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Combatting language poverty: improving oracy and dialogic skills in schools

Written By: Antony Luby
10 min read
Lessons in promoting quality dialogue within schools and combatting the poverty of language

Seven words.

‘I was born into a Celtic family.’

Seven is the number of perfection. The words encapsulate what it means to be a supporter of Celtic Football Club – heritage, culture, and belonging. On 27 May 2017, standing on a rain-sodden Hampden turf, manager Brendan Rogers spoke these words after his “invincible” team had dramatically captured the Treble – Scottish Cup, Premiership and League Cup.

With those seven words he unites, as family, millions of supporters rejoicing before their flat screen televisions sited in six of the world’s seven continents. The power of spoken words.

Primary steps

In the world of education, though, do we recognise this power? Not really, according to emeritus professor Neil Mercer at Cambridge University. Speaking about the establishment of the Oracy Project, he asserts that ‘in many ways oracy is the poor relation in education systems of literacy and numeracy’.

Mercer is not alone with his assertion. Just last year I had the privilege of working with teachers from the Ad Astra Primary Partnership (Luby 2016). Born from the scarred, post-industrial landscape of Nottinghamshire mining villages and towns, these schools have bonded together to address the causes and impacts of poverty. As a partnership, they have identified 5 key aspects of child poverty:

  • Material poverty
  • Emotional poverty
  • Poverty of experience
  • Poverty of language
  • Poverty of aspiration.

The schools strive to ameliorate, where they can, the causes and effects of emotional, experiential and material poverties. The teachers inculcate the highest aspiration for their pupils; and with regard to language, their curricula are adapted to take cognisance of this clarion call from the Department of Education:

English has a pre-eminent place in education and in society. A high-quality education in English will teach pupils to speak and write fluently so that they can communicate their ideas and emotions to others… All the skills of language are essential to participating fully as a member of society; pupils, therefore, who do not learn to speak, read and write fluently and confidently are effectively disenfranchised (DfE 2013: 3).

The Ad Astra schools used to live daily with disenfranchisement: for its presence was palpable. The slouched shoulders of defeated parents with little expectations for their children, the conspiratorial whispers and the occasional face-to-face aggression. But no more. In a collaboration of excellence, they pursue their Latin motto “To the Stars” with a variety of curricular initiatives. A prime exponent of combatting poverty of language by developing oracy is The Sir Donald Bailey Academy in Newark.

The Speaking & Listening Functional Skills Curriculum

According to the Index of Multiple Deprivation the school’s postcode situates it within the top 6% most deprived neighbourhoods in England. Yet on the school website, The Sir Donald Bailey Academy makes the confident claim that “…our children achieve results that put them consistently in the top 5% nationally for pupil progress.”

Vice Principal Jamie MacIntyre (2017) confirms this claim. Having established successful approaches to literacy and numeracy, the school has turned its attention to oracy as follows. Proceeding from a consultation during which the school staff discussed activities and actions, the school leaders then produced a report entitled ‘The Speaking & Listening Functional Skills Curriculum’. This document of 24 pages identifies 4 strands to be addressed i.e.

  • Opportunities for Children to show an Awareness of their Audience
  • Opportunities for Children to Speak and Discuss
  • Opportunities for Children to Listen
  • Opportunities for Children to Practise Non-Verbal Communication.

Each of these strands is exemplified by 10-14 exemplars such as the list below.

Opportunities for children to show an awareness of their audience

  • Class assemblies where children formally present information to the school.
  • Answering registers properly-‘Good morning Miss…/Dinners please Miss…’
  • House assemblies, where older children plan & deliver an assembly linked to themes of week.
  • Video blog on school website, making use of green screen technology.
  • Children meet and greet visitors and conduct school tours to potential parents.
  • Children take on roles in class projects such as ‘project lead’.
  • Build in opportunities to speak to different audiences, making use of the community café.
  • Role play opportunities in class. Give children character cards. For example, ‘you are greeting a visitor to school, and your partner is the visitor. How would you greet them?’
  • Children to answer class phones.
  • Inviting children to SLT meetings.
  • Children working in office and café; and
  • Children recording a message on the school answer machine.

There may be nothing surprising about these individual actions and activities; rather it is the grouping of them together and the consistent focus by both teacher and pupils that renders value. Likewise with the truncated lists of examples in below:

Opportunities for children to speak and discuss

  • Superstar Assemblies where children discuss and talk about their dreams.
  • Circle time and ‘show n’ tell’ sessions.
  • Hot seating as a teaching strategy in English.
  • Class debates using house system, and use of talk partners in lessons.
  • School radio/podcast to go on the website.

Opportunities for children to listen

  • Following instructions for ‘what makes a good listener’. “Eyes looking and ears listening”.
  • Listening to audio stories.
  • Watching videos in lessons.
  • Working in pairs and responding to a partner.
  • Taking messages on behalf of staff and following instructions.

Opportunities for children to practise non-verbal communication

  • Using drama and freeze frames in lessons.
  • Children to create social stories and act them out. Pay particular attention to body language and facial expressions.
  • Using signs and symbols in the classroom.
  • Using appropriate bodily contact.
  • Showing awareness for spatial awareness.
  • Demonstrating appropriate facial expressions.

According to the Principal, Lee Hessey, it is the collective and consistent approaches taken by staff regarding these actions and activities that set the foundations for oracy within this primary school. This is a deliberate attempt to counter the disenfranchisement spoken of by the DfE above. The aim is to develop learners who will confidently stake their place in the society of the future.

Other schools adopt different approaches and some take their inspiration from as far afield as the Far East. Teaching in the North West of England, Ben Burgess (2017) engagingly relates the influence of China as he ‘outlines the strategies that have helped his class to become confident participants in class discussion and public speaking’.

The confidence of the pupils develops through a technique of ‘Agree, Build On, or Challenge’. Simply put, before giving their own opinion in a class discussion, pupils must state if they agree with the previous pupil’s opinion; and then either build on what they said or challenge others’ opinions. This practice is a building block for what Mercer (1995: 106) terms the ‘…’educated’ discourse and the kinds of reasoning that are valued and encouraged in the cultural institutions…’

Secondary steps

It is in the secondary sector of schooling, though, that such ‘educated discourse’ will be strengthened and refined. For guidance, we return to emeritus professor Neil Mercer who is pre-eminent in this field. He envisages within schools the development of types of talk that:

…embod[y] certain principles – of accountability, of clarity, of constructive criticism and receptiveness to well-argued proposals – which are valued highly in many societies. In many of our key social institutions… people have to use language to critically interrogate the quality of the claims, hypotheses and proposals made by other people, to express clearly their own understandings, to reach consensual agreement and make joint decisions’ – (Mercer 1995: 106)

This is a challenging vision – but it is not overly difficult to achieve – and the rewards can be bountiful: as I discovered for myself. Mercer (1995: 104) identifies two types of talk to promote within the classroom, namely:

  1. Cumulative talk – whereby pupils ‘…build positively but uncritically on what the other has said’ and;
  2. Exploratory talk – in which they ‘…engage critically but constructively with each other’s ideas’.

Examples of these types of talk within the context of secondary religious education are set out below in Figures 1 and 2.

Cumulative talk – Figure 1

According to Mercer (1995: 104) such discourse is ‘… characterized by repetitions, confirmations and elaborations’ – for example:

Robbie: Definitely! Do you … would you agree with me that … I don’t feel like … I do believe in evolution as well as God like creating animals but I do believe they also evolved into what we have today. Would you agree with that?

Jamie: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Totally agree! That’s pretty sound.

Robbie: Cool! Pretty sound indeed. Um … yeah … I also think stuff that’s read in the Bible is not fully meant to be taken entirely literally like the story of Adam and Eve and stuff.

Jamie: Yeah I think some people take that too literally and people are up in arms about evolution and Adam and Eve and how it’s all wrong but I think it’s more symbolic than it is literal.

Robbie: Definitely! Yeah that’s what it is …

(Source: Luby 2014: 63)

The respondent, Jamie, demonstrates cumulative talk by confirming Robbie’s belief in God-guided evolution: and there is both repetition and confirmation with regard to a literal understanding of the Adam and Eve story. Indeed, Jamie offers some elaboration with the introduction of symbolism, which Robbie confirms.

Exploratory talk – Figure 2

Mercer (1995: 104) suggests that exploratory talk is characterised by ‘statements and suggestions [being] offered for joint consideration [and] these may be challenged and counter-challenged, but challenges are justified and alternative hypotheses are offered’. An example is outlined below:

Douglas: Well I might disagree with you there because I think that um … humans are the cause of sin because God gave us freewill, he didn’t want to control us otherwise we’d be like robots.

Craig: Uh huh.

Douglas: And that wouldn’t give us any freedom at all, we’ll always be good and God gave us freewill to choose what is right but obviously humans didn’t choose that way, they didn’t the right way and they’ve become selfish, like Eve tricking Adam into eating that apple which caused him to sin against God, and that obviously angered God and I think for me I think that’s because of sin, humans are the cause of sin.

Craig: Yeah, I’d agree that humans are the cause of sin and no doubt our sort of freewill, if we have it. We often choose the wrong path and, again the Adam and Eve story is a fantastic way of illustrating society, and how people sin and what effect it can have. But, again, I think these stories need to be taken with a pinch of salt; and that they are in my opinion nothing more than stories. But you can still read into them as much as you can read into many sorts of novels and literature; which of course we know they aren’t true stories. But we can still appreciate the moral values that they give us such as to name a few, The Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm, that many of us studied in English um … that’s my point of view with regards to that.

Douglas: Well I think the stories could be pretty accurate because they’ve been passed on with the Bible and the Catholic Church; they’ve been passed on ever since Jesus came into this world as a form of God and even before that in the Old Testament.

(Source: Luby 2014: 63-64)

Douglas evidences exploratory talk by offering a view on the relationship between humanity, freewill and sin. Craig challenges this view and he justifies it through criticism of a too literal understanding of the Creation story. Rather, he proposes an alternative hypothesis whereby the Creation story should be regarded more like a novel that contains important moral truths. Douglas then counter-challenges this view with an appeal to the authority of the Bible and Tradition.

Throughout most of my thirty years in the classroom, I never attained such quality of conversation from my students. It was only through scholarship that I became aware of cumulative talk and exploratory talk; and it was from research that I learned how to put this scholarship into classroom practice: and this research and scholarship is still ongoing through a PhD study.

The conversations above were captured by withdrawing pairs of students from the classroom and recording, then transcribing their dialogue. This is time consuming. Therefore the focus now, is on developing small community of enquiry to consider the practicalities of promoting quality dialogue within our schools.

Suggestions from peers

The initial suggestions and deliberations are promising.

From a subject adviser; her experience of students using Twitter and blogs. Sent to different parts of the school like the canteen; each group tweets their conversations or summarises them on a blog and invites others to participate.

From an assistant head teacher; her interest in adapting Dragon Naturally Speaking software to record and transcribe conversations; whilst a Cambridge academic promotes dialogic teaching through Talkwall.

From an Apple Distinguished Educator and Book Creator Ambassador; a multi-media book in which students can share videos, texts and record conversations. This can be saved to Cloud as an editable document upon which students collaborate. Alternatively, Garage Band is free audio recording and editing software that downloads onto a phone or other device. A teacher then sits with students and they co-edit paired conversations prior to sharing with the class. Finally, i-Tunes University (i-Tunes U) in which the classroom is set up so that only two students can see what is on their screen. Their conversation is recorded and then shared with the teacher (for editing) prior to sharing with rest of the class.

The pedagogy for the spoken word is rich and waiting to be explored… so, why not explore?

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