Prof Neil Mercer’s evidence to the Oracy APPG

Evidence presented by Professor Neil Mercer to the Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry ‘Speaking for Change’, at the session held on 14/07/20: Curriculum, Assessment & Accountability. A recording of the APPG session to which this evidence was provided can be seen below.

I applaud all that Prof Alexander has said in this session about the need to make the best use of talk in classroom interaction – research evidence should encourage all teachers to employ a dialogic pedagogy in the teaching of all subjects. But today I am going to focus on oracy education – the teaching and learning of communication skills. My life’s research has been on the relationship between language and thinking, and on the implications of that relationship for education. The centre Oracy Cambridge, of which I am the Director, was created to forge links between research and educational practice. It is from this perspective that I make this case.

I think I should explain more what I mean by oracy education. I mean expressly teaching young people how to use spoken language effectively, to get things done. This requires more than simply providing opportunities for talk in the classroom, just as maths education requires more than opportunities to use numbers. It means teachers taking an active role in developing their students’ spoken language skills, just as they do for students’ skills in reading and writing.

Each year, I have asked the new trainee teachers on our PGCE course in Cambridge – when you were at school, how many of you received any instruction or guidance in speaking? The very few who put their hands up will usually have gone to private schools, and they mention debating clubs, drama lessons, and interview training. Very few British young people receive any oracy education – but in later life spoken communication skills will be more use to most of them than skills in, say, algebra.

By oracy education, I do not mean the elocution lessons my mother threatened me with, to try to get rid of my regional accent. I do not think we all need to learn to sound the same, or to forget a local dialect in order to learn standard English (any more than we need to forget English to learn French). It is a matter of broadening our speech repertoire. That is, we should all learn how to:

  • make a good presentation in public
  • conduct a reasoned discussion
  • work well in a team
  • listen properly to a speaker, and – not least –
  • participate well in an online meeting.

These things should be taught to every child.

It is often assumed that children need to be taught to read, but that they will naturally learn how to use spoken language. It is also often assumed that good public speakers are born not made. Both of these assumptions are false.

Children may never have taken part in a reasoned discussion at home. And surveys show most people are scared of speaking in public. So how will they learn how to do these things unless they are taught in school? School represents the only chance for many young people to develop a language repertoire for dealing with all kinds of situations.

I believe that oracy should, like literacy and numeracy, be an intrinsic part of the curriculum. The current Speaking and Listening component of the National Curriculum is not enough. My colleagues and I at Cambridge, and others such as those at Voice 21, have developed effective teaching methods. We know exactly how to teach spoken language skills, so there should be no obstacle if teachers are trained how to do so – and if oracy teaching is valued in Ofsted inspections.

Employers regularly tell us they want to recruit young people with good communication skills, but that job applicants rarely have them. As well as giving young people skills that will serve them well in the world of work, spoken language skills can also enable them to participate more fully in our democracy. Is it a coincidence that 30% of MPs went to private schools? By teaching all young people how to communicate confidently and effectively through talk, their voices are more likely to be heard

Oracy education offers other benefits. We know that the level of pre-school children’s spoken language skills correlates with their later academic achievement. But schools can change children’s destinies. Our research has shown that being taught how to take part in reasoned discussions boosts children’s individual thinking skills.  We have also shown that taking an active role in classroom discussions improves attainment in maths and English. Oracy skills will help them in their study of all subjects.

The potential benefits of oracy education, then, are great. I therefore urge policy makers to:

First: put oracy firmly and explicitly into the mainstream curriculum. Which means it is expressly taught and assessed.

Second: Ensure that teachers are trained how to teach spoken language skills.

Third: Ensure that Ofsted recognises good oracy teaching as an essential part of education.


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