Yeast, not rulers: Oracy, 50 years on…

by Alan Howe


 ‘The spoken language in England has been shamefully neglected.’

This is the opening sentence of the original edition of Spoken English (Wilkinson, 1965) in which Andrew Wilkinson proposed a parallel term to match the dominant language modes in the curriculum: reading and writing. This is how ‘oracy’ came into the English language.

Wilkinson characterised oracy as not a subject, but ‘a condition of learning in all subjects’; not simply a ‘skill’ but an essential element in ‘humanising the species’; and as ‘a fit object of educational knowledge’ – something to be aware of, understand and know about. He went on to assert that oracy wasn’t something to be ‘taught’ but was interrelated with literacy, and that it was also susceptible to evaluation.

In the intervening 54 years, Wilkinson’s vision of the spoken word being regarded as equally important with the written word as the core business of education has waxed and waned, buffeted by the winds of fashion and competing priorities.

We seem to be at the start of a serious revival. For example:

  • Voice 21’s Oracy Leaders and Oracy Pioneers programmes attract a wide range of practitioners from schools, and their courses are over-subscribed;
  • Oracy Cambridge is running year-long professional development programmes with schools in the UK and Australia; and continues to support developments in the London Borough of Camden – developments that have moved from a focus in schools to looking at how oracy can support the way that services are delivered across the borough;
  • Following the Oracy Cambridge publication Oracy Across the Welsh Curriculum, Wales has a new curriculum that gives oracy equal status with reading and writing as a means of learning across the curriculum;
  • Recently, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) published a report that focuses on the annual misery of an exam system that condemns just over a third of school leavers to a sense of failure, which includes powerful support for the importance of oracy education (The Forgotten Third: ASCL, 2019);
  • The Oracy APPG (All Party Parliamentary Group), led by Emma Hardy MP, is taking evidence for the need to promote oracy education in all state schools.
  • There are increasingly high levels of interest in oracy internationally, including in the USA, Australia, Turkey, and Portugal.

What’s more, these large-scale developments are just the tip of the iceberg. More significantly, in recent years there has been a groundswell of interest and engagement by teachers and school leaders:

‘We think oracy is what we need to sustain and further improve our already outstanding results’ (Primary headteacher, East Midlands)

‘Oracy is the key to supporting our drive to deepen students’ knowledge’
(Academy Trust executive Headteacher).

As someone who was involved from the early days of the oracy movement (I established the Wiltshire Oracy Project in 1983, and worked with the National Oracy Project from 1989-1993), I have been reflecting on the insights of those who have had the biggest influence on my own thinking – ideas that have stood the test of time and which still speak to those of us who are excited by what’s going on right now.

Here are six key people who’ve had a significant influence on how Andrew Wilkinson’s original concept of oracy has been expanded, critiqued and refined. Through a selection of extracts and personal reflections, I hope to fit together some pieces of the oracy jigsaw in order to make clearer the overall picture of what we mean by an ‘education in oracy’.

Six names, six short quotations, six complementary sets of insights.

Douglas Barnes

Douglas Barnes’ name crops up almost anywhere that oracy is explored, discussed and commented on. In From Communication to Curriculum (1976), he writes:

‘The central problem of teaching is how to put adult knowledge at children’s disposal so that it does not become a strait-jacket…This directs our attention to the relationship between what the learner knows already and the new system being presented to him. To learn is to develop relationships between them, and this can only be done by the learner himself. This is why pupils’ talk is important, in that it is the major means by which learners explore the relationship between what they already know, and new observations or interpretations which they meet.’

Barnes places talk in context. In differentiating between what he calls ‘school knowledge’ and ‘action knowledge’, he argues that it is through talk – talk across a range of informal and more formal contexts, between the familiar and unfamiliar, the collaborative and the solo – that each individual can ‘work on their understanding’. In so doing, they will have to stretch and expand their spoken language repertoire.

Garth Boomer (1946-1993)

Garth Boomer was (and remains) a hugely influential educationalist in Australia, working as a teacher, consultant, and administrator in South Australia and for the Federal Schools Commission. In his chapter ‘Oracy in Australian Schools, or Doing What Comes Naturally’ in Fair Dinkum Teaching and Learning (1988), Boomer sets out the following observations:

  • Most five-year-olds learn to talk before they come to school without the benefit of formal education.
  • Ten years later these same children are often criticised for their poor command of spoken Australian English.
  • It could be argued that schools exacerbate a culturally induced phenomenon – teenagers appearing to become more inarticulate the older they get.
  • If we can identify those conditions which promote such effective learning of oracy in the pre-school years, we might be able to both replicate some of them and also work out what kinds of formal, planned, structured approaches could be taken in schools to continue that learning, ‘making it less incidental and accidental than life’.

Gillian Brown

In the 1980s and 90s, Gillian Brown was a linguistics lecturer at the University of Edinburgh with an interest in applying linguistics to teaching and learning. She questioned a commonly held view in some quarters that ‘exposure’ to ‘thoughtful talk’ will allow children to develop spoken language skills.

She identified two different types of speech, which she labelled listener-oriented, and message-oriented. The main difference, according to Brown, is that in listener-oriented speech, the prime intention is the establishment and maintenance of good social relations with the listener. With message-oriented speech the focus is on the message – on bringing about some change in the listener’s state of knowledge.

‘There are times in a complexly structured, technologically developed, literate society when it is necessary to be able to produce a clear description, a straightforward narrative, or a complicated argument laying out pros and cons. There are times when we need to be able to pack information efficiently, and to use the structural resources of the language to make the meaning clear… (This) is a skill that the majority of the population does not acquire without a good deal of help…It is a skill that most children are going to have to acquire in school, if they acquire it at all.’

Extracts from The Spoken Language by Brown, in Linguistics and the Teacher, ed. Ronald Carter (1982).

Dorothy Heathcote (1926-2011)

Drama teacher Dorothy Heathcote introduced the idea of the Mantle of the Expert at Newcastle University where she worked in the 1970s and 80s. In a drama setting, the teacher, in role, requires children take on roles as ‘experts’ – often adult roles, requiring them to talk as, for example, scientists, shopkeepers, archaeologists and so on – encountering a problem, or dealing with a conflict of interest.

Heathcote describes drama with the teacher in role as putting a ‘press on language’ – in other words, making ‘finding a voice’ necessary. The drama, if well created, makes the need to express complex ideas, or to call on evidence, or to engage with others to solve a problem or deal with a situation, compelling. And this can be a powerful way of helping to overcome the oft-noted tendency for young people to appear to be more reluctant and less articulate public speakers the older they get.

‘The way teenagers speak is often criticised by teachers and head teachers. As teenagers become more self-conscious, there is a greater tendency towards hesitation and using such phrases as ‘you know’… drama, by allowing them to act in hypothetical situations, enables this to be counteracted to a certain extent. The teenager can protect himself through acting-out in someone else’s role, he does not have to be as constantly self-conscious of his own voice and his own reactions.’

Heathcote quoted in: Learning Through Drama, Schools Council Drama Teaching Project, (1977).

Eileen Colwell

Eileen Colwell, who died aged 98 in 2002, is best remembered for her pioneering work in establishing children’s libraries, and in championing the importance of making books for children accessible, enjoyable and free. But she also understood and campaigned for the value of telling stories without books, and helped to reverse the absence of told oral stories in the everyday lives of most people – a consequence of a combination of industrialisation, long working hours, universal literacy, the growth of TV.

In her book Storytelling (The Thimble Press, 1980), Colwell writes that:

‘The storyteller of today is a link in the long chain of storytellers stretching back into the past and ahead into the future. She is practising a traditional art in which the emphasis is entirely on the spoken word – unlike other contemporary arts that rely on the visual image.’

By 1989 the National Oracy Project had incorporated storytelling as a strand in its work across England and Wales; workshops for teachers were springing up and many teachers were becoming confident and skilled in telling stories themselves. As a result, many of the students they worked with were equally inspired and developed confidence in their own voices – literally, in many instances, ‘finding their voice’ for the first time. They watched, learned, copied from and experimented with techniques used by their teachers, or, if they were lucky, from a visiting storyteller.  And they enjoyed the stories themselves, both traditional ones from the UK, but also many from the living traditions of other cultures.

Working within the structure and register of traditional stories enables children to confidently use rhetorical devices, develop the stamina to sustain a long narrative, and to cope with the experience of holding the attention of an unfamiliar audience. When you are more at ease with the form and content, attention can be focused on ‘delivery’. Above all, however, storytelling introduces large quantities of enjoyment, community and authority into the business of using your own voice. A child telling a story to a group of appreciative listeners is in a very powerful position.

Harold Gardiner (died 1991)

Harold Gardiner won’t feature in most people’s lists of well-known academics, researchers and commentators in the field of oracy. You won’t find his books on the shelves, or his findings in journals. As a schools inspector and then, in his retirement from full-time work, as the participant evaluator of the Wiltshire Oracy Project, his influence came, largely, from the many conversations he had over the years with teachers, school leaders and those advising, evaluating and reporting on the school system in England. In those conversations he modelled oracy at a high level. He was an attentive listener; an articulate, incisive and humorous speaker; a believer in humanity – someone who brought out the best in others.

I often hear what I regard as ‘deficit’ models of oracy being proposed: that because children’s spoken language is ‘poor’ or ‘deprived’ they need to be given the skills that they lack. No doubt there is a lot of truth in this, especially if children have not   been brought up in homes where reasoning, argument, discussion and stories are valued. This isn’t their fault. But this view sometimes seems to be allied to a negative view of the child as well, especially as our identity and personality is so closely bound up with the language that we speak. I learned from Harold Gardiner that there is a more humane, more optimistic way of considering this matter. Here is one example of Harold Gardiner’s profound understanding of how oracy education is, above all, a matter or relationships, and can reveal hidden capabilities:

‘I want to concentrate on one satisfaction the work has brought to me, and, I think, to many of us. It has been no surprise, but a recurrent source of pleasure, to find that children have language resources at their command, and need only the chance to reveal them and the signals from us to tell them that what they say is valued… when they are invited to talk seriously about something that is genuinely important to them, to listeners who want to hear what they have to say and are prepared to value it as a serious utterance, we often find that young people have quite considerable linguistic resources at their command.‘

Harold was once asked if he could explain his role as a ‘participant evaluator’? His response will equally serve as a headline for what is most likely to work best for developing oracy as well.

‘That’s easy’, he replied, ‘it’s yeast, not rulers.’

This seems to me to be a good summary of how oracy develops. Like making bread, brewing beer or fermenting wine, spoken language grows best under certain conditions that require the right combination of ingredients:

  • Contexts where the amount of communicative stress is controlled so that the level of challenge is appropriate.
  • Listeners who are interested and responsive: who have a desire to know.
  • Participants in discussion who are aware of ‘ground rules’ that enable purposeful, productive collaborative talk.
  • Teachers who model ‘good’ talking and listening behaviours and who use a range of strategies that promote purposeful dialogue and presentation as an everyday feature of lessons.
  • Explicit instruction in ‘how to’ go about a particular speaking task, followed by reflection: ‘How did that go?’ ‘What was helpful?’ ‘How might you improve on it next time?’
  • Planned opportunities for a range of types of talk, with a balance between ‘short turn’ and ‘long turn’ talk, between exploratory and presentational talk, between ‘listener-oriented’ and ‘message-oriented’ talk.
  • Students who are able to adopt roles that place them in the position of ‘expert’ – where they know something others don’t; where they are in a place of authority (as a storyteller, for example); where they are passionately committed to a cause or a viewpoint.

‘Yeast, not rulers.’ I like both the meaning and the ambiguity of the metaphor for how oracy develops: something that grows through interaction, not as the result of precise measurement. The capacity for using language arises from, as Wilkinson put it, ‘the necessity for communication’ but also needs added ingredients – it won’t just grow itself, from within, but requires active intervention and careful advance planning. And ‘not rulers’ – oracy is more likely to take root in schools because teachers see its value, know its worth in their teaching and in the response of students – rather than because it is legislated for and prescribed from ‘on high’.

In addition, oracy is itself a kind of yeast. We talk because we have something to say,  because others are interested in us, in our ideas and thoughts.  We listen actively and responsively because we are interested in what we are hearing. If you have good spoken language skills at your disposal, and opportunities to use them, you will grow in confidence and self-esteem. If, in this latest revival, oracy is to become a part of the fabric of schools, running through everything that happens there, then the yeast that will activate this is the deliberate creation of patterns of communication that generate students’ need, desire, willingness and confidence to say something rather than remain silent or defer to others.

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