Children’s talk in education: a potted history

by Alan Howe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  1. Pingback: Why oracy is more important than literacy and numeracy put together – ORACY CAMBRIDGE

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