Oracy education and dialogic teaching: what’s the difference?

by Neil Mercer

I am going to distinguish here between oracy education and dialogic teaching, because – as I will explain – I think that confusion between them has created problems. Oracy is becoming recognised, internationally, as both a potential curriculum subject and an important set of life skills. There is a growing interest amongst teachers (and occupational trainers) in how spoken language skills can be developed and exactly what this means for classroom practice. There is also an increasing recognition by politicians and policy makers that oracy should figure amongst the ‘21st Century skills’ that education systems should promote. This recognition seems to be taking place now, somewhat belatedly, in England (with other places such as Wales and Singapore already being well ahead in this respect) if we can take the statements of new Secretary of State for Education Damien Hinds as an indication [1].

At the same time, and perhaps at a similar pace, an interest has been growing in the value of ‘dialogic teaching’ in the classroom. Strongly associated in the UK with the work of Professor Robin Alexander, and in the USA with researchers such as Professor Martin Nystrand, this is essentially a pedagogic approach which emphasises the importance of talk being used effectively in the classroom. Its proponents use research evidence to argue that students, as well as teachers, need to be using talk actively to construct an understanding of curriculum content, rather than teachers only transmitting curriculum content and instruction through talk to an attentive, and largely silent, class. That this needs to be argued may seem strange to some, but in fact there has been a great resistance to dialogic teaching by those attached to more traditional pedagogies, who use the apparent effectiveness of didactic teaching methods employed in other countries such as China, and the reliance of the advocates of dialogic teaching on evidence from small-scale studies, to support their opposition. However, recent research by Robin Alexander and Frank and Jan Hardman at the University of York [2], and by Christine Howe, Sara Hennessy, myself and other colleagues at Cambridge [3] has provided evidence from the analysis of substantially larger sets of classroom data than used in previous studies to swing the argument more strongly in favour of the dialogic position. For example, in our research we found that teachers of Year 6 (children aged 11) who ensure that many members of their class participate in dialogue and encourage children to elaborate their ideas through talk gain better SATs results in Maths and English for their classes than teachers whose classroom interactions have fewer of those features. The York study showed similar and other benefits for children’s attainment in Year 5 when their teachers were trained to be more ‘dialogic’. In contrast, there have been no systematic studies of teaching, either small or large scale, which support the view that maintaining a traditional, didactic, instructional approach gets the best results in British primary schools.

However, my main aim here is not to explain or justify dialogic teaching. Instead, I want to achieve something more specific, which is to distinguish it clearly from the other topic with which I began this blog; the teaching of oracy. I feel that confusion between them may be hindering some potentially valuable educational reforms, as I can explain from my own experience. When I was part of a lobbying group trying to influence the outcome of the most recent rewrites of the National Curriculum for English primary schools, we met with significant opposition from Conservative politicians and others in our attempts to maintain and enhance the place of Speaking and Listening in the curriculum for English (i.e., we were arguing that talk skills should be required to be taught, as well as those for reading and writing). Although in the end we were reasonably successful, it was only with hindsight that I realised that a substantial aspect of the opposition arose from the misconception that we were arguing for dialogic teaching rather than oracy education. This became apparent when I remembered that our opponents had repeatedly claimed that we were talking about pedagogy (which is not covered by the National Curriculum) rather than curriculum content. They thought we were arguing for certain ways of teaching, not for what should be taught. This was perhaps understandable, given that some oracy advocates like myself also argue for dialogic teaching. But we should be clear: they are not the same thing. Oracy education is the direct, explicit teaching of speaking and listening skills as part of the language and literacy curriculum, comparable to the direct, explicit teaching of algebra as part of maths. Dialogic teaching is a set of talk-based strategies for teaching any subject, whether it be maths, history, English or whatever. Of course, the case for each gives a special emphasis to the educational importance of talk which is lacking in both traditional English curricula and traditional pedagogies; and dialogic teaching certainly requires teachers to have good oracy skills. It may be that they go well together. But the case for each depends on a different evidence base and expects different changes in policy and practice. Promoting either may be less likely to be successful if they are confused.

[1] schoolsweek.co.uk/damian-hinds-gives-first-speech-as-education-secretary

[2] educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects-and-evaluation/projects/dialogic-teaching

[3] educ.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/classroomdialogue

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