Fluency, vocabulary and knowledge: the problem with ‘oracy’

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 FacerSummer 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.

15 Comments on Fluency, vocabulary and knowledge: the problem with ‘oracy’

  1. Hi Michael. I would agree with you that knowledge is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for attaining oral fluency. But perhaps the report doesn’t make a point of saying that you need to know about something in order to be able to speak about it fluently because it’s kind of obvious. This critique seems based on a limited view of oracy as “learning to talk”, rather than also recognising the possibility for “learning through talk”. Would you recognise that talk is both a means and an end?

    • Yes, talk is definitely both a means and end, and this again is quite obvious. Teachers talk with students all the time! The problem here is, let’s imagine a head comes along and says “speaking in my school’s a bit crap – aha! Here’s a report on what me might be doing wrong!” She reads reports, implements all of the advice at the end, but doesn’t address fundamental problem which is that pupils in her school just aren’t being given a sufficiently wide vocabulary. It’s really a repeat of everything we saw with improving ‘Literacy’ in the national strategy – loads on techniques, little tricks, processes etc but very little on what (at least according to Hirsch etc) is the most important thing – the kids have to know a lot.

      So this is why my critique is about emphasis. In fairness to the report, it’s a fairly accurate reflection of the research field. Do you know any studies being doing on the relationship between knowledge and oracy? Or vocab and oracy?

  2. I think we need to be specific about what we’re talking about here. Like “learning”, oracy is so broad a concept as to lack any real utility – for educators at least. Rhetoric, talk for writing, elocution, pronunciation, pace, tone, listening, interthinking, problem solving, conversing in a range of settings, public speaking, formal debates, conflict resolution, chairing a meeting, being concise, using humour, being assertive, using body language etc etc – apologies for the long list but it could go on almost indefinitely. There is overlap between many of these things but if we wish to.develop these things then really each needs to be considered in turn. It seems to me that each of these aspects of oracy comprised of many microbehaviours, habits, attitudes, dispositions, procedural knowledge. Domain specific knowledge is more important in some of these areas than others – public speaking and debating being the two most obvious, although it’s possible to achieve verbal fluency and appear knowledgeable without actually knowing or understanding much – we see this in politicians all the time, especially prime ministers and presidents. So when you ask about the relationship between oracy and vocab, which of these aspects of oracy are you referring to?

    • Well we completely agree on how utterly hopeless oracy is as a word! Same goes for literacy. Better to call a spade a spade and list he things we mean, as you have rightly done.

      I would say domain specific knowledge is crucial for nearly everything you listed, and I suspect it’s probably the principal factor in bringing about quality in those things (though – again – is anyone actually doing research on this???) Some of the things you list involve knowing what is appropriate in a particular discipline – you solve a problem in maths quite differently from how you solve a problem in rugby, and to turn ‘problem solving’ into a generic idea (again, see Counsell’s blog on this) is again unhelpful.

      • Like learning, oracy I think remains useful as an umbrella term. It’s also useful as a way of recognising that oral.communication should be seen as being of equal importance to literacy and numeracy – both also vague and yet useful umbrella terms!

  3. You could set up a study: Group A learns knowledge about X. Group B does not learn knowledge about X. Both groups have to speak on the topic of X. But what would this prove? What gap is there in the literature where a study would not tell us what we already know?

    • Well, for example, there’s very few studies on what a ‘critical mass’ of knowledge might look like. Your politicians example is apposite. Often politicians know enough to be able to enter into reasoned debate, but they come unstuck on face of experts. Knowledge of what sorts of concepts would a person need to know to have a fluent conversation about X? What would constitute fluency? Where two people have similar knowledge bases, why is one a more effective communicator? Is having access to Latin-derived words a help in debate? What network of concepts might someone need to respond well to a question about Y? What is the strength of the correlation between knowledge and reported confidence in speaking on the subject? There’s so much we don’t know, and yet so much of the research is focused elsewhere.

      • I have no idea how you could research this in a robust way. It is all extremely subjective – who would get to judge what constitutes critical mass? Who decides on the critical mass of the judges? I think you might be over complicating the role of knowledge: It is important. It’s extremely important. But it’s not the only game in town. In order to learn about body language you need to develop domain specific knowledge and vocab in relation to body language. You also need observation, practice, role.play, feedback etc. I think again this is fairly self evident – I can’t imagine anyone trying to teach body language without introducing key concepts and vocab – gestures, ticks, shows, mirroring etc – but this would be done on an as needed basis, one would imagine… Am I missing something?

      • Sort of missing something. I did say it was not sufficient! But I suspect also I’m not complicating its role enough. I suspect knowledge critical mass is probably one of the most important ideas, and yet it is one we know almost nothing about. Work on ‘threshold concepts’ probably as close as we’ve got so far. I could probably now have a fairly in-depth discussion with you about why Trump won the presidency, but I’m definitely not an expert on American politics. But I have access to particular concepts (e.g popular vote, FPTP, white working class, social conservatism, etc) that would make me confident. One of the weaknesses of the sorts of oracy work I’m reading is that it essentially says “here’s a framework for quality speaking that will work in any context – just populate with content!” My hypothesis is that the relationship between knowledge and quality speaking is much more intricate than that.

  4. Claire MacLean // 10 November 2016 at 21:56 // Reply

    As an ex-historical linguist, I’d like to offer a defence of the word “literacy”. Beyond simply reading and writing, it encompasses a broader range of knowledge of written text (some of which is cultural) such as the fact that it conveys information, direction of opening a book, book structure, genre understanding etc etc. When you consider early years education, early literacy doesn’t really involve reading and writing, but starting to understand what books are, engaging in what the Lancaster group term “literacy practices” (so that listening to a story from a book is a different experience from listening to a story someone is telling from memory). It’s very useful to think about it like this, and look at where the boundaries are between it and what I knew as “orality” in medieval studies.

    All that said, I do agree with you – I wonder rather if it’s one of those situations where something is seen as a “given” and consequently overlooked?

    • As a fellow medievalist, I completely agree!

      And yes, the role played by knowledge in ‘literacy’ and ‘oracy’ is something of an elephant in the room. Very few people have researched it.

  5. I think this is a very interesting debate. I’d like though to offer a different perspective. From the various companies I’ve worked at, I’d say that often even arguments at board level meetings are not swayed necessarily by superior knowledge.

    In practice, I found that people were more swayed by the emotional indicators of how someone spoke as opposed to what they said. I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of this. Often, if someone comes across as confident, they can get away with being iffy on the subject matter as long as a majority of the listeners are similarly iffy. The confident speaker can overcome the less confident speaker who actually knows their stuff.

    One particular person I knew well, was very good at this, and had been to one of the very well-known top private schools. I’d imagine he’d been taught public speaking, as of course, have many of many politicians.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that someone can be a fluent speaker, use all the buzzwords and get away with not understanding them if their audience is in the same boat.

    Not sure if this is that useful a perspective!

    • It is a useful perspective – it’s what I’d call the ‘blagging effect’. Some people just seem to have the confidence to hold forth on a topic, even when they do not necessarily know much about the specifics. My question would be, what allows them to do this? In part it is about emotional state, use of tone of voice, body language and so on, all of which, as I put in the blog, are important things that can be taught. But my hunch is that a good blagger (like your friend) has an extensive *breadth* of knowledge. Whilst someone might not know much about a particular thing, they might have extensive knowledge of other ideas, principles, concepts, specific details and so on, that allow them to put together a convincing case. Blaggers are, for example, very good at steering a conversation towards what they know more about; sometimes this means changing focus, and sometimes it means heading towards abstract principles that the blagger has used elsewhere. So I don’t disagree that the other factors matter, but I would argue that knowledge is always going to play an important role.

  6. Mrs Pigeon // 22 December 2016 at 22:58 // Reply

    Interesting. As a primary school teacher (15 years) I came into teaching with the National Literacy Strategy.

    1. The role of knowledge seems obvious but it is not addressed at all. I myself had never once thought of or ever heard mentioned the idea that we should develop the children’s knowledge in order to get them to be better speakers/listeners.

    In a roundabout way work on Talk4Writing sort of did this – in that they insist that children should memorise simplified versions of stories so that they have something to write about.

    The most anyone ever said was, ‘the general knowledge of our kids is so poor’ and that would usually happen after some child suggested that Singapore was in Africa or thought that wealthy Victorian children would have worn designer sunglasses. The solution to poor general knowledge was usually to teach general knowledge or remind parents to do some general knowledge – no-one at the time ever thought that the proper teaching of subjects (rather than a curriculum were literacy ballooned itself through out the day) would provide this.

    I would lay £50 that in a normal primary school, where no-one has read Hirsch, the way to improve speaking & listening will be through the generic strategies mentioned. No-one will think that teaching more history or science would improve speech.

    But actually, in talking to teachers who qualified before 1997, they all felt that kids were a bit more knowledable in the past (and before we discovered Hirsch, we tried to work out why this might be).

    I can’t give the answer to why right now (because I want to do some more reading and not leave a gigantically long reply here) but speaking and listening/oracy has not always been emphasized in the same way in the primary curriculum. We looked back at exercise books from the 80s and before and found that children wrote as well as children today (many much better because they had fewer spelling & grammar mistakes) but had no speaking and listening work. They did not rehearse sentences orally, they had very little to no drama, there were no talk partners etc. They seemed to a) read textbooks and answer comprehension questions b) read encyclopedias and paraphrase them and then write reports/essays. That was it.

    Maybe (and I did say maybe, not ‘I think’ or anything so definite) speaking & listening and oracy have become generic skills in themselves that are supposed to work to improve reading and writing/develop children’s ability to learn…maybe you’re better off doing reading and then doing writing.

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