In this article, Professor of Education Neil Mercer argues that ‘talk’ needs tuition; state schools must teach spoken language skills for the sake of social equality.

Our research shows that when students learn how to use talk to reason together, they become better at reasoning on their own

Neil Mercer

The value of effective teamwork has become widely recognised in recent years. At their best, teams are excellent creative problem-solving units, demonstrating that two heads are better than one. Psychological research now encourages the view that human intelligence is distinctively collective, and that language has evolved to enable collective thinking: not only do we use language to interact, but we also use it to interthink.

This interthinking is the basis for the major achievements of humankind, though like most human capacities the ability to use language well has to be learned. It is not surprising that employers want to recruit young people who have not only relevant technical knowledge and skills, but who are effective public communicators and collaborative problem solvers. However, employers also complain that job candidates often lack such skills.

Skills in oracy (the use of spoken language) will be more important for most people when they leave school than, for example, skills in algebra. Yet I found it very hard to persuade the former Secretary of State for Education that ‘speaking and listening’ should remain in the National Primary Curriculum for English, and the oral language assessment component has been removed from GCSE English. There still seems to be an influential view that ‘talk’ does not need tuition, and that if children are talking they are not learning.

Some people may learn how to use talk effectively at home, through the examples of their parents and through discussions with various people. But, for many children, being encouraged to present their ideas and to take part in a ‘reasoned discussion’ may be very rare events. The British public schools, which educated many members of the present Westminster government, of course place great emphasis on developing the confident and effective use of spoken language. For the sake of social equality, state schools must also teach children the spoken language skills that they need for educational progress, and for life in general.

Through our own research and that of others, we know there are some very effective ways of teaching oracy skills, which are already used by some teachers. For example, one established way to make group-work more productive is to ask students to agree on a suitable set of ‘ground rules’ for how they will conduct their discussions.

Unproductive talk is often is the outcome of students using the wrong ground rules - for example implicitly following the rule ‘keep your best ideas to yourself’ rather than 'any potentially useful information should be shared and evaluated’. When groups follow appropriate ground rules they are more likely to find good, creative solutions to problems. They learn how to use talk to get things done. And our research shows that when students learn how to use talk to reason together, they become better at reasoning on their own – and so improve their attainment in maths, science and other subjects.

If teachers are to help their students develop their talk skills, then they need to be able to monitor that development and provide formative feedback that will help progress. This is why a grant from the Education Endowment Foundation is currently enabling Cambridge colleagues Paul Warwick, Ayesha Ahmed and me to create a ‘teacher-friendly’ toolkit for assessing the development of children’s spoken language skills.

Neil Mercer will be discussing his research into oracy in education on the BBC Radio 4 Word of Mouth programme - Tuesday 2nd September at 4pm. 

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