BOOK REVIEW – Transforming Teaching and Learning Through Talk: the Oracy Imperative

by Alan Howe

Transforming Teaching and Learning Through Talk: the Oracy Imperative 

Amy Gaunt and Alice Stott

Rowman and Littlefield 2019

Deep in the sandy wastes of Sturt’s stony desert in Australia, there’s a frog that can survive years of drought by applying a strategy called ‘aestivation’. At the onset of aestivation it assumes a water-conserving posture and becomes inactive. Within a week, a thin, transparent cocoon begins to form which covers the entire body surface and consists of multiple layers of sheets of cells. The cocoon reduces water loss. The frog remains in the cocoon for months or years and does not become active again until sufficient rain falls. Then it breaks through the cocoon and makes its way to the surface to feed and mate in temporary pools of water.  Similarly, the seeds of wildflowers can remain inactive during the years of drought until the rains return, at which point they burst back into bloom.

There was a time, some thirty years ago, when interest in, and action to promote oracy education experienced a brief flowering. This coincided with the introduction of the national curriculum in England and Wales, although whether this was a cause and effect correlation, or simply two different and disconnected strands of educational thinking occurring at the same time is open to debate. The proposals contained in Cox Report on attainment targets and programmes of study for English (1988) recommended that speaking and listening, reading and writing should have equal weighting in the curriculum. There were fears at the time that Professor Brian  Cox’s working group would attempt to set the clock back by proposing a return to a discredited form of English teaching of drills, textbooks and drearily taught heavy literature texts. But it didn’t, and seemed to have both taken evidence and listened to it. Having been invited to contribute to the writing of both Programmes of Study and non-statutory guidance for speaking and listening, my recollection is that those of us who had been arguing for the spoken word to be given greater status grasped this opportunity provided by the national curriculum to write talk into statute.

A quick look at my bookshelf confirms that this period in the late 1980s was indeed a time of genuine growth for oracy in schools. In the spring of 1988 NATE produced a special oracy edition of its journal ‘English in Education’ which celebrated the fact that ‘the primacy of talk in learning has been officially recognised…and oracy has been institutionalised.’ In the same year, the English, Language and Education series from Cambridge University Press published ‘Oracy Matters’ – a selection of papers from The International Oracy Convention organised in 1987 by the School of Education at the University of East Anglia. The impressive list of contributors (including a youthful Neil Mercer) were all either academics or in policy-influencing positions such as HMI. In the same year CUP also published a book called ‘Lipservice: the story of talk in schools’ by the teacher Pat Jones which balanced the positive view emerging from research-based papers with a vivid but rueful account of twenty years attempting to increase the value of talk in his classrooms, and why it is so difficult to make talk a real part of classroom learning. Simultaneously a group of teachers in West Australia published ‘Small Group Learning in the Classroom’[1] which offered a highly practical guide to making collaborative discussion and thinking at the heart of classroom teaching and learning activities. Also in 1988, the UK National Oracy Project was just starting to involve thousands of teachers in England and Wales in local development projects.  Flowers were springing up and blooming indeed.

However, the backlash was also already starting. Kenneth Baker, the Secretary of State’s response to the Cox proposals included an early warning that the oracy flower was threatened:

‘We accept that, at the first key stage, the three profile components should be given equal importance. However, in the later primary years we believe greater emphasis should be given to the key skills of reading and writing…’ [2]

This reversal towards re-emphasising the primacy of an education in the written word, to the detriment of oracy has continued in the intervening thirty years. Here and there the legacy of the first version of the National Curriculum and the National Oracy Project has remained, but the status of talk, as indicated by its positive presence in the curriculum, in assessment, and in classroom pedagogy has declined. The dry seasons have returned. There have continued to be pockets of growth, and there has always been some fertile soil still around, but developments have ben disconnected and disparate. Oracy, at least in terms of its official recognition and promotion, disappeared underground.

This new book, Transforming Teaching and Learning Through Talk: the Oracy Imperative, suggests to me that we are close to a time of resurgence, of new growth. The seeds that were sown all those years ago are re-emerging, stronger and possibly more resilient. The book sets out the approach to making talk an explicit and deliberate feature of both the curriculum and the wider aspects of a school, based on the pioneering work of School 21 in the east end of London, and its sister charity Voice 21, which is vigorously and actively promoting oracy more widely across the country. The strength of the book lies in its highly practical, evidenced approach: classroom ideas abound, and are clearly described and explained. But, in addition, it exemplifies why School 21 has so successfully made itself a ‘talking school’: it shows how oracy can and should be both a classroom pedagogy (learning through talk) and a set of teachable skills (learning to talk). Neither is it simply a compendium of good ideas (although it certainly is that).  In its structure and contents, it also provides a theorised approach to ‘institutionalising’ speaking and listening at the centre of a school’s work with its students. In so doing, it addresses head on many of the myths that still seem to surround attitudes to talk in school – myths first identified in Pat Jones’ book all those years ago:

  • That classroom talk is time-consuming and detracts from the real business of the curriculum.
  • That although acknowledged as the foundation of learning, it’s the business of schools to focus on reading and writing because ‘children can already talk’.
  • That using and developing children’s facility with talk has a negligible impact on standards and progress.
  • That getting students to talk is a recipe for classroom chaos.
  • That you can’t adequately assess oracy – it sets up too many logistical issues and anyway, we don’t know enough about what to assess.
  • That all the teacher has to do is to set up talk situations so that students can use their natural oracy abilities to learn.

Each of these myths is firmly dispelled with clarity, certainty and evidence.  Amy and Alice show how an effective oracy education can be progressive, based on a clear view of what oracy is – a set of teachable skills combining features of voice, of language, of thinking and reasoning, and the social and emotional understandings that enable an individual to use these skills well with others. They are also able to show how this kind of education in talk is a simultaneous education – through talk and in talk, happening, when carefully planned and delivered, at the same time.

Transforming Teaching and Learning Through Talk: the Oracy Imperative is essential reading for classroom practitioners, school leaders and, I’d argue, for policy makers who might be persuaded of the core value of oracy – not a distraction, but instead the engine house of academic achievement and for developing rounded, confident individuals. Those early pioneers in the 1970s and 1980s cleared a lot of the scrubland surrounding attitudes to talk in education. They planted the seeds that, now, possibly, are beginning to burst into flower again. This book doesn’t just revisit what was made visible in those times, but stimulates and reveals new growth as well, fresh approaches that might just survive for longer this time around.


[1] By Jo-Anne Reid, Peter Forrestal and Jonathan Cook, published by the Primary English teaching Association and Chalkface Press.

[2] English for Ages 5 to 11, DES, November 1988

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