Exclusive extract: Transforming teaching and learning through talk

Reading and writing float on a sea of talk declared James Britton and yet in our current education system, where the pressure is on for students to pass written exams, it is all too easily left adrift. How

then, as teachers and educators, can we turn the tide and harness the power of talk in our classrooms?

This is not just an educational choice but rather, given students vastly different experiences of language, a moral imperative.

Recently published, “Transforming teaching and learning through talk: The Oracy Imperative” by Amy Gaunt and Alice Stott, Co-Directors of Learning and Development, at Voice 21,blends academic research and evidence, with first-hand classroom experiences and practical strategies to enable you to unlock the power of oracy in your classroom and equip your students with the speaking skills they need to thrive in the twenty first century.

Read below for an exclusive extract!

Amy Gaunt & Alice Stott

Below is an extract from Transforming Teaching and Learning through talk, written by our Co-Directors of Learning and Development, Amy Gaunt and Alice Stott.


Extract Chapter 1 Take Speaking Seriously

Our ability to use speech to express our thoughts and communicate with others is one of the qualities that makes us uniquely human. From infancy, babies learn the power of their voice to communicate their basic wants and needs. As we grow older, our use of voice becomes more sophisticated. It is through spoken language that we make meaning, build relationships, and interact with the world around us. Talk is such an essential part of our everyday existence that it is easy to engage in it unthinkingly. However, to neglect spoken language in the classroom does a disservice to the young people we teach.

Oracy is an ugly word, but the choice to use it in this text (and in the classroom) is deliberate. It was first coined by academic Andrew Wilkinson in the 1960s, in direct response to the growing importance placed on literacy and numeracy. It captures the essential need for talk (just as one needs to be literate and numerate) and couples it with the idea that it is a skill that can be acquired through teaching.

While no one would ever question the need to teach a child to read, all too often it is assumed that speaking is a skill that doesn’t require teaching— instead, children should just “pick it up.” But not all children will.

Evidence shows that of the children who persistently experienced poverty, 75 percent arrive at school below average in language development.(1) If students do not acquire this language at home, school is, as Neil Mercer explains, their second chance: “If they are not getting it in school, they are not getting it.”(2) Oracy, therefore, is not just an educational choice but a moral imperative.

The implications of an oracy education are far-reaching. There is a compelling case for the role of oracy in improving educational outcomes. Through verbally elaborating on their ideas, building on the contributions of others, and questioning the basis of each other’s thinking, students actively engage in and monitor their own learning, deepening their understanding of concepts and ideas.

The cognitive benefits of oracy are reflected in the robust evidence that quality classroom talk has a measurable impact on academic attainment.(3)(4)

These benefits include greater retention of subject-specific knowledge, vocabulary acquisition, and reasoning skills and are not merely confined to subjects traditionally associated with discussion and dialogue, such as the arts and humanities. The benefits of talk-rich teaching and learning can be found across the curriculum, in mathematics and science.(5)

Moreover, the skills developed through oracy are transferred into other subjects and contexts.(6) For instance, teaching children to talk together in order to solve problems improves their reasoning skills, not only when working as a group, but also when working independently.(7)

The benefits of oracy teaching also extend beyond the classroom, supporting the development of students’ confidence and self-esteem.(8) Creating a space in which students can express their ideas, and know that these will be listened to and valued, sends a powerful message to the young people you teach.

As one child put it, “What makes me enjoy talking the most is that everybody’s listening to you, and you’re part of the world, and you feel respected and important” (seven-year-old School 21 student). Placing value on students’ ideas and opinions not only contributes toward their sense of self- worth, but also builds a greater sense of community and belonging in school.(9)

A focus on your students’ “voice,” in the broadest sense of the word, also contributes toward shaping active, engaged, thoughtful, and reflective citizenry. As Professor Robin Alexander states, “Talk is a fundamental prerequisite for democratic engagement.”(10) It is through talk that much of civic life and democratic dialogue are conducted. In an increasingly polarized world, young people must leave school able to deliberate, reason, and negotiate through listening to and talking with others.

The oracy skills acquired by students at school are also highly valuable upon leaving school and entering the world of work. Good grades and qualifications may get a candidate to an interview, but it will be their performance in the interview that lands them the job. To suggest to young people that hard work and good grades alone are enough to land jobs in the top professions does a disservice to young people who will need to be able to navigate the unwritten social codes of interviews and networking with confidence.

Consistently, surveys show that verbal communication skills and team- work are sought after by employers, and yet are the most lacking in school leavers.(11) In 2015 almost half of British employers reported concerns with the communication skills of young people entering the workplace.(12) Without a focus on oracy, schools risk not adequately equipping young people with the communication, presentation, and interpersonal skills needed to thrive in the twenty-first-century workplace.

As the qualities developed through oracy are so desirable—in particular the ability to speak articulately, with confidence and fluency—it is perhaps no coincidence that teachers at fee-based schools place far greater emphasis on developing their students’ verbal communication skills than their state- funded counterparts.(13)

This risks widening the gap between the “haves” and “have nots”: children from privileged backgrounds are also taught to talk at school, while those from disadvantaged backgrounds who arrive at school with less language have less opportunity to acquire it. This is borne out in the data: those who start school behind in language are the least likely to catch up.(14)

Speaking skills must be taught rather than simply “caught” by a fortunate few. Although as teachers we cannot control the amount of language students arrive at school with, or what happens beyond the school gates to change this, we do have control over what happens in our classrooms. The power to create language-rich classrooms filled with talk is in our hands.

Transforming Teaching and Learning through talk is available to purchase now: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Transform-Teaching-Learning-through-Talk/dp/1475840683

1. Communication Trust, Talking about a Generation: Current Policy, Evidence and Practice for Speech, Language and Communication (London: Communication Trust, 2017), http://www.thecommunicationtrust.org.uk/media/540327/tct_ talkingaboutageneration_report_online.pdf

2. N. Mercer, “How Much of Your Lesson Should Be Teacher Talk?” April 25, 2018, Tes Podagogy, https://tesnews.podbean.com/e/how-much-of-your-lesson -should-be-teacher-talk-professor-neil-mercer-talks-to-tes-podagogy.

3. R. Alexander, “Improving Oracy and Classroom Talk in English Schools: Achievements and Challenges” (presented at Department for Education seminar on oracy, February 20, 2012), http://www.robinalexander.org.uk/wp-content/ uploads/2012/06/DfE-oracy-120220-Alexander-FINAL.pdf.

4. W. Millard and L. Menzies, The State of Speaking in Our Schools (London: Voice 21/LKMCo, 2016), 22, https://www.esu.org/__data/assets/pdf_ file/0026/13796/Oracy-State-of-speaking-report-v2.pdf.

5. T. Jay, B. Willis, P. Thomas, R. Taylor, N. Moore, C. Burnett, G. Merchant, and A. Stevens. Dialogic Teaching: Evaluation Report and Executive Summary (London: Education Endowment Foundation, 2017), https://educationendowmentfoundation .org.uk/public/files/Projects/Evaluation_Reports/Dialogic_Teaching_Evaluation_ Report.pdf.

6. Millard and Menzies, State of Speaking, 22.

7. N. Mercer, R. Wegerif, and L. Dawes, “Children’s Talk and the Development of Reasoning in the Classroom,” British Educational Research Journal 25 (1999), 95–111.

8. Millard and Menzies, State of Speaking, 30.

9. J. Smith, A. Grant, N. Horrocks, K. Seymour, A. Boyle, L. Bardwell, and

M. Turner. Voice 21: Pilot Report and Executive Summary (London: Education Endowment Foundation, 2018), 33, https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/ public/files/Projects/Evaluation_Reports/Voice_21.pdf.

10. As quoted in Millard and Menzies, State of Speaking, 34. 11. Millard and Menzies, State of Speaking.

12. CBI/Pearson, Inspiring Growth: CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2015 (London: CBI, 2015), 37, http://www.cbi.org.uk/cbi-prod/assets/File/Education-and -skills-survey-2015.pdf.

13. Millard and Menzies, State of Speaking, 26.

14. Communication Trust, Talking about a Generation.

You can purchase the book here.

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