A Revival of Talk: The Challenge for Oracy in Schools Now: Valerie Coultas Celebrates Recent Positive Developments in the Teaching of Speaking and Listening, Whilst Warning That Test and Surveillance Culture in Schools Can Inhibit Vital Experimentation with Pedagogy

By Coultas, Valerie | English Drama Media, March 2010 | Go to article overview

A Revival of Talk: The Challenge for Oracy in Schools Now: Valerie Coultas Celebrates Recent Positive Developments in the Teaching of Speaking and Listening, Whilst Warning That Test and Surveillance Culture in Schools Can Inhibit Vital Experimentation with Pedagogy


Coultas, Valerie, English Drama Media


'When you write it, you want to keep it short and brief because you don't like writing, but people like talking, so they give you more detail'.

11 year old (Brindley, 1994)

At the heart of the new curriculum is the revised and much strengthened domain of language, oracy and literacy, which also includes ICT and a foreign language. Oracy is considerably more rigorous that what is currently defined as 'speaking and listening' and enhances both literacy and the curriculum as a whole.

Children's and teachers' voices are certainly alive and kicking in school classrooms. Instructions, questions and answers, stories, witty exchanges, sharp insults and comments abound. These voices have always been there and will never go away and they are a rich resource for teachers. But are teachers in schools today being encouraged to use talk and oracy effectively as a resource to help children and older students learn and construct knowledge together?

A new era for talk?

Some would say yes. We are entering a new era for talk, oracy and speaking and listening. The dark days of the National Literacy Strategy and the Key Stage Three Strategies--a school improvement approach where talk was subordinated to improving 'literacy' skills, narrowly defined as reading and writing--are now over. At a number of QCA conferences from 2001 onwards, researchers were permitted to present papers advocating a myriad of approaches to promoting different kinds of talk for learning; following that, the government produced a series of documents that have put speaking and listening back on the agenda (DFES/QCA 2003; QCA 2003, 2004).

The work of researchers such as Robin Alexander (2000) and Neil Mercer (2000) is to be commended in this process. They have continued to develop the case for oracy, exploratory talk, and learning through classroom dialogue, and the new Cambridge Primary Review (Alexander 2009) makes the case for talk once again very powerfully in arguing for a new approach to the primary curriculum:

Making the case for talk

These writers and others have been able to revitalise the discussion on talk through comparative studies and new debates around the quality of different types of classroom talk. Alexander, for example, has demonstrated how French and Russian classrooms have a much stronger focus on oral language in learning than British classrooms. This is because in Britain the emphasis has been placed on the narrower concept of basic skills in 'literacy'. Alexander has also pointed out that cultural practices and values influence pedagogy and that, in some non-western cultures, effort may be valued above intellect. Defining dialogic learning as reasoned discussion, he suggests that this can take place in whole class forums as well as small groups.

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Building on the work of Douglas Barnes, who first developed the idea of exploratory talk, Neil Mercer has carried out research to show that if children have the opportunity to consider the ground rules for talk in small groups the quality of their talk will improve, as they will become more aware of how to engage in reasoned argument and debate. Douglas Barnes (2008), too, has revisited some of his earlier ideas, suggesting that teachers should not 'idealise groups' but should 'understand the role of the teacher in establishing the climate for learning.' He concedes that 'managing the class, as a group, and setting up the learning, defines the skill of teaching', but he continues to argue that small group exploratory talk needs to be encouraged because such groups 'allow for more students to be involved in talk for thinking ... building understanding' and that 'children need time to be tentative before moving to presentational talk or writing'.

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There have also been several regionally based projects such as 'Talk for Teaching and Learning' in the North Yorkshire Local Authority, and the work of the Barking and Dagenham Local Authority to support teachers in developing their practice in teaching through dialogue. …

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