By Smith, John
English Drama Media , No. 16
The place of oracy in the British curriculum has never been secure but the present ought to be a time for great optimism. Two recent major curriculum reviews (DCSF, 2009; Alexander, 2009) have highlighted the need for a greater emphasis on oracy in the classroom, the move toward 'dialogic teaching' and a range of related approaches is gathering momentum and these developments are adding to much excellent classroom work which has been taking place in some classrooms for many decades. Yet doubts remain about the success of this latest movement in shifting the balance between oracy and literacy in the classroom. In this article I shall examine the case for a significantly greater emphasis on oracy in both curriculum and pedagogy.
Which term should we use?
We should start by clarifying some terminological issues. A variety of words and phrases have been used over time to refer to spoken communication in the classroom. The most straightforward term is 'speaking and listening' and this term has been favoured in the various versions of the National Curriculum up to the present (DfEE, 1999a). It has the undoubted advantage that it is easily understood by teachers, children and parents alike but its status as the poor relation of literacy has been sadly evident since the introduction of the National Curriculum and particularly since the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy (DfEE, 1998) and the Literacy Frameworks which succeeded it.
An alternative term, 'oracy', has been popular with many teachers and educationalists since it was coined several decades ago by Andrew Wilkinson (Wilkinson, 1965). As the term is cognate with literacy and numeracy, those who favour it tend to see it as having a more equal relationship with its linguistic cousins.
Another important term to have arrived in the classroom recently is 'dialogic teaching', a model which has emerged from the writing of Professor Robin Alexander in particular. Alexander and others also use the term 'talk' to capture the dynamics of teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil interactions (Alexander, 2008). Still more terms will be mentioned below but in this article I will generally use the term oracy, the advantages of which are nicely summed up in the final report of the recent primary review led by Sir Jim Rose (described for simplicity as the Rose Review from hereon):
Some respondents preferred the term 'oracy' to 'speaking and listening skills' in the belief that this better defines the engagement in dialogue intended to advance children's thinking across the curriculum.
(DCFS 2009, p 56)
Before exploring current issues further, it is important to gain a sense of the historical development which has led to this point, bearing in mind that this brief survey will necessarily be somewhat subjective and selective.
Different needs, different opportunities
Two of the many influential British educators investigating classroom speech and the ways it could be improved in the 1960s and 1970s were Douglas Barnes and Basil Bernstein and aspects of the work of each man remain relevant today. Barnes analysed the kinds of verbal interactions which take place in classrooms (Barnes, 1976) and advocated a form of communication which he labelled exploratory talk to describe interactions in which children could freely express and explore their thoughts, and this term has retained its popularity up to the present day (Mercer and Hodgkinson, 2008). Like most researchers into classroom talk, Barnes found that opportunities for children and teachers to use such talk were often severely restricted.
In his early work during the same era, the British sociologist Basil Bernstein focused his attention on the linguistic mechanisms which he believed underlay the educational experiences of children from different social classes (Bernstein, 1973). Bernstein's theory and the ways in which they were developed by others were severely criticised by the American sociolinguist William Labov (Labov, 1969) who argued that these theories amounted to a denigration of the language of children from poorer backgrounds (in socio-economic terms), judged from a middle-class standpoint. …