Developing literacy is difficult. Like most school improvement efforts, it is beset by challenges, barriers, and limits of capacity and time. Rather than gnash our teeth, it is helpful to confront these issues and understand the likelihood of failure. In doing so, we can attempt to carefully plot our way to success.

In my previous post, I outlined 10 reasons why literacy fails to better understand what might go wrong and account for failure. Here is the list (read the original HERE for the necessary details): 

  1. Schools cannot compensate for society.
  2. A poor range of accessible assessments.
  3. Weak understanding of key issues such as dyslexia.
  4. A crowded curriculum.
  5. Shallow initial teacher training on literacy domains.
  6. Partial, limited professional development. 
  7. Too little specialist support for specific literacy issues, such as handwriting.
  8. Too little attention on literacy leadership.
  9. Enduring habits, routines, practices, and programmes.
  10. Pressure on quick improvement deterring sustainable solutions. 

Let’s be clear: many of these issues are not within the gift of the school to change, never mind a busy year 5 teacher. But there are some issues that we can address, or failures that we can pre-empt, which should offer us impetus for planning, hope and motivation. 

I think it is useful to look at literacy failures through the specific worked example of oracy.

The Oracy Challenge

Oracy is popular right now. Prospective Labour education policy appears to be led by oracy, whilst it is common to see schools and trusts put oracy at the heart of their school improvement planning. There is understandable support from all quarters, both inside and outside of education. 

And why shouldn’t oracy be popular? We all want pupils to leave school with the knowledge, skills, and confidence to speak out there in the big, wide world. Oracy extends to all corners of our pupils’ futures. It could be a compelling defence of justice in the courtroom or a loving eulogy for a family member. Not only that, but high-quality talk can also support learning, thinking, knowledge building, personal confidence, and more. 

The challenge is that oracy is subject to the same issues that beset other popular aspects of literacy, such as reading, writing or vocabulary instruction. 

Let’s explore them…

First, oracy doesn’t have a clear, widely shared definition. You could hear the terms oracy, speaking & listening, academic talk, dialogic talk, reasoning, sustained shared thinking, talk, talk for learning, and probably more. With different definitions comes different understanding. Teachers may consider classroom discussion, argumentation, presentations, all come under the umbrella of oracy.

Along with varied terminology and a broad array of practices comes a dearth of reliable assessment. Teachers and school leaders value oracy, but in England at least, we don’t assess everything we value. With oracy, there have been useful developments, such as the Oracy Assessment Toolkit, but it can have reliability issues in use, and the designers did not develop the model for with national reliability in mind

Without standardised assessment, teacher-led assessment can be prone to many problematic social biases (OFQUAL cite a range of studies about teacher-led assessment). It could be the case that pupil confidence could be awarded over content, even with planned moderation processes (there is currently little time or funding given over to assessment moderation). 

There are specific issues of speech and language delays and poor development that are on the rise since COVID. Again, schools cannot solely compensate for society. There are some tremendous interventions – like NELI (the Nuffield Early Language Intervention programme) – that are shown to make a significant positive difference, but improved oracy practices in the classroom may not support pupils with high needs. Speech and Language therapy supports are on their knees post-Covid

There is a strong case that oracy should be a priority in this post-pandemic context, but that doesn’t make it any easier to implement. Teachers still require ample professional development, with oracy challenges being better understood. Clear relatedness and distinctions between classroom practice and related interventions needs to be established. 

Oracy is subtle and complex in the classroom. It requires changes to routines, training pupils to undertake roles and goals. There are all within our gift, but we should not assume they are easy. Group discussion and oracy can be tricky with challenging classes and pupils. I know first hand that a debate with truculent teens can be a challenge! We ignore this at our peril. In research with US teachers, Professor Mary Kennedy found that although teachers recognised the value of group activity, they were also wary of losing calm and control:

“Teachers didn’t want a high level of engagement because it led to more off-script comments, which made it harder to keep the lesson on its intended course. Teachers in this study appeared to seek an optimal level of student engagement that was not too low but also not too high.” 

 Professor Mary Kennedy, ‘Inside Teaching’

There is a danger that the more visible acts of ‘debate days’ and presentations obscure the vital importance of classroom dialogue for thinking. You see it when vocabulary instruction becomes watered down to just a wordlist and ‘word of the week’, or reading becomes reduced to a couple of morning windows in a secondary school week, but the hours of countless reading practices in every classroom can get glossed over.  

Put simply, no matter how much we value oracy, meaningfully changing and sustaining practice that improves pupil outcomes is devilishly hard. We should not throw our hands up and never pursue change, but we should expect and prepare for failure. Oracy may be gaining an understandable wave of interest, but we have been here before with every significant aspect of literacy. 

I promised Part 2 would offer solutions to the problems posed in Part 1. Instead, I’ve spilled more ink on the issues! Come back for Part 3, where I finally attempt to characterise the solutions that could lead to literacy success. 

[Image via JohnDiew0107 on Flickr]