The art of conversation and its role in literacy

Posted on: 04 Mar 2021
Posted by: Vincent Rice

To mark World Book Day, Vincent Rice, literacy coordinator at AKS Lytham Prep School, discusses the importance of nurturing pupils’ spoken language skills.

“A classroom filled with exploratory talk is filled with problem solving, collaboration and thinking” - Professor Neil Mercer, Cambridge University

What do we mean by oral skills?

As teachers and adults, have a pause right now and think about one question. How many times do we hush and encourage quiet? As a teacher, I did it a lot, especially during my PGCE, after I was given a poor observation grade for allowing the children to ‘talk too much’. But how can we quantify what is too much talk? How often should children contribute? How should we value their verbal contribution? Of course, there is a fine line between oracy and disrespecting the education process, however I feel that the old proverb of ‘children being seen and not heard’ needs to come to an end.

The Communication Trust recently commissioned a survey that found on average a learner will contribute four words in a lesson. Four. Reading, writing and even analysis of text are all key skills we need in adult life. Yet, we do not hold communication in such prominence. This is the foundation for human interaction, it is the core of what is done in business, life and in relationships.

A child, regardless of their ability, would benefit from talk and spoken language being a core element in teaching and learning in each part of the curriculum. Talk is the ability to communicate and articulate your thoughts and feelings, it is the gateway to all skills based around literacy - how can we expect our children to write a sentence if they cannot articulate it verbally?

If we look at ‘Development Matters’ (non-statutory guidance from the Department for Education used to inform the EYFS statutory requirements), one of the prime areas is communication and language. It is emphasised heavily and gives suggestions to boost spoken language. Yet, if we look at the National Curriculum, the guidance is:

“Teachers should therefore ensure the continual development of pupils’ confidence and competence in spoken language and listening skills.”

How are we delivering on this promise? A comparison of the two illustrates how spoken language is viewed as a priority area until children are four. Then, once under the National Curriculum, the emphasis wanes.

Why do they matter?

The Allen Review of Early Intervention (2011) explicitly states that language and communication development at age three was one of the major National Life Chances Indicators for children. We put heavy focus on language and then it seems to fade. It is the least taught and trained for, yet it is the most used skill. It is given much less focus than the written word.


Clearly, like many human skills, the ability to use language well must be learned. But not only does oracy remain largely untaught, speaking is frequently inhibited or discouraged in schools. It is as if we collectively believe that children will spontaneously blossom into articulate, coherent, expressive communicators. But oracy is a skill like any other and requires the training and practice we would dedicate to any other craft, like writing or playing music.

As children go through education, a study by The British Commerce found that 88% of employers felt that school leavers were not ready for the world of work and 57% did not meet the required standard for communication and teamwork. In addition, a recent UK study has found that children (aged 10-17) of key workers have experienced greater levels of COVID-19 anxiety and trauma, they also report more somatic symptoms.

Emotional issues can manifest in poor behaviour amongst those who lack communication skills and are unable to articulate their wants or needs. In early years settings, carers may see an increase in biting, hitting out, or even uncharacteristic lethargy. To combat this, we need to educate in the vocabulary around emotion.

How is AKS Lytham responding to this challenge?

At AKS, we aspire to not only deliver a high-quality education, but to prepare our students for the world of tomorrow. Achieving these outcomes requires us to take care of the emotional needs of our pupils today, so, in recognition of the specific challenges presented by the pandemic, we will run a series of workshops to support children to articulate their feelings constructively.

Beyond the immediate consideration of emotional literacy, we are embedding the teaching of oracy, modelling spoken language, and prioritising high-quality conversations in day-to-day life at school. These aspirations are articulated in our new speech and language policy, which includes the following components:

Dedicated Modelled Language Area

A dedicated spoken language area for Key Stage 1, where teachers can model spoken language in a formal and detailed way. Items used could include shoes, or a vase, however it is down to the practitioner to explore language in a formal way, bringing in new vocabulary. If this was a vase, then the practitioner could describe the colours used, the weight, what is it made of, size etc., then allow children to model to others.

Philosophy for Children

We want make philosophy a cornerstone of every child’s daily education. In practical terms, this will include questions to stimulate debate, group work, opinion based on prior knowledge, leading to a formal discussion. The developmental process will then extend to cover more complex ideas, such as what is ‘freedom’ or ‘evil’, which will widen the children’s knowledge and experience.

Picture of the Day

Picture stimulus and ‘talk areas’ in each playground will allow children to have prompted conversations with teacher-influenced topics based on children’s interests. This is designed to be child-led; with children rewarded for engaging in discussion. The pictures will also be displayed on tables at lunch times to stimulate conversation.

Rules for Talk

Setting out examples and rules for how we communicate to our peers and adults, which is tied to the behaviour policy. Using formal vocabulary related to what has been taught and replacing fillers such as ‘like’ and ‘stuff’ with precise language.

Debating Club

A debating society will be introduced, based around the children’s interests, allowing them to research topics that spark a fire within them. The club will provide an additional opportunity to extend oral skills, learn the art of debating and provide a channel through which they can present to the school virtually or in whole-class assemblies. Our younger learners will subsequently be exposed to our older students as role models in this area.

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Pupils at AKS Lytham pictured reading

About Vincent Rice

Vincent Rice is a literacy coordinator at AKS Lytham Prep School.