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Masters in Educational Practice: Literacy


Creating best practice


Developing oracy

Activity 3.6

In reading and writing, the learner’s skills are influenced more by the teacher's skills as a teacher of reading and writing than by how well the teacher herself reads and writes. Not so with talk. Its essentially interactive nature means that the teacher's own competence as a speaker and listener contributes significantly to the developing oral competence of the learner.

Robin Alexander extended and referenced version of a presentation given at the DfE seminar on Oracy, the National Curriculum and Educational Standards, 20 February 2012 (external link).

  • Do you agree with this claim?
  • What does it suggest about the role of teacher talk in the classroom?
  • How may this impact upon teacher practice in the classroom?

The link between oracy, reading and writing has been identified by many as a key feature of literacy development and learning. Vygotsky, for example, situated talk as central to the process of internalising thought and in moving children across the Zone of Proximal Development. While talk is often a feature of lessons, the focused development of academic talk through modelling, speaking frames and rehearsal, for example, can be key to developing a learner’s skills in reading and writing. It may be the case that if learners can engage in social and procedural talk, then talk is not necessarily seen as in need of support or development. Social talk, though, is not the same as academic talk. Just as we would support writing in the classroom, supporting the development and extension of learners’ skills in oracy can lead to gains in understanding and language skills. Oracy in the classroom is also seen by many as key to learners’ developing and extending their problem-solving and thinking skills. The role of oracy in the classroom can, then, be seen as performing two key functions.

Firstly, it can provide opportunities for learners to develop and extend their oral repertoire. This can also give them chances to orally rehearse sentence structures and vocabulary that may in turn become part of their written language. This may be particularly important if learners have limited oral repertoires. Secondly, talk can be seen (particularly in social constructivist models) as key to developing thinking. In these models, learner (to learner or to teacher) talk gives learners opportunities to explore understanding and develop strategies for problem solving. These two elements are, of course, closely interrelated, rather than discrete, elements.

Activity 3.7

Alongside developing learners’ skills in oracy, talk can also be used to develop thinking. Alexander (2006) (external link) identifies five main types of classroom talk.

  • Rote (teacher–class): drilling of facts and ideas through repetition.
  • Recitation (teacher–class or teacher–group): asking questions for recall or to cue learner answers.
  • Instruction/exposition (teacher–class, or teacher–group or teacher–-individual): giving learners information or explanations.
  • Discussion (teacher–class, or teacher–group or learner–learner): sharing ideas and information and solving problems.
  • Dialogue (teacher–class, teacher–group, teacher–learner or learner–learner): building a common understanding through structured questions and purposeful discussion.

Importantly, in Alexander's model, dialogue is distinct from 'conversation' in that it has a particular goal in mind. Rather than simply chatting about a topic (which has merit in itself), dialogue for learning should be challenging and encourage focused thought. Other types of classroom talk, do, of course, have their place in the classroom. It is, though, important to consider the types of talk we use (and expect our learners to use) in learning and teaching and their suitability for purpose.

Activity 3.8

In the light of Alexander's views, consider a lesson you have taught very recently:

  • Which of the above types of talk did you use during that lesson?
  • Which types of talk did the learners use?
  • At which points in the lesson did you and the learners switch to different types of talk?
  • How focused were learner contributions?
  • Did they use talk to explore ideas?
  • Did teacher talk model dialogic processes and language?
  • Were learners given prompts and probes so as to develop their own thinking?
  • Did the learners prompt and probe their own thinking and that of other learners?
  • Where learners did not yet have the language skills for a particular type of talk, what strategies or approaches could be used to support their talk?

Activity 3.9

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