by Professor Neil Mercer
Director, Oracy Cambridge
The development of children’s spoken language skills has, thank goodness, been getting more and more attention in the media recently. Newspaper articles and broadcasts often relate it to issues of social inequality and opportunity, stressing the need to help every child to ‘find their voice’.
Sometimes this is linked to the difficulties which young people from less privileged backgrounds encounter in trying to enter the acting profession and other media occupations, or to their lack of confidence and fluency in job interviews; at other times it is linked to the need for ‘soft skills’ in many occupations, or to active participation in democracy.
There is no doubt that the limited provision of oracy education should be an issue of social concern, and the more people express that concern the better. But I do worry that the conception of oracy being taken up in the popular media tends to be focused almost entirely on teaching individual children how to (a) make public speeches and (b) engage in formal debates. Those are certainly important kinds of skills for children to learn, and it is wrong that they are typically only taught in schools within the private sector: but equally important are learning how to (c) use talk effectively in a team, committee or other group to solve a problem; and (d) engage someone who you are trying to assist in a productive, two-way conversation.
I know from research with children in schools that being a skilful speaker in one kind of situation does not necessarily mean that a person will be effective in others. It is not uncommon to find children who are confident and effective public performers who are hopeless at working in a group because they still keep making speeches and do not listen. And there are others who are excellent at explaining ideas, asking useful questions and facilitating productive activity in a group, but who become tongue-tied when asked to speak to the whole class.
As we promote the need for oracy education, I think it is vital that we focus not only public speaking performance, but also on the effective use of talk for collective thinking. As well as having practical value for getting things done, research has shown how purposeful, productive, equitable discussion promotes children’s intellectual development. By learning how reason together, children learn how to reason alone. If it is to serve the best purpose, then, the scope of oracy education needs to be kept quite wide.
Beyond those active kinds of language use, there is another topic that I think also should be included in an oracy curriculum. That is the ability to understand, in a critical way, how others use spoken language to pursue their goals. There have been studies of how famous political speakers such as Hitler, Gandhi, Blair, Obama and so on arouse and persuade their audiences. There have been studies of how smooth-talking con-artists can persuade large numbers of people to part with their cash. There have also been studies of how badly-conducted talk in a working team or committee can lead to poor solutions to problems being applied, foolish policy decisions being made, and opportunities for collective learning being lost (all of which Karen Littleton and I discuss in our book Interthinking).
But, so far as I am aware, the ‘deconstruction’ of such uses of spoken language is rarely included in the mainstream curriculum. If young people were taught how to assess the quality of group discussions – their own, or those of others – it would help them learn how to make such discussions highly productive. And if their education involved the critical, comparative examination of political speeches, one might expect them to be better armed against the malevolent, persuasive influence of some famous and powerful political speakers of today.
Littleton, K. & Mercer, N. (2013) Interthinking: putting talk to work. Abingdon, UK: Routledge