Although it might surprise regular readers of this blog, I was quite looking forward to the publication of a report on ‘oracy’ by LKMco and Voice21. The word ‘oracy’ is of course ridiculous, being made up in the 1960s to try and give more intellectual credibility to spoken language, but the basic idea – that learning to speak and listen well is as important as learning to read and write well – is a position to which I broadly adhere.
Huge amounts of ink have been spilt over ‘literacy’ (another horrible word where ‘reading and writing’ would probably suffice) and recent work on this (see Hirsch or Lemov, or the excellent blogs of Katie Ashford, Jo Facer, Summer Turner and many others) has been excellent, particularly in terms of recognising the fundamental importance of extensive domain-specific knowledge to fluent reading and writing. I was therefore quite hopeful that a new report on ‘oracy’ would open this up for debate and inspire a series of blog posts on what we need to do in schools to get children better as speaking and listening.
It saddens me to say that I am disappointed.
The report does, first of all, smack of genericism. Space here prevents me from going into great detail as to what I mean by this, but I would strongly recommend a read of Christine Counsell’s wonderful post. But the fundamental limitation of this report (although one might argue that this is related to the genericism) is one shared by various papers on ‘literacy’ written over the last few decades, which is that it makes very little reference to the fact that fluency is, at least in part, a consequence of having deep, domain-specific knowledge.
A great deal of work has been done on the relationship between knowledge and ‘literacy’. This relationship sits right at the heart of what might be called the ‘Hirsch Thesis’, which argues that fluency in reading is a consequence of knowledge retention: the more we know the more fluently we can read. Cognitive psychologists have tended to agree with this thesis, recognising that cognitive overload can occur when we read something about which we know little. If the cognitive psychologists are right about the relationship between knowledge stored in long-term memory and fluency in reading, then it stands to reason that this applies even more so when we are conversing with one another, for this creates far greater demands on our working memory. I rarely get that ‘panic’ feeling of cognitive overload when reading, but I quite frequently get it when talking. I can think of several people I know where a conversation is a serious mental workout. Yet I am most at ease talking about things that I know a lot about. I pick up on the references. There are very few words of which I am ignorant of the meaning. The more secure my knowledge, the more fluent my speaking and listening.
And you can see it also with children. Try to eavesdrop on a few conversations in the canteen. Where students know a lot about something (football is often a good example) they speak well, they listen well, they argue, debate, deploy examples, defend their positions, make concessions, listen actively, are self-assured, and so on. Yet put that same group of pupils in a group and ask them to discuss the impact of the Reformation on England, and the contrast could not be more stark.
This brings me back to the report. Its emphasis throughout is on generic ‘oracy’ strategies. In fairness, I think some of these are worthwhile. School21 emphasises the importance of tonal variation, clarity of pronunciation, voice projection, gesture, posture, facial expression and eye contact: all are things that can be taught. Particular rhetorical techniques are worth learning. Just as we can learn the rhetorical value of certain grammatical forms, so too can we learn particular techniques for speaking. I am comfortable with teaching these things explicitly and discretely.
Yet what the report makes almost no mention of is the role played by and importance of domain-specific knowledge in quality speaking and listening. I am not suggesting that excellent subject knowledge is a sufficient condition for high quality speaking and listening, but I would argue that it is an important necessary condition. A student who does not know what they are talking about might well deploy particular rhetorical techniques or make use of tonal variation, but these will feel awkward and out-of-place if the pupil does not know what it is they are trying to convey. I can train a pupil to ‘listen well’, but this will also be an empty and stilted framework that might at best cover up the fact that the pupil is lost. The report (p.58) quite rightly raises the issue of confidence, but does not even mention the possibility that confidence is at least in part a consequence of secure domain-specific knowledge.
This blind-spot is well known in studies of literacy, but we see it here in the very design of the research. In the survey on strategies to teach ‘oracy’, not one of the strategies presented in the survey was about building domain-specific knowledge or vocabulary. Robin Alexander’s list of pre-conditions for effective classroom talk (p.45) include some general points (most of which I think are correct if somewhat obvious) regarding ground rules, modelling, questioning and so on, yet ‘ensure they know enough about what you want them to talk about’ is not mentioned. On p.49 we get the results from a survey where 906 teachers reported on strategies used to support ‘oracy’, and we get everything from debating clubs to ‘no-pens’ days, but no mention of (for example) a systematic model of vocabulary building over time. Indeed, the only mention of subject-specific knowledge in the whole report is (on p.22) to treat this as a consequence of high-quality speaking and listening rather than a cause. Vocabulary is intrinsically linked to knowledge, yet, in School21’s Oracy Framework on p.13, it is choice of vocabulary that is emphasises, rather than having a broad vocabulary from which to choose.
Now in fairness to School 21, they do make reference to knowledge and vocabulary in their framework. ‘Content’ gets a mention under the Cognitive Strand and ‘vocabulary’ gets mentioned under the Linguistic Strand, but (except for a passing reference on p.51) there is very little development of these ideas elsewhere in the report and they do not form part of the surveys carried out of teachers. In the ‘Ways Forward’ section at the end (which, by the way, contains a whole host of workload intensifying demands) the development of pupil domain-specific knowledge and their vocabulary (whether domain-specific or more general) are not mentioned.
So I was disappointed with this report: it could have been written in 2005 and would not have felt out of place. A decade on and the quality of education debate has improved. Speaking and listening, just like reading and writing, now needs a thorough review in the blogosphere: perhaps the best that might be said of this report is that it will hopefully encourage just that.