It's good to talk

We need to stop blowing hot and cold on the importance of spoken language skills, says a group of Cambridge researchers

In recent years, there has been a growing realisation among employers that members of their workforce, especially those engaged in creative activities and customer-related roles, need well-developed skills in communication and collaborative problem-solving. They want people who can make clear presentations, work well in teams, listen properly and solve problems collaboratively1.

Moreover, these are the skills that equip people for full participation in democracy and life in general. The importance of communication skills is now being recognised by the OECD in its plans to assess collaborative problem solving2, and in the current prominence of teaching and assessing 21st century skills3.

Yet the development of such ‘talk-based’ skills has not been a high priority in the state school curriculum (though it is seen as important in the British ‘public schools’ attended by many UK government ministers). Indeed, one of us spent much effort in 2013 persuading the Department for Education to keep ‘speaking and listening’ in the National Curriculum for primary schools4.

Oracy skills for learning

Over recent decades, the UK government has blown hot and cold about the significance of ‘oracy’ – the ability to use spoken language effectively across a wide range of situations – in school. The National Oracy Project at the end of the 1980s signified ‘hot’, while its rapid closure by the next elected government signified ‘cold’.

It is our belief – and one recognised in many other countries, including those with high levels of educational achievement such as Singapore7 – that this inconsistency about the importance of spoken language skills should not continue. All available evidence suggests oracy skills are not only important for employment and democratic engagement, but also for encouraging students to become critical thinkers8. However, there are currently no ‘teacher-friendly’ ways of assessing the oracy skills that students have (in their first or main language) when they enter secondary school.

An oracy assessment toolkit

School 21, a ‘free school’ in East London, is developing an 'oracy-led' curriculum, and with funding from the Educational Endowment Foundation, we are working with them to create an 'Oracy Assessment Toolkit' for Year 7 teachers. The aim is to develop effective ways of teaching and developing oral language skills, and ways of assessing and monitoring pupils’ progress. 

In consultation with a range of academic and professional experts, including some involved with earlier oracy assessment initiatives in the UK, we are developing a skills framework for oracy, which is intended to differentiate the various skills that are required for effective spoken communication. These include ‘physical’ (voice projection, gesture and so on), ‘linguistic’ (using appropriate vocabulary, choosing the right register and language variety for the occasion), ‘cognitive’ (such as organising content well, taking account of the level of understanding of an audience) and ‘social’ (such as managing group activity, taking an active role in collaborative problem solving, and so on). Students can be rated by their teacher for each of the skills relevant for each task, and this information can be used by the teacher to draw skill profiles of individual students and plan future teaching.

We are currently trialling the approach with Year 7 students (age 11-12) in several schools, and collecting video examples of children’s performances on the tasks. These videos, along with commentaries, will form our performance level descriptors. The results from these trials will be available in October 2014, and the feedback from teachers and children so far has been positive.

If communication skills are so vital – and they are, from so many perspectives – then we need to ensure that young people are given the opportunity to develop them and recognise their worth. But providing teachers with tools to monitor and assess spoken language skills in their students is an important part of that process, and it is only by embedding those activities within teaching practice as a whole that we can make the message heard.

Neil Mercer is Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge, Ayesha Ahmed is a Research Associate on the Oracy Project, and Paul Warwick is a lecturer within the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.

  1. CBI (2011). Building for growth: business priorities for education and skills. Education and Skills Survey [PDF]. Accessed 16 June 2014.
  2. OECD (2013). PISA 2015 Draft collaborative problem solving framework [PDF].  Accessed 13 May 2014.
  3. Griffin, P., McGaw,B., Care, E. (Eds) (2012). Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills, Dordrecht: Springer.
  4. Department for Education (2013). The National curriculum in England. Key stages 1 and 2 framework document [PDF]. DFE-00178-2013. Accessed 16 June 2014.
  5. Norman, K. (ed.) (1992). Thinking Voices: The Work of the National Oracy Project, London: Hodder & Stoughton.
  6. Johnson, J. (1994). Chapter 4: The National Oracy Project. In S. Brindley (Ed) Teaching English. London: Routledge, p. 34
  7. Curdt-Christiansen, X-L., Silver, R. E. (2011). Learning environments: The enactment of educational policies in Singapore. In Ward, C. (ED.), Language Education: An Essential for a Global Economy (RELC Anthology #52) (PP. 2-24). Singapore: SEAMEO, Regional English Language Centre. 
  8. Mercer, N., Wegerif, R. and Dawes, L. (1999). Children’s talk and the development of reasoning in the classroom, British Educational Research Journal, 25 (1), pp. 95-111.

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