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April 25, 2018  

Professor Neil Mercer takes a moment to consider the question, and then launches into an answer that should please any teacher who has been told to talk more or less in the classroom.

“The research does not tell you what the balance between teacher and student talk should be, in any clear way,” says the emeritus professor of Education at the University of Cambridge and director of Oracy Cambridge. “Crude proportions are not important or useful.”

Mercer has dedicated his career to looking at the power of teacher and student talk in schools and he discusses the research on both in this week’s podcast. He is certain teachers need to be both excellent talkers and spend time talking in lessons.

“I always say to primary teachers: you are the only second chance for some children to have the rich language experience. If they are not getting it in school, they are not getting it,” he explains.

However, this does not mean that a teacher should spend all lesson talking.

“We know enough [from the research] to say you should strive for a balance between authoritative presentation and genuine dialogue,” he says. “And that the proportion of instructive talk and dialogue should be determined by what you want to achieve, not by your personality. A teacher may be more suited to one of those approaches, but they need both and it needs to fit the objective at that time.”

When the teacher does talk, it needs to incorporate all the essential skills of good presentation (which Mercer says anyone can learn to do well) and it needs to be considered and well thought through in its content.

When the teacher is not talking, activities need to promote spoken language skills in students, and these are not, he stresses, just those skills that seem to be promoted through oracy interventions.

“There is tendency to think or oracy as speech making or taking part in debates, but we actually mean the full range of spoken language skills, which would include working in a team, helping someone else learn something, listening sensitively to someone so you can help them and so on,” he explains. “Children will differ in these skills, some may be excellent making speeches but not skilled in a group situation, they may not listen to anyone else at all. While another student may be the opposite.”

In the podcast, he talks at length about the research around teacher and student talk and about strategies teachers need to implement to improve both their own spoken language skills and those of their students. He also discusses whether a test for oracy is now needed.

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