Literacy empowers (Pt3): Teaching oracy

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in June 2017.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here

This is part three of a 5-part series.  Read parts one and two first.

So far in this series, I have made the case for literacy as a cross-curricular concern, arguing – as George Sampson did – that: “Every teacher is a teacher of English because every teacher is a teacher in English.”

I have also argued that literacy across the curriculum should:

  • Involve all teachers and demonstrate how they are all engaged in using language to promote learning in their subject.
  • Identify the particular needs of all pupils in reading, writing, speaking and listening.
  • Make strong links between school and home.
  • Plan for the longer term (emphasising the integral relationship between language for learning and effective teaching in all subjects).

What’s more, literacy learning should be enjoyable, motivating and challenging, actively engaging, should activate prior learning, secure understanding, provide opportunities to apply skills, and develop pupils’ functional and thinking skills.

Three is the magic number

Cross-curricular literacy can be divided into three domains: speaking and listening (or oracy), reading, and writing.

As well as approaching each of these three strands individually, it is important to make connections between them and between different curriculum subjects so that pupils can develop their thought processes and understanding, as well as their abilities to recall, select and analyse ideas and information – which calls for pupils to communicate in a coherent, considered and convincing way both in speech and in writing. In practice, this means that pupils should be encouraged to:

  • Make extended, independent contributions that develop ideas in depth.
  • Make purposeful presentations that allow them to speak with authority on significant subjects.
  • Engage with texts that challenge preconceptions and develop understanding beyond the personal and immediate.
  • Experiment with language and explore different ways of discovering and shaping their own meanings.
  • Use writing as a means of reflecting on and exploring a range of views and perspectives on the world.

This week we will focus on the first of these three domains: speaking and listening.

What is speaking and listening?

Speaking and listening is about developing the ability to:

  • Listen and respond to others (adding to or arguing against).
  • Speak and present (with increasing formality).
  • Participate in group discussion and interaction.
  • Engage in drama, role-play and performance.

The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky said that speaking and thinking were intricately linked because the process of speaking helps us to learn by articulating our thoughts and developing the concepts we use to understand the world.

He argued that: “Up to a certain point in time, (thought and speech) follow different lines, independently of each other (but) at a certain point these lines meet, whereupon thought becomes verbal and speech rational.”

Furthermore, Stricht’s Law tells us that: “Reading ability in children cannot exceed their listening ability.” And Myhill and Fisher assert that: “Spoken language forms a constraint, a ceiling not only on the ability to comprehend but also on the ability to write, beyond which literacy cannot progress.”

Classroom talk, therefore, is an important part of literacy development because comprehension derives, not solely from writing and creating, but also from talking. Moreover, communication and understanding improve with practice.

Therefore, providing pupils with an opportunity to talk in the classroom is vital if they are to develop their understanding.

Talking also helps to build pupils’ vocabulary knowledge – a process that continues across all years and levels of schooling and which is not, therefore, solely in the domain of the early years teacher and not solely in the domain of English teachers.

Indeed, every teacher in the secondary phase has a duty to help pupils develop their spoken language and they should continue to help pupils to become more articulate and sophisticated users of the English language. Here are seven practical ways of achieving this:

First, we should allow more “wait time” following a question. Typically, waiting at least three to five seconds for pupils to respond to a question is effective because it allows for the thinking time that some pupils need in order to process information before composing an answer. When wait time is increased, answers tend to be more complex.

Second, we should model the clear and correct use of spoken language. In other words, we should give unambiguous instructions, use accurate descriptive and positional language, utilise precise terminology where appropriate, and give clear feedback.

Third, we should regularly check for understanding until we have a clear idea of the level of our pupils’ language skills. Sometimes, pupils who have trouble concentrating in class – particularly when the teacher is talking – may not actually understand what the teacher is saying. When we become aware of this, we can monitor our pupils’ understanding and adjust our language when necessary.

Fourth, we should use simple, direct language and place verbs at the beginning of instructions. “Teacher talk” is not necessarily better than the language pupils access in other environments but it is different. As a result, pupils’ language proficiency might be different from that required to access the curriculum, or even to understand simple classroom instructions.

Confusion and disobedience can result from the fact that pupils are unfamiliar with the language structures and “lexical density” of the more formal teacherly language of the classroom. This does not mean that we should use the same language as our pupils, but that we may sometimes need to use simpler language and emphasise important words.

Fifth, we should teach active listening skills. Most pupils can hear, but are not naturally active listeners. Active listening requires selective and sustained attention, working memory, cognitive processing, and information storage and recall mechanisms. We can help pupils develop these skills by giving them tasks such as listening for specific or key information, listening to answer specific questions, and listening to follow instructions.

Next, we should teach note-taking skills whereby pupils have to write down the key points ascertained from a piece of spoken language.

Finally, we should build on pupils’ language by elaborating on their answers to questions, adding new information, extending the conversation through further questioning, or reinforcing the language through repetition.

We should also develop communication skills such as turn-taking and the use of eye contact.

Build oracy into daily routines

In addition to the above, we should make sure that the development of spoken language permeates the school day.

After all, spoken language is used all day, every day so we should take advantage and build spoken language activities into daily routines, such as during tutor time (e.g. ask a question of each pupil that must be answered in a sentence), when handing out materials, when pupils enter and leave the classroom, and when giving instructions.

We should also make sure that pupils have a regular opportunity to speak. The teacher tends to dominate classroom discussion – and it is right that teachers talk a lot because they are the experts in the room in possession of the knowledge and experience that pupils need. But it is also important that pupils get a chance to interact with the teacher and with each other and to do so beyond responding to closed questions.

What’s more, we should plan opportunities for one-to-one discussion. Spoken language develops best through paired conversation and when one of the people in the pair has a better developed vocabulary. Therefore, it is worth investigating ways of pairing up pupils with people with more sophisticated language skills, perhaps an older pupil or a parent or volunteer.

This could be a case of volunteers reading a book with a pupil or simply engaging in conversation. One-to-one conversation also enables young people to develop conversational skills such as turn-taking, intonation and eye contact.

Books are the bridge

Jackie Onassis once said: “There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.”

Accordingly, we should read lots of books with our pupils. Reading is the best way of developing a young person’s vocabulary, particularly if we use the book as a stimulus, a means of initiating conversation by asking questions about the writer’s intentions, about the characters’ motivations, and about the structure and plot, theme and genre, style and so on.

Open questions, such as “what do you think is going to happen next and why?”, are the most effective because they encourage pupils to develop their language and their cognition. For example, pupils have to make inferences and engage in critical thinking.

Asking pupils to re-tell a story is also effective because it encourages them to master tense, sequencing, and logical reasoning, as well as expanding the imagination.

We should never assume that pupils are too old to be read to: older pupils, including those in the sixth form, enjoy being told a story and they can still learn from the experience because the teacher can highlight sophisticated vocabulary and syntactic structures which pupils may not pick up on if reading alone.

Thinking allowed

As well as reading aloud, we should “think aloud” with our pupils. This involves modelling our cognitive processes, and our logic and reasoning, by making visible the invisible act of thinking – in other words, by making the implicit explicit.

Self-talk is also useful in mediating situations – hearing how we process difficult situations helps pupils to use words to resolve an issue and encourages them to engage in their own self-talk, calming themselves down with language rather than with a physical act.

Quick wins

To conclude, here are six “quick wins” for developing pupils’ speaking and listening skills…

  • Use fewer “what?” questions and use more “why?” and “how?” questions.
  • Give pupils time to rehearse answers to questions, perhaps by discussing their answers in pairs before sharing them more widely.
  • After each question has been asked, give pupils thinking time before they are expected to share their answers.
  • Enforce a “no-hands-up” policy as often as possible.
  • Model the kind of language you expect pupils to use in group discussions and answers.
  • Build pupils’ vocabularies by explicitly teaching the key words in your subject and by repeating key words as often as possible; give key words as homework and test pupils on their spelling and meaning so that they become the expected discourse of all pupils.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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