Standing up for oracy

Itai Paraiwa, English teacher and oracy lead, The Gateway Academy

The term ‘oracy’ was first coined in 1965 by a group of researchers at the University of Birmingham led by Andrew Wilkinson. Developed to describe the speaking and listening skills needed to be a good communicator, it was intended to give spoken language the same importance as ‘literacy’ does to reading and writing. As the English Speaking Union says simply on its website, In short, it’s nothing more than being able to express yourself well. It’s about having the vocabulary to say what you want to say and the ability to structure your thoughts so that they make sense to others.”

Dialogic teaching

“Dialogic teaching harnesses the power of talk to stimulate and extend pupils’ thinking and advance their learning and understanding.” - Prof. Robin Alexander

The term ‘dialogic teaching’ is now in regular use but like all such terms it means different things to different people. As developed by Robin Alexander since the early 2000s, dialogic teaching harnesses the power of talk to engage interest, stimulate thinking, advance understanding, expand ideas, and build and evaluate arguments, empowering students for lifelong learning and democratic engagement. Being collaborative and supportive, it confers social and emotional benefits too. It also helps teachers: by encouraging students to share their thinking. It enables teachers to diagnose needs, devise learning tasks, enhance understanding, assess progress and guide students through the challenges they encounter. Yet as defined by Alexander – though not by some others in the field – dialogic teaching is both talk and more than talk, for it enacts a distinctively dialogic stance on knowledge, learning, social relations and education itself.

According to Alexander, the core principles of dialogic teaching are:

· Collective (the classroom is a site of joint learning and enquiry)

· Reciprocal (participants listen to each other, share ideas and consider alternative viewpoints)

· Supportive (participants feel able to express ideas freely, without risk of embarrassment over ‘wrong’ answers, and they help each other to reach common understandings)

· Cumulative (participants build on their own and each other’s contributions and chain them into coherent lines of thinking and understanding)

· Purposeful (classroom talk, though open and dialogic, is structured with specic learning goals in view).

Therefore, pupils should be taught how to apply oracy to their everyday learning experience. In order for this to become embedded, pupils need to have modelled for them:

  • The ‘rules’ of social interaction – taking turns; identifying who is holding the conversation and how to judge when this can change; how pairs of language work, e.g. Q and A, greeting and response; how to fix what we say or what we don’t understand

  • Non-verbal cues – voice; volume; intonation; eye contact; pitch; pauses; pronunciation; posture; personal space

  • How to listen actively

  • How to speak fluently

In the context of the classroom environment, dialogic teaching places the teacher at the centre of the process as they lead by modelling the expectations and then guiding pupils through the necessary steps that empower them to become effective communicators in the classroom and beyond.

An Education Endowment Foundation (EFF) summary report revealed that pilots of dialogic teaching in the UK have suggested that it can change teachers’ practice, and there is other evidence that cognitively challenging classroom talk can lead to gains for pupils in language acquisition, mathematics and science. Dialogic teaching is said to draw predominantly on the theories of Vygotsky and Batkin as well as the early work of Douglas Barnes (Mercer and Hodgkinson, 2008: xvi).

Suggested next steps for you

As the practitioner:

1. Conduct an audit of your classroom practice and determine how or if you use dialogic teaching.

2. Identify your area/areas of strength and look to sharpen that area/those areas (don’t over-reach); for example if simply greeting the pupils is your strength, encourage them to practise that amongst themselves in a purposeful manner; then you need to monitor this and evaluate its impact or effectiveness.

3. Aim to identify a challenging aspect of Alexander’s core principles and develop your own knowledge and/or practice around it, so becoming a champion of it.

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