Oracy and dialogue: is there a difference and does it matter?

| by Paul Warwick |

Source: Flickr

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 [1]:

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.

Image: Pixabay

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 [2] 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[3]). 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.

Image: Pixabay

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.


[1] 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.

[2] lessonstudy.co.uk

[3] thinkingtogether.educ.cam.ac.uk

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