, teachers are beginning to do something similar. Because classrooms are so fast, busy and unpredictable, teachers have to learn very quickly how to use their instinctive ‘tacit knowledge’ not just to control their talk – but 90% of everything they do in the classroom as well. They might be consciously involved in an intense conversation with one pupil, while dealing with numerous other occurences completely obliviously.
So now when teachers decide to find out how to improve their pupils’ learning, they frequently get together in groups: research, plan, teach and discuss lessons together – to try out techniques or understand what’s holding some children back. In these discussions, teachers discover they’ve all ‘meant’ different things by the same words. They’ve seen and interpreted pupils’ learning differently from each other. As they struggle to resolve what they’ve seen and to improve what they will do next, they can become so absorbed in their jointly imagined lesson that they begin to try bits out in their ‘teacher’ voice and listen with the imagined ears of their pupils. BUT… when they are talking and listening ‘in role’ in their teacher personas, they frequently come up with radically different interpretations of what had previously seemed familiar, day-to-day situations. These revelations can transform the way they subsequently help the same children to learn. They’ve actually been doing this in countries like Japan for hundreds of years.
It seems easier somehow for teachers to forge a link between their conscious thinking and their vast reserves of invisible tacit knowledge, by going into role collectively and imagining the classroom together – ‘interthinking’ as Neil Mercer calls it.
It sounds a bit like those simulations where groups of military leaders role-play how to deal with rapidly developing international situations – in role, in uniform, and for sustained periods of time. They’re supposed to generate radically new ideas.
I agree. And I’ll bet the generals also step in and out of role and talk about what they’ve been discussing before resuming their simulation again.
Yes. It’s almost as if collaborative,oracy-informed discussions, where professionals deliberately go in and out of role in a collectively imagined context, can freeze-frame (for nanoseconds) what group members actually do and think when they are using their tacit ‘field’ knowledge. And somehow, as a result, they subliminally glimpse that tacit knowledge in-action for an instant or two before it fades. And the group is then able to capture and socialise that knowledge amongst its members – then act upon it.
Tacit knowledge is certainly known to be amazing for generating innovative, insightful solutions to familiar issues. But as you say, only when, in role, you tempt it out of your subconscious by pretending ‘you’ can’t see it! It’s like Ted Hughes’s Thought Fox. But being in a group with trusted colleagues, struggling to solve jointly owned problems together, is exactly the kind of ‘trust’ situation where this happens best.
In fact trying to reward tacit knowledge proves counterproductive. It recedes from you.
Like when Andy Murray serves perfectly all afternoon until match point, when he double faults?
And all this is connected to oracy?
Well. Yes. From a young age an oracy-informed education helps you to become conscious of your own spoken language and of how you interpret and respond to the talk of others.
It gives you tools to detect, select and change the range of meanings, genres, and registers that you use in your talk.
So you can edit your conversation in real time – and, as you get used to it, you internalise these processes, no longer needing to think about them consciously.
It comes to you?
..and gives you the means not only to step in and out of a conversation to improve it’s effectiveness. It also gives you the confident means to step in and out of your ‘self,’ (your ‘You Persona’,) and to empathise with your listener, improving your impact. For anyone not educated at a top public school (where oracy is drilled in), to be able to do this really is a liberation.
So oracy also enables you to edit the talk of the voice in your head. And this is how you can become an increasingly critical, reflective thinker. And this I guess helps you compose more effective talk (and writing) and read text with a more critical ear? It’s a virtuous circle!
You can always be yourself. But with oracy you can step outside yourself and achieve more. And with oracy + community, you can develop collective solutions to shared problems using exploratory talk to build ‘intermental zones’ in which everyone is ‘interthinking’ so that the group achieves more than its most capable member. You can even harness your collective, tacit knowledge through role-play, rehearsal or simulation and suddenly see the everyday and familiar: completely anew. And that can bring about previously unimaginable transformation.
This is an extract from Talk Box: Oracy Activities for Learning at Key Stage 1, by Lyn Dawes and Claire Sams. London: Routledge, second edition. In press: publication date May 2017.
Children learn to talk in school
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 are clear and obvious links between talking and thinking, and 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. Thus reading and speaking are inextricably linked, and the capacity to read is profoundly dependent on the capacity to speak and listen.
For children with good language skills, reading may be readily learned. For children whose speech is not so well developed, who cannot focus on what they hear, or who have heard very little spoken language, 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, and through methods based on individual language experience, or using carefully contextualised texts which have high interest value – every child is carefully taught to read, for very good reasons.
Children also learn to speak individually, but learning of spoken language is often informal, casual, or oblique; it may not be taught directly. Children learn 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, the 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, ask questions, ask for and give reasons, 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 who 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 needed 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. Children’s 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 the reasons why they never learn. In addition, children’s awareness of the value of talk for their own thinking and that of others affects how readily they contribute and gain from talk. Unless awareness is raised, a child many never understand the link between talking and thinking, and the value of talk with others for their own individual development.
It is extremely unfortunate to have to say that actually the title of this section is inaccurate, and should instead read, ‘Only some children learn to talk in school’ – those who do, already can. A neglect of the teaching of oracy is a recipe for continuing inequality and consolidating disadvantage. Teachers know this, but they are obliged to teach things which can be marked according to measurable criteria such as spelling, grammar and punctuation, and certain mathematical operations.. Children need to talk if they are to read well; they need to talk and read to stimulate thinking, and they need to think for themselves in order to write creatively and effectively.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
Littleton, K. & Mercer, N. (2013) Interthinking: putting talk to work. Abingdon, UK: Routledge
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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: