Why should schools teach oracy?

This is an extract from Talk Box: Oracy Activities for Learning at Key Stage 1, by Lyn Dawes and Claire Sams. London: Routledge, second edition. In press: publication date May 2017. 

Children learn to talk in school

Children develop oral language by listening to others and creatively copying and using what they hear to form their own words for their own purposes. Once a child can talk, their thoughts are shaped by language, and language shapes how they express their thoughts. There are clear and obvious links between talking and thinking, and talking and reading. The sounds of speech are encapsulated in written words; the symbols of the English language represent sounds. Reading is what happens when sounds are put back into texts, so that even silent reading may involve ‘saying’ words to ourselves. In effect, we literally or metaphorically breathe life into written words by reading them, aloud or silently. Thus reading and speaking are inextricably linked, and the capacity to read is profoundly dependent on the capacity to speak and listen.

For children with good language skills, reading may be readily learned. For children whose speech is not so well developed, who cannot focus on what they hear, or who have heard very little spoken language, reading is made more difficult. In school, we teach reading very carefully, knowing that it is the key to educational success and personal achievement. We teach collectively but children learn to read individually, each one making the creative and imaginative leaps that help them to decode text, make meaning from print, and add in the intonation and liveliness that good reading requires. Children mainly learn to read in school, and are taught assiduously by means of phonics, story, poetry, rhyme, rhythm, look and say, whole book teaching, and through methods based on individual language experience, or using carefully contextualised texts which have high interest value – every child is carefully taught to read, for very good reasons.

Children also learn to speak individually, but learning of spoken language is often informal, casual, or oblique; it may not be taught directly. Children learn to talk in school, but they are rarely taught how talk works with the same priority as that given to the teaching of reading. The direct teaching of speaking and listening is, for many children, the only opportunity to get to grips with the complexities of oral language use, to be shown what words can do, to be accorded insight into the ways people work with words to communicate, or to accumulate a working vocabulary in a range of topics. For every child, the chance to be taught to listen, ask questions, ask for and give reasons, explain, elaborate, negotiate, summarise and present hypothetical or more established ideas, must be seen as an essential element of their early education – lucky the child who receives such tuition in a school classroom. The essential aims of such teaching are to ensure that every child is provided with the skills and understanding needed in order to become an articulate speaker, an active listener and, through these capacities, a fluent reader and thoughtful writer.

Children learn to talk in school – if they can. Whether they like talking, whether anyone ever listens to them or examines their thoughts aloud with them, has immediate influence on their learning of how to talk effectively. Children’s starting vocabulary and their ability to join in with a group who is talking, taking turns and accepting challenge without feeling personally threatened, may stand them in good stead as learners of talk, or may be the reasons why they never learn. In addition, children’s awareness of the value of talk for their own thinking and that of others affects how readily they contribute and gain from talk. Unless awareness is raised, a child many never understand the link between talking and thinking, and the value of talk with others for their own individual development.

It is extremely unfortunate to have to say that actually the title of this section is inaccurate, and should instead read, ‘Only some children learn to talk in school’ – those who do, already can. A neglect of the teaching of oracy is a recipe for continuing inequality and consolidating disadvantage. Teachers know this, but they are obliged to teach things which can be marked according to measurable criteria such as spelling, grammar and punctuation, and certain mathematical operations.. Children need to talk if they are to read well; they need to talk and read to stimulate thinking, and they need to think for themselves in order to write creatively and effectively.


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