Talk is the sea upon which all else floats
~ James Britton, Language and Learning, 1970

Students spend a lot of talking, don’t they? Everyone can speak, so why would we want to waste valuable time teaching them to do it? Well, while all this is undoubtedly true, many students don’t speak well. This is, I hasten to add, not the same as being well spoken.

As teachers we’re pretty leary of the idea of talking in lessons. Teacher talk has got itself a very bad name. But in the best examples of talk lead lessons, teacher talk is generously interspersed with questions (both to and from the teacher) and with structured student talking.

The concept of ‘oracy’ has been with us since 1965, when researcher Andrew Wilkinson coined it in an attempt to escape the woolliness of ‘speaking and listening’ and give parity with the more respected terms ‘literacy’ and ‘numeracy’. Speaking & listening has long been the poor relation in the English order of study and is often neglected across the curriculum.

Head teacher and literacy guru, Geoff Barton has been urging us to get away from the idea of teaching literacy and instead to see literacy as an integral component of teaching and learning. Nowhere is this more important than in the teaching of oracy. It’s impossible to fully separate the pedagogical process of using talk to teach and teaching talk. We all use talk to teach every lesson: we either do so in a way which models high standards of oracy, or we don’t.

Cambridge professor, Robin Alexander sees talk as “essential to children’s thinking and learning, and to their productive engagement in classroom life” and cites evidence from “over 20 major international studies” that make it clear that the quality of talk within classrooms raises standards.

This being the case, Alexander argues that we need to do some work with teachers to improve the quality of their talk before we can hope to improve the quality of students’ talk. He identifies six distinct functions of talk (for thinking, learning, communicating, democratic engagement, teaching and assessing) and advocates strategies for developing each discreetly.
In a presentation to the DfE Alexander said:

One of the reasons why talk is undervalued in British education is that there is a tendency to see its function as primarily social, as mainly about the acquisition of confidence in the business of communicating with others. Of course, confidence is a precondition for articulating ideas in front of others, but so too is the acquisition of ideas to articulate, so confidence cannot be pursued in isolation. We all know people who talk rubbish with supreme confidence! Yet note that most of the attainment target levels for Speaking and Listening in the current National Curriculum orders for English make heavy and repeated use of the words ‘confident’, ‘confidently’ and ‘carefully’: ‘pupils talk confidently … pupils listen carefully’. These repeated social or behavioural modifiers say nothing about the structure, content, quality or manner of talk, and indeed they deflect attention away from such attributes. But as psychologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists and classroom researchers have long understood, the function of talk in classrooms is cognitive and cultural as well as social. 

Because of this narrow understanding of speech ‘primarily social’, we are often reluctant to do more than gently facilitate the development of students’ oracy; after all what business do we have in asserting that our speech is better than theirs? This squeamishness is endemic in our education system. Teachers pussyfoot around students’ inability to articulate clearly or precisely out of some misguided belief that they don’t want to crush their individuality. However, as in any other area, if we want to improve our students’ skills we need to actively intervene and accelerate their development.

This is, of course, not without problems. In most other subjects, teachers need to be merely good at teaching in order for students to make progress. For instance, we can use high quality texts to model the skills required to be a great writer without ever having to write ourselves. But, because of the interactive nature of talk, teachers need to be highly skilled speakers in order to develop the oral competence of their students.

So, what to do?
At my school we will be addressing two strands for actively intervening in the development of oracy next term. They are questioning and talk for writing
Firstly, we will focus on escaping the shackles of recitation or Initiation Response Evaluation (IRE) questioning. IRE goes like this:

Teacher: What is the chemical symbol for Oxygen?
Student: O
Teacher: Well done.

While this kind of ‘guess what’s in the teacher’s head’ questioning has its place in assessing what a student has memorised, it’s not at all useful for getting them to think. Instead, we need questioning that ‘requires students to think, not just to report someone else’s thinking.’ (Martin Nystrand) To that end, questions should have clear and specific purposes such as to clarify (what did you mean by that?), probe (can you tell me more about that?) and recommend (which answer do you think is best?). Another problem with IRE is that once the teacher has selected a victim, everyone else in the room can relax: they’re safe from further interrogation until the teacher has evaluated (well done) their stooge’s response. If instead students are expected to evaluate their classmate’s responses by bouncing questions around the class expectations for participation are that much higher. Now questioning might look like this:

Teacher: With your partner, discuss what you know about Oxygen. (suitable pause) Dan, what do you know about Oxygen?
Dan: O is the chemical symbol for Oxygen.
Teacher: Emma, is he right?
Emma: Er… yes?
Teacher: What else do you know about Oxygen?
Emma: You breathe it.
Teacher: Sam, which of those answers do you think is the most interesting?

Now, at this point students are often very good at snookering with the classic, ‘I don’t know’ gambit. The appropriate riposte to this is to say something along the lines of, “I know you don’t know – I’m asking what you think.” At this point we need to stand firm and make sure that they do think. You could hover over them and stress them or you could give them some discussion time. Either way,  as long as you’re clear why you’re asking the questions and let go of the need for ‘right’ answers, all will be well.

The second focus is on talk for writing. We’ve all met those frustrating students who can verbalise fabulous ideas but as soon as they pick up a pen their mind goes blank. “I don’t know how to start!” they wail disconsolately. “Just write down what you said a moment ago,” we urge them, but to no avail. You see, if they could write down what they’d said, they would have done it. The problem is that they can’t. The thought processes we use for speech and writing are not the same. Try analysing spoken language sometime; its garbled nature can be fascinating.

When students speak they don’t consider the structure of what they’re saying. Often it isn’t in sentences and they are quite literally unable to organise it into anything coherent enough to remember, let alone write down. I use what I call Thought Stems to force students to focus on how not just what they’re saying.
Here’s some examples specific to English:
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So instead of the insipid, unfocused open questions and pointlessly meandering, conversational verbiage into teacher lead discussion often descends, students are required to think using academic language. They are forced to turn the unformed maelstrom of ideas into something which has structure and, crucially, which they can remember well enough to write down.

In a department meeting we came up with some more excellent techniques for improving students’ speech. They include:

  • Getting students to work together to design their own thought stems using mark schemes to find key command words
  • Student led feedback – make students lead feedback and discussions. Some students are naturally very good at this but the less confident could lead sessions in pairs or use prompt sheets
  • Paired writing – encourage students to discuss language and sentence choices at the point of writing
  • Listening triads – to help students focus on how they speak not just what they say get 2 students to discuss a question and the third to record their conversation – this can result in some surprising revelations for students
  • Value listening by asking students to feedback what they’ve heard rather than what they’ve said in a discussion.

All this is only the tip of the oracy iceberg. As with my previous posts on reading and writing, this isn’t easy, but it is simple: improve the way you ask questions and make students frame answers in academic language. There are loads more that can be done but this is a start that all teachers can begin the process of embedding into the practice.

Be warned: students don’t enjoy being forced to respond in these ways and it takes a deal of determination to push through the pain barrier, but if you explain why you’re doing it and persevere in face of their pain, your efforts to model high quality talk will start to bear fruit and standards (including those all important exams) will improve.