Sunday 4 July 2021

UKLA Harold Rosen Lecture on oracy, literacy in education and life

 Harold Rosen lecture, UKLA July 4 2021

I love the idea that UKLA have a Harold Rosen lecture. Just in case some people don’t know, professionally he was at various times in his life a classroom teacher, a head of department, a teacher-trainer, a writer, a scholar and a university professor. He was also a son, a brother, a husband and then father to three children, one of whom is me. Now I’ve just done that customary thing of separating the professional life from the domestic but for anyone who knew Harold, things weren’t that simple. And this is rather relevant to the matter of oracy and literacy. (By the way, my spellcheck on my computer corrects the word ‘oracy’ to ‘Tracy’, making the word ‘oracy’ much easier to say than to write, even if not quite on the subject in hand.)

Back to Harold and the two worlds. People who knew him professionally will know that he scattered his talks and writings with reminiscences and observations from his non-professional life. Here’s one:

(There are several Yiddish words in the passage: ‘Zeyde’ means grandfather. ‘Der Heim’ literally means ‘the home’ but I’ll return to that later. ‘Bubbe’  means grandmother and ‘meshuggene’ means ‘a crazy person’.)

“We would stand by the edge of the grubby old public swimming pool drying ourselves, my zeider and I. As likely as not he would tell me once again about how he would go swimming back in der heim somewhere in Poland. I would listen to this fragment of his boyhood. Always I saw him in some Arcadian setting of endless pine trees and velvet grass sloping down to a still lake. It was always early morning. He would emerge from a log cabin, run to the water and fracture its stillness with strong strokes. He would go on swimming till he was lost to view. There were no other people, no other houses, no other movements.  It was an idyll I clung to from which I had banished pogroms and poverty and the fearful little community huddled over their prayers and sewing machines. That was my story not his. And when we went on day trips to Southend, East London’s seaside, in his sixties he would set out to swim the length of the pier and back, a mile or so each way. My bubbe without fail went through the identical torments of anxiety. ‘The meshuggene! He’s gone out too far again.’ I was free from all such fears. For he was always the intrepid boy swimmer in the pure lake who always came back. And he did. And even in death still does.’

In passing, let me draw your attention to a few things. As a piece of writing, there’s a mix here of memory, myth, commentary and observation from the moment of writing. The memories themselves are a mix of description, reported speech, dialogue, and general views. The myth comes in the form of Harold’s self-interrogation of his memory in which he reveals the difference between reality and the ‘idyll’ in his boyhood mind. The commentary tells us of a wider community that he and his grandfather belong to. And the observations come in his narration as with ‘an idyll I clung to’ or ‘the identical torments of anxiety’. 

Of particular interest to us today, might be some features of language: he uses four words that he knew primarily from the oral environment of his childhood: Zeyde, Bubbe - meshuggene - and let me return to ‘der Haim’, a simple word to describe something quite complex. It literally means ‘the home’ but what it signified in London’s East End where Harold was mostly brought up in the 1920s and 30s was the Jewish communities of Poland and Russia. So it wasn’t Harold’s home, it was his grandparents’ home. These oral words, then, are doing a lot of work: full of feeling, self-awareness along with some primary cognition to do with his kinship group, and his communal awareness. Something else going on that you wouldn’t necessarily be aware of as it’s only a very short passage: you might wonder where his mother and father are in this story. His father was in Massachusetts in the US. The last time Harold saw him was when Harold was 2 and he would never see him after that. Harold’s mother may have been with him that day but she was hampered by the effects of polio so possibly not. I say this because his affection and interest in his grandparents was coloured by such matters. In other words, Harold’s use of his vernacular - the oral language of the home - is doing a lot of work in this passage and indeed elsewhere in his writings. I’m drawing attention to this because the words and phrases our students use when talking or writing may well be just as laden with social and communal significance.  

Can I draw your attention to something else? Several times in the passage, the register changes. On the one hand he writes some sentences with what we might call formal, classic complex sentences full of additional phrases and subordinate clauses. At other times, he uses snappy short expressions that I sense have an oral feel about them: his opening sentence has an oral feature, expanding the main subject of the sentence by inverting it - putting it at the end:

“We would stand by the edge of the grubby old public swimming pool drying ourselves, my zeider and I.”

He interrupts his flow with ‘That was my story, not his.’ And he closes with ‘And he did. And even in death, still does.’ Let me put it this way:  these thoughts or comments are inflected with orality. Partly as a joke, at other times I’ve called this ‘oral writing’ (oxymoron) and I want to come back to that later.

Another way of looking at this passage is to think of it as a conversation Harold is having with himself. From my own experience I can sense that there are several aspects to this kind of ‘inner speech’: formless sensations, feelings, images; words or phrases that express these and other thoughts; queries and questions about the significance of what happened, how and why; memories of snatches of dialogue. These can exist in our mind for years, interesting us, obsessing us, bothering us, upsetting us. The process of writing may well do several things at the same time. Because it is writing (and writing like this is linear and consecutive) it forces an order on to the thoughts. I won’t say that the thought had no order but it was much more fluid than a paragraph of text. In fact, one of the things we can do with the thoughts is move them about at will: one day in one order, another day another order. We may also discover what we might call invasions: material that suddenly appears - people, dialogue, sounds, smells. And there is something repetitive that may well go on, things that recur. Writing is a fixer though. It won’t necessarily fix the flow of thoughts but it is itself fixed on the page or screen, in an order. Again, you can change it, but if it ever gets published it will become fixed in an evidential sort of a way at the very least. Think Shakespeare’s quartos and folio. 

Often, I find, that writing is a relief from what I sometimes see as the pressure of the experiences in the mind. But of course, there’s another arm to how we handle all this: talk. We can write something or talk something or both. And Harold did plenty of both himself.  

One last comment on this passage: Harold is interrogating memory, a subject he was fascinated by, often referring in his conversations with me to the psychologist Frederic Bartlett (1886-1969). I didn’t ever read Bartlett, even though Harold would often say to me things like, ‘Old Bartlett was on to this, you know, Mick.’ Or ‘You really should read Bartlett, he was saying some of this stuff, long before anyone else.’ 

Which brings me to another point. I want to flip my observation that Harold brought the domestic into his professional life and tell you that he also brought the professional into the domestic. Oh boy, did he! There was hardly a time in all my times with Harold that he and my mother - and after she died with his great wife Betty, that his professional interests weren’t played out in our conversations. It is no exaggeration to say, for example, that he did his Ph.D. at the kitchen table. I can see him sitting with his leg crossed, several books laid out amongst the crockery and food, a notebook on his knee, jotting notes from the books, looking up, interrupting the chat going on between my brother, mother and me, with cries of outrage at this or that villain in the sphere of linguistics, or delighted eureka moments when he felt he had cracked a conspiracy going on in the undergrowths of pedagogic theory. I can hear him saying, ‘Listen to this, Con…’ (my mother’s name was Connie) and then him reading out what was to me a completely incomprehensible passage from the linguist Michael Halliday. For better or worse, it made one aspect of domestic life a kind of home university. Why did he do this? I think it was an extreme version of what many of us do when faced with challenges and difficulties: we try to talk it through. Harold by his own estimation had scraped through university being more interested in politics than Old English (or Anglo-Saxon as it was called then), Old Norse - about which he said,

’I know two things about Old Norse. 

I have forgotten them of course’ . 

As he moved into teacher-training, he took it upon himself to do that Ph.D and again, by his own estimation, it was a big change and a big effort. I’m guessing that his extemporising at the kitchen table was part of how he coped. I notice from parents’ evenings that I’ve attended - I mean, as a parent -  that they are often about teachers inviting my children to voice what’s bothering them, or what they think about the course or what they’ve found difficult. The best examples of these are when the triangle has been a genuine exchange of viewpoints: teacher, parent, student. The not-so-good ones - if I might put it like that - have been when the triangle has been broken by a lengthy reference to a line of marks across a terms worth of tests. Yes, as we all know, conversations  - oracy - are very variable things. 

Back to oracy at home: both my parents were - and indeed so is Betty -  great story-tellers.  They were storytellers in several ways: stories from their pasts, political stories about Churchill, Stalin and the rest, stories from their workplaces, formal stories told at bed-times or on long walks plucked (I now realise) from Chaucer, Shakespeare and the Odyssey), story-jokes - more often than not long Jewish jokes,  and also a kind of storying of the everyday. Harold in particular took it upon himself to turn events that happened in our lives into what I can only describe as routines. Things that I had seen unfold in front of me, would get told to friends in our living room and I could watch them becoming shaped, re-shaped, refined, exaggerated as the story was told and re-told to the next group of friends who came through the door. One example: one camping holiday in Yorkshire, my teenage brother would leave our campsite to go on a holiday somewhere else. To do this, we would take him to the station in our car, he would go to our home in London, pick up some of his stuff and head off on his holiday. So we dropped him off at the station, but the moment we waved him goodbye, my mother remembered that she hadn’t given him the key to the house. There was a moment of panic. Then my father figured out that we could drive over the North York Moors, and get to Pickering station and meet the train and my brother there. So that’s what we did, with my father asking me to look and see if I could see the train in the gaps between the hills. We got to the station, the train was there, my father ran down the platform, looking in the windows, found my brother, and handed him the key. My brother then said something to the effect that he had already figured out what to do, either ask the neighbour who had a key or borrow a ladder and climb in through our kitchen window - which was upstairs. 

Now, over the weeks following, I watched Harold turn this into a saga, full of gesture, mimes of him in the car, urging me to spot the train and bit by bit inserting completely invented bits, like how he had run down the platform shouting, ‘Stop the train! Stop the train!’ And of course he loved closing off the frenetic energy, tension and crisis with an impression of my brother just shrugging and saying, ‘I was going to get the key off Mrs Townsend.’ 

As some of you know, Harold’s academic speciality was narrative and talk. He returned to it again and again, in different forms over most of his professional - and as I’m telling you here - in his domestic life. You can follow this line of thinking, practice and research in the book that John Richmond edited of Harold’s writings, published by the UCL, Institute of Education. 

‘Harold Rosen, Writings on life, language and learning, 1958-2008, edited with an introduction by John Richmond (UCL-IOE Press, 2017)

Now, I want to draw out of this introduction some elements that I think might be of interest:

  1. the flow between the oral and the written
  2. a hinterland which is not really expressed by such a rigid division
  3. the conversation we have with ourselves
  4. the power of what it means to find words to say what we are thinking
  5. the power of shared talk, discussion. 

To illustrate all this I want to reflect on the last 18 months of my life.

In brief, I got ill, I was treated by people who used their knowledge, training and kindness to make me better. Since coming out of hospital I’ve gone back to doing many of the things I used to do before but a lot of it through this medium, the remote talk and conversation. This has alerted me to a question about how we frame this matter of oracy and literacy which I’ve already touched on with how Harold used material taken from his oral world in his writing, how he shaped and re-shaped his oral story-telling.

I’ll begin this section with something I wrote in my book, ‘Many Different Kinds of Love, a story of life, death and the NHS’ (Ebury,  2021) :

‘A doctor is standing by my bed

asking me if I would sign a piece of paper

which would allow them to put me

to sleep and pump air into my lungs

‘Will I wake up?’

‘There’s a 50:50 chance.’

‘If I say no?’ I say.


And I sign.’

This is of course a memory though I’ve done that writing trick of pretending it’s happening now. When I read it, I think there’s a lot missing. For whatever reason, I’ve left out what I was thinking when the doctor tells me that I have a 50:50 chance. I can locate that by concentrating very hard on that moment. I’m lying on my back looking up at the doctor. When he says 50:50, one thought comes into my mind is that he’s joking. Another thought is that 50:50 is not bad. Actually, it’s not bad. It’s quite good. So what I can do is catch words and sensations I experienced and which sit in my head but which I can express now in sentences, as I’ve just done. Since then, as I read this poem and replay the scene, I become horrified and upset. I was told much later that in my ward 42% of the Covid patients died. So 58:42,  not 50:50 but not far off. I am now putting into words on a page and telling you more of that experience than is in the first piece. It has emerged out of reflection, writing, more reflection, hearing things that doctors have told me, storytelling this in interviews and now writing it down, and reading what I’ve written to you. 

We  used to talk of speaking, listening, reading and writing. I Iiked that, so long as we could hold in our heads that we can and often  do, free-flow between these categories - as I’ve just done here. I’ll say in passing that I try to suggest to children, young people and teachers that 30 seconds or a minute of day-dreaming is a great way to start writing. 

Anyway, back to me!  I was sedated and stayed in that state for about 40 days. I know nothing of this time from my own mind. I know about it from two sources: hospital staff and my wife. The main way the hospital staff have told me things is through what’s called a ‘Patient Diary’. It’s an exercise book, in which nurses and volunteers wrote letters to me at the end of their shifts. 

I mention this because letters are very interesting when it comes to considering the relationship between the oral and the written. And we can add to letters: texts, emails, tweets,  chat-rooms, social media posting, comments threads and the like. A study of these shows us that we free ourselves from the constraints of written standard English and produce many features of our spoken language as written - that’s in addition to the many text-specific things like abbreviations, emojis and the like. Lols. TBF. FYI. FFS. 

So the letters in my patient diary include phrases like: ‘keep fighting’, ‘Keep going!’, ‘You’ve got this!!’, ‘Happy birthday for tomorrow’, ‘It’s Claire the physio…again’, ’Take one day at a time.’ and Emma, my wife sent emails to the family saying things like: ‘Quick update:’ , ‘Evening guys’, ‘Bloody hurrah!’  and ‘Looking forward to a glass of wine later!’ This kind of informal language, obviously written - because it’s written (!) - but not formal standard English has become for many of us the landscape of our lives. Glance at your phone while I’m saying this. Look at the text messages and see this genre of writing in abundance. Here’s the first one I can see on mine. Son to me:  ‘Big result’. This is of course heavily contextual writing…he knows that I’ll know what he’s texting about and produces a non-formal sentence to say it. 

None of this is  inferior or second class writing. It’s to the point, intimate, knowing and written with strong reference to the receiver and what the receiver knows or might appreciate. It’s not for me to say how we might harvest and benefit from this in educational settings but I know that teachers can and do. When I put up on twitter the other day the suggestion that Romeo and Juliet could text each other after Romeo has been banished. There were immediate replies telling me that they did that last year, or the year before. 

But how about my encounters with doctors? There’s a nice paradox about medicine, in that it involves the trained practitioner to have absorbed vast amounts of written knowledge, to have acquired the art of accessing information from relevant sources - most of which is written - but in face to face encounters with patients, a good deal of it is oral. In fact, to match the practitioner’s knowledge to the case before them, this oral encounter may well be crucial. The patient usually has to say what’s wrong, the practitioner has to be able to interview the patient without leading them, and then possibly have to explain what’s going on and what a possible remedy might be. It may well be a life and death matter. I’ve had hundreds of these over the last 18 months and several of these have been very difficult. For example, I’ve had to try to describe what’s wrong with my left eye. I groped for words like ‘foggy’, ‘misted over’ or I use similes: ‘it’s as if there’s a shower curtain over my eye’. In return, doctors have said things like, ‘Your optic nerve is buggered’, ‘Your eye was dilated, we didn’t know if you would be brain dead.’ It’s earthy. Direct. But I also got glimpses of how the practitioners were talking to themselves. Professor Hugh Montgomery told me how at the beginning of the pandemic, patients were arriving with respiratory problems but getting strokes. When they took blood samples, they had the experience of the blood being ‘sticky’. His word. What did they do? Doctors called each other up across the world. They quizzed each other about what they had observed. They shared what they had found. And yes, they discovered that this respiratory virus was killing people because it was somehow affecting the clotting of the blood. ‘You, Michael,’ Hugh said, ‘had clots in the ‘saddle’.’ Notice the nickname, he used, for the bifurcation of the pulmonary arteries where the blood clots were. 

It all  reminded me of first how in 1981 I was diagnosed as being hypothyroid. I arrived in the Renal Unit - that’s kidneys - for suspected failing kidneys. I sat in front of the consultant and he started getting me to talk about what I had been up to that week. As I talked he stared at me very closely. Eventually, he interrupted me, pushed my notes to one side and said, ‘I think this is rubbish. You’re hypothyroid.’ It was only through me doing that everyday thing - talking - that revealed what was wrong. Note it was HOW I was talking (part of oracy, of course), not WHAT I was saying. What a powerful thing it is, the ‘how’ of our talk!  He then called in his students and told them to diagnose me. He left the room. One student whispered in my ear, ‘What you got?’ I said, ‘I don’t think I’m allowed to tell  you.’ The consultant came back, ‘What’s he got?’ he said. ‘Kidney failure, sir’, said one. Mr Baker the consultant exploded, ‘You haven’t taken his pulse, you haven’t tested his reflex, you haven’t touched his skin, you haven’t asked him  to walk across the room. If you had done these things, you’d’ve known.’ 

Notice how Mr Baker was teaching medical practice: orally. As I found out later, this was indeed a matter of life and death. When I came back with my blood test a few days later, another doctor met me, Dr Gesundheit - no I didn’t make that up - opened up my notes and said in his American accent,  ‘Technically, you’re dead. Or at the very least, you should be in a torpor.’ 

These moments, these words, these oral encounters have stayed with me ever since. I’ve written them down, I’ve told them and re-told them. They are part of who I am. That’s another way oracy works: as milestones, powerful indicators, signals, symbolic moments, crux points in our lives, statements about identity, strange ironies, contradictions, meaningful, powerful utterances and more. 

I’m also reminded here of Harold talking about Sir Peter Medawar. Somewhere buried in his writings or lecture notes is his citation and analysis of how Sir Peter Medawar described getting his medical students to learn how to diagnose - through discussion, talk or what we now call oracy. In fact, it’s a model for what we also call, thanks to the work of Robin Alexander, Neil Mercer, Fiona Maine, Lynn Dawes and others - ‘dialogic learning’. If anyone finds the piece where Harold wrote about this, do get in touch!

As I’ve already indicated, I spent some time between June and September, trying to understand what had happened to me. My way of dealing with this has been to write about it. But saying that oversimplifies the matter because a lot of what I write and how I write, I call - oxymoronically - ‘oral writing’. Or, as I say to school students, ‘talk with the pen’. I imagine I am talking to a reader, and write things in that voice. 

‘I’ve forgotten my shoes.

I don’t know what my shoes were.’

I try to remember my feet in shoes.

The only shoes I know

are the ones I have here:

black plastic crocs.

But what shoes did I used to wear?

I’ve forgotten my shoes.’

Ok, I’ll be a bit more precise about this kind of writing. It’s made up of oral segments. Each line or part of a line is something I have said, or could have said, or might say. Partly what distinguishes it from actual speech is the repetition and the shape of the piece as a whole. It is of course framed with the sentence ‘I’ve forgotten my shoes’. It’s a literary device which can have the effect of indicating something that runs invisibly through a whole piece. That is, whatever is stated in the opening of the frame, continues while the actions, thoughts and feelings unfold and then reappears at the end. It never went away. I often think an analogy is the way in which the chalk of the Chiltern Hills runs under London and comes up in the south of London as the North Downs. The chalk is there under London all the time. 

This kind of oral writing can be a powerful educational tool. In my book, ‘Did I Hear You Write?’ (Five Leaves Press, 1998) I tried to flag up many different ways the oral language and oral cultures of children can be harnessed for writing, drama, and spoken word poetry. To be more accurate, there isn’t so much as one oral language but that our lives in the oral world are full of oral genres:  narratives (of which there are many kinds),  also repartee, proverbs, idioms, jokes, songs, rhymes, imitations, recipes, advice, commands. As I would say, one of the easiest ways to capture this is through poetry and spoken word work. A good deal of my adult life has been devoted to doing this through the medium of my own poetry, using it as models that can be used, adapted, recycled by children and school students. I often say that one of the most fertile one-line things you can say to help children and school students write is ‘you could write like that’. That’s to say, face to face with a poem that you’ve read or heard, ‘you could write like that,’ where ‘like that’ can mean, sound like that, look like that, have similar feelings, have similar pictures, similar phrases or even just be triggered by something in the poem - a memory, an echo, a thought, or something that springs out of the well that’s in the daydream that I spoke of. 

I should say in passing that of course I didn’t invent ‘oral writing’. I begged, borrowed and stole it from poets like DH Lawrence, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes. In a sense, they gave me permission to use my spoken voice and the spoken voice of others in my writing. Years ago, the teacher David Jackson and I thought that we were on to an immensely productive genre and produced an anthology called ‘Way of Talking’ (Ward Lock, 1978) - a deliberately provocative title for a book that was of course full of ‘Ways of Writing’. It was an anthology of poems told in these particular ways. And, appropriately, we produced a cassette tape to go with it. The vagaries of the capitalism of publishing brought the venture to speedy and sad end. David had based his input in the book on work with students at his school in Nottingham: using poetry, drama, improvisations to harvest their oracy for writing. In ‘Did I Hear You Write?’ I added in the fact that writing down what people children actually say is a very well-known and useful arm to teaching literacy. It seems to be a practice that comes and goes in waves: in my lifetime, teachers have sometimes done a lot of it, sometimes not at all. Sometimes parents have been encouraged to do it with their children, sometimes not mentioned at all. I’ve always thought that there is a powerful message to give to young children when we say in effect, that the stuff that comes out of your mouth can be represented by these squiggles on a  page. Look! I can read back what you just said! Again and again. It’s still there. Unlike speech, it hasn’t gone away. And we can put it in an envelope or in an email and send it 1000s of miles to someone else, who can read it too. The process of scribing what a child says seems to me to hold within it great power.  The more often we do it, I have thought, the better! Whether that’s still appropriate is a matter of policy, so I’ll leave that with you. 

Now while I’ve been musing about all these things (and trying to get better) several other things have  been going on: my 16 year old has been doing his GCSEs and my wife has been doing Law exams. 

I guess all of us here are very familiar with this sort of thing: that is more on the subject of what are the genres of language. The basis of much of a good deal of work in preparation for exams and the exams themselves is a written genre all of its own: the essay. Or in the case of exams and tests should I say, the essay produced under the very special conditions of not using reference, not conferring with others, under the  conditions of a fixed time and staying in your seat at all times. 

This genre is de facto the litmus test for whether they, you or I can or could pass to a next level in education until we can get to a point where we don’t ever have to do such things again. A strange apprenticeship: getting to be good at something that you don’t ever have to be good at. Yes, we may have to write reports, be succinct, work to deadlines, but to a clock?  And not consult anything or anybody? Remember stuff, yes,  but to remember everything that someone else tells you to, and then people who don’t know you,  judge you on that ability? 

But this kind of extreme writing - or what my tutor at university called - extreme journalism - is to my mind remarkable in itself, but also remarkable for being the main way we judge everyone in our education systems. 

With that in mind, I’ve been very interested to observe how people I’ve seen at close hand - members of my family and indeed how I myself prepared for this. 

I note that it involves more often than not a form of translation or transformation: there are sequences of information whether that comes in the form of paragraphs in text books, teachers’ notes or primary material like experiments, or literature texts.  The trick for me and them is of course packaging this up into parcels.  But not any old parcel. They have to be the parcels you guess that examiners will want to receive. So a degree of intuition, mind-reading and teachers’ tips come to play here. And perhaps we should add in here the canny trick of being able to understand the questions being asked. Back in the day when my youngest son was doing his Key Stage 2 SATs, there was a question which asked the children to look at a passage of writing from a book called ‘Comfort Herself’ by Geraldine Kaye (Scholastic, 1997). The passage described what Comfort saw in the market in Ghana. The question was ‘Explain the description in the passage.’ I’ll say that again, ‘Explain the description in the passage’. Now one way or another I’ve done a lot of what is loosely called ‘literary criticism’ but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to answer this question. I couldn’t decode the code. As it was a rehearsal question for the SATs and not the exam itself, I was able to go in the next morning and ask the teacher what it meant. In the playground. ‘Oh come on, Mr Rosen,’ he said, ‘it’s author intention.’

‘Is it?’ I said, ‘you mean we were supposed to do a bit of mind-reading? Guess what Geraldine Kaye was thinking when she wrote that. ‘Yep,’ he said, ‘you’ve got it.’ 

Interesting for me - and perhaps for us in the context of this talk, is that the means to understand that tiny piece of writing: the question about writing, was done orally. The process of decoding was done through talk. I’ll leave to one side the relative worth or lack of worth of doing such a thing, especially as there is a whole theory that ‘author intention’ is a pointless activity because we can never know what the author intends. Even so, it is something we all like doing and it does give us a chance to speculate about texts.

Back with essays and exam preparation: how to do the packaging? One method we’ve all used is the reducing trick. Start long, and edit down in stages, from chapters to pages to paragraphs, to bullet points to single words, and even to single letters and mnemonics. Another trick is to create formulaic dialogues with friends, family or even oneself: this involves turning the bullet points, say, into questions which we fire at each other or ourselves. This is where an oral element creeps in where we hope that by mouthing and speaking out loud,  these slabs of written knowledge will ‘stick’. Perhaps, when we go into the exam hall, we’ll remember the sounds of, say, the difference between sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rock. And here the art of rote-learning kicks in. Is this oral? Written? Both? A hybrid? 

I noticed that my son did these things - mostly at about one in the morning but with an additional factor that was missing from my days at school. He learned what might be called the protocols of the language of essays. He learned - partly orally - that group of words like ‘however’, ‘furthermore’, ‘additionally’. He was keen to pick up the jargon of things like ‘it could be said that’, ‘there is some evidence for’, but I got lost in the matter of whether paragraphs are PEC, PEE, PPE. When I said that I thought that the best thing you can do in a paragraph is make some kind of statement or point and illustrate that point with an example, I got pushed angrily to one side. I didn’t dare go there again.


Now ask me what these late night conversations were for. I don’t know. I did them. I’m a parent. I bent my mind as hard as I could to doing all I could to make helpful suggestions. To use oral language to make things stick. But no, I don’t know what it was for. I mean I know it was for the exam. What I don’t know is what it’s for existentially, or beyond that, for the sake of the universe. Even so, though this is a  world saturated with writing, it is circumscribed by oral interventions. 

Of course, the last 18 months have restricted the kinds of practice that I’ve understood to be valuable in itself: face to face talk, discussion, dialogic learning or what John Yandell has called ‘the social construction of meaning’. (That’s the title of his book.)  ‘The Social Construction of Meaning: Reading literature in urban English classrooms' (Routledge, 2013) This is the co-operative learning through talk which enables us to give voice to what we know, what we don’t know, to hear what others like ourselves know and don’t know: that mix of statements, questions, suggestions, hesitations, interruptions which enable us to arrive at judgements, evaluations, conclusions.  We can read about this in great detail in a book like John Yandell’s but also in books such as ‘Exploring Talk in School, inspired by the work of Douglas Barnes’, edited by Mercer and Hodgkinson (Sage, 2008), ‘Classroom Talk, evidence-based teaching for enquiring teachers’ by Rupert Knight (Critical publishing, 2020) , ‘Talking About Oracy, developing communication beyond the classroom’ by Sarah Davies (John Catt, 2020) , or ‘The Noisy Classroom, developing debate and critical oracy in schools’ by Debbie Newman (Routledge, 2020) and many others eg by Fiona Maine, Lynn Dawes and older books by eg Nancy Martin, my father, Douglas Barnes, Robert Protherough, or recent papers by eg Kristina Kumpulainen, and so on. 

But we can also act as our own observers and researchers. Consider this: a common sense view of the legal profession is that it’s one of the most heavily laden with literacy: legal documents, law books, written judgements, prepared scripted speeches, articles of criminology, statutes and so on. Yet, get involved in a case and something else emerges. Without going into details, I got embroiled in an unfortunate matter. I received what is called a ‘letter of claim’. I felt that I couldn’t handle the matter myself and turned to a solicitor. So, what now happened is of interest to us today. I had many, many conversations with my wife, and this solicitor, his assistant, and in the end another lawyer. The conversations ranged over who I am, what I thought, how we interpreted specific words in the original letter, how we might phrase this or that reply, what we should draw attention to, what we should emphasise, what would be the best thing to do next…and many, many more examples of  more nuanced stuff. All done through speech. Oracy. Of course this got synthesised into documents, letters which were then in themselves subjects of discussion between me and my wife and/or the solicitor translated into clarifications, emails, postscripts to emails and the like. It would be possible to analyse all this into various levels of oral work: reasoning, digressing, logical thought, intuition, anecdoting, exegesis on specific words or phrases - hermeneutics if you like, planning, strategy, research, gossip. Within the dialogues themselves there was the matter of how to make a point, how to disagree, how to take turns, how accept a counter-argument, how to suggest, how to accept that this or that might be desirable but was probably not appropriate.  Behind that, there might well have been questions of ego, whether this or that toe had been trodden on or could be trodden on, so a good deal of chat about what we might expect - in other words anticipatory and predictive…and much more. 

Where do we learn how to do this? Autobiographically, I can say that I learned a lot of this at home. I was very lucky to have had Harold and Connie Rosen as my parents and Brian Rosen as my older brother. Between them they spent hundreds - probably thousands - of hours drenching me in this kind of analytic dialogue: clarifying what things meant, asking for me or others to talk things through, experimenting with other ways of saying things, illustrating arguments with quotes, anecdotes, comparisons and contrasts, referring to authorities who might also have views, drawing attention to how people said or wrote things as an indicator of hidden or deliberately concealed intentions. 

Some people aren’t so fortunate. That said, I’m often very interested when listening to people who seem to have had no  higher education but who have been through many years of seeking justice. I’m thinking of people like those involved with miscarriages of justice or enquiries like Hillsborough, or Grenfell. People have learnt on the job, as it were, the differences between facts, accusations, defences, delays, procrastinations, justice, truth and lies. They appear in interviews on TV and radio and talk fluently, clearly, analytically, reflectively about what they’ve been through. They are able to reflect on how the system has worked against them being heard, or getting justice. I can’t know for certain, but there are occasions where I’ve got the impression that many people learn this sort of thing on the job. Again, I can’t be certain, I’ve suspected that this has largely come about through hundreds of hours of talk with lawyers, loved ones and friends to - as we say - get to the bottom of what was going on. 

This idea of decoding what people say lies at the heart of several professional activities, one of which is forensic linguistics. On BBC Radio 4’s ‘Word of Mouth’ I’ve had the benefit of being able to talk to several of these. One put in front of us the transcript of what Edward ‘Ted’ Kennedy said in his statement in relation to the events at Cape Chappaquiddick July 18/19 1969. Here’s some of it:

“On July 18, 1969, at approximately 11:15 p.m. in Chappaquiddick, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, I was driving my car on Main Street on my way to get the ferry back to Edgartown. I was unfamiliar with the road and turned right onto Dyke [sic] Road,[Notes 5] instead of bearing hard left on Main Street. After proceeding for approximately one-half mile on Dyke [sic] Road I descended a hill and came upon a narrow bridge [Notes 6]. The car went off the side of the bridge. There was one passenger with me, one Miss Mary___,[Notes 7] a former secretary of my brother Sen. Robert Kennedy. The car turned over and sank into the water and landed with the roof resting on the bottom. I attempted to open the door and the window of the car but have no recollection of how I got out of the car. I came to the surface…etc”

(Taken from wikipedia entry for ‘Chappaquiddick incident’ accessed July 3 2021) 

The forensic linguist drew our attention to something I hadn’t noticed: most of the clauses in the first part of the statement begin with the word ‘I’. I is the subject and theme of these sentences. Then, quite suddenly, the subject changes and becomes ‘the car’ and the statement, ‘There was one passenger’ not for example ‘I was with…’ Then again there’s another sentence that begins with ‘The car…’ but then the statement returns to ‘I’ with ‘I attempted to open the door…’ and on beyond my extract to him notifying the police. The forensic linguist left me with the problem of trying to figure out why Kennedy removed his agency from the passage in the story where he is at the wheel as the car goes into the water and remains as a non-agent until he gets free. 

How we speak, (or how we prepare statements to be read out) say more than we say. But where and how do we (or can we) learn such things? Some years ago, I was asked to give a talk to NATE and one of the aspects of linguistics that I thought might appeal to teenagers would be to ask, how might we know whether people are telling the truth or lying? What linguistic clues might we find? I’ll repeat it: to my mind it’s of crucial importance. Forensic linguistics is only the tip of the iceberg: lying, dissembling, pretending, exaggerating, insincerity, hypocrisy, deceit, fraud, concealment,  - these are potentially fascinating areas for us to investigate when we talk of oracy. 

Now, another part of my life in the last 18 months has been teaching. I co-teach an MA in Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths University of London and when we were devising the course, we put in a module that I don’t think exists anywhere else in the country: Children’s Literature in Action, where we lay aside our rights to be critics of children’s literature and invite students to research and investigate how children respond to literature. This immediately invites the question, yes but how? One old and familiar way is to give children questionnaires. These have the drawback of being formulaic (in order to standardise the answers), often closed-ended, written, and very much part of the adult-to-child relationship rather than the child-to-child one. Other possibilities lie in front of us: inviting children to interpret the texts they encounter. They might do this through drama, storying, painting, the making of objects - ie art, model-making, sculpture etc, writing. But what about talk? And this could be in such situations as:  teacher and whole class, adult and one child, or two children talking, or a group talking. As you will know, these are very different situations particularly if you’re seeking out what you hope will be authentic views of what children actually think of a text. What’s more, how do you collect such data? Film? Audio? Each has its advantages and disadvantages. And then if you collect it, how do you analyse it? These are the kinds of problems we have faced in the 5 or 6 years we’ve been running the course and to help us or guide us are those who’ve gone before - names I’ve mentioned already: Alexander, Mercer, Maine, Dawes, Protherough, Yandell, Davies, Newman, Knight, but now with these years of work behind us, previous years’ students, including one who you’ve already met today (introducing this talk) , Richard Charlesworth. 

So, one way or another these authors all suggest ways in which we can figure out what speakers are saying, and why, in relation to texts. For example, Robin Alexander in his chapter ‘Culture, dialogue and learning’ in ‘Exploring Talk in School’ edited by Neil Mercer and Steve Hodgkinson (Sage, 2008) talks of the ‘learning repertoire’ which would include the ability to: ‘narrate, explain, instruct, ask different kinds of question, receive, act and build upon answers, analyse and solve problems, speculate and imagine, explore and evaluate ideas, discuss, argue, reason and justify, negotiate..’ to which he adds: ‘listen, be receptive to alternative viewpoints, think about what they hear, give others time to think’.

This is a very helpful and fertile guide. It immediately invites us to think what conditions can we set up in classrooms which might enable all this happen? What role might a teacher have to play to enable it? What kinds of questions - or comments or body language might enable it? And indeed writers or our students reveal that such strategies as echoing, holding back from explaining, taking part as a parallel contributor eg as someone speculating, reflecting, offering anecdotes, or sometimes just through body language: nodding, looking, indicating that you’re attentive, gesturing approval, or that you want to hear more and so on.  Aidan Chambers in what is now called  ‘Tell Me with The Reading Environment’  (Thimble Press, 2011) (other editions are available) is a rich source for open-ended questions in this area but some of it comes from intuition and surrendering the role of instructor for the length of time of this kind of encounter. 

However, all this leaves open another level of analysis: the content of what a child might say in relation to a text. For a while I looked through these excellent references for descriptions of eg where a child makes a discovery of what they think is the meaning in a text, or where they interpret through the means of telling an anecdote. One guide for this was a little known book, Emrys Evans, ‘Young Readers, New Readings’ (University of Hull Press, 1992) . Evans proposed a matrix of response ranging from intuitions to evaluations: ‘Unreflective interest in action; empathising; analogising; reflecting on the significance of events (theme) and behaviour (distanced evaluation of characters); reviewing the whole work as the author’s creation; consciously considered relationship with the author; recognition of textual ideology; understanding of self (identity theme) and of one’s own reading processes. “ 

[Please note: Since giving the talk, I've received notification from Margaret Mackey that in fact this matrix owes its origins to:  Jack Thomson in his book, 'Understanding Teenagers Reading: Reading Processes and the Teaching of Literature' (1987)]

This brought me closer but in the end I thought I would start to assemble a matrix of my own to approximate the kinds of thought we all have, children too, in response to literature. It’s evolved into some 25 ingredients but I hope others can refine, adapt or add to it. It’s in my booklet ‘Poetry and Stories for Primary and Lower Secondary Schools’ (self-published, available through my website ) along with another matrix provided by James Durran from NATE in response to the matrix. These are what he calls ‘trigger questions’. 

So this (my matrix) has arisen out of the teaching of this module, our MA students - a mix of teachers, librarians and others working with young people, as they’ve brought to the class transcripts of children talking about texts. I’ve named each of the ingredients but they’re explained in my booklet, they are: experiential, intertextual, intratextual, interrogative, semantic, structural, selective analogising, speculative, reflective, narratological, evaluative, eureka moments, effects, storying, descriptive, grammatical, prosodic, effect of interactions, imaginative, emotional flow, author intention, contextual, representational or symbolic, extra-textual, causation. 

You might immediately see that these are not discrete, water-tight categories but that they overlap and that any utterance by a child responding to a text might be several of these categories. No matter, it gives us a language with which to analyse children’s discussions in relation to children’s literature. 

One of our students this term has brought to the class transcripts of conversations she’s having with a 13 year old boy about ‘Lord of the Flies’. There are several conversations about which characters - let’s call him ‘Peter’ - likes or dislikes. In session one, he said ‘I feel like I can relate to the characters and if I don’t like some of the characters, if I really hate some of the characters, I think it’s good then ‘cos then they make, they make characters I actually have feelings against or towards.’

So this is a comment that is about ‘effects’, if you like. He is assessing how he is affected by the characters. In session three, Peter expanded on this. The researcher asked him ‘Do you think author Golding is successful at achieving effect?’

Peter says, ‘Yes, I think so, because you feel affected by what’s happening in the book, like even with characters like…he makes good characters, like you don’t like, generally you don’t like Jack and that shows his, I don’t think you’re meant to like Jack so that’s good. And I think you’re kinda meant to be on the fence with Ralph, which I am and with Piggy you’re meant to feel a little sorry for him which I do…’ 

So there’s a lot going on here to do with ‘effect’ but also author intention. Going back to Alexander’s matrix there’s discuss, argue, explain, explore and evaluate ideas. 

Or this from Richard Charlesworth:



Transcript from Azzi in Between (session 1, group 1) 

Pupil-pupil context

Researcher Notes (linked to theory, if relevant)

  1. 19.Tom: It’s the same as ‘Refugee Boy’. It explains about the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. It says they’re fighting over a pile of rubble and dust. Which is kind of what they’re doing there (indicating image A). They’re just fighting in piles of rubble and dust. There’s nothing to fight over. 
  2. Kate: (Continuing point) and they’re still fighting. 
  3. Tom: Even if you did win the war you’d have to pay for… 
  4. Kate: (continuing point) for all of that. 
  5. Tom: For all of that to get rebuilt. To take over the country. 
  6. Zara: So really there isn’t a point in fighting. You don’t get anything out of it. 
  7. Kate: You get land, but haven’t you already got enough land?

Example of collaborative, dialogic discussion. 


Links to Vygotskian principle that understanding can be co-constructed by children building on previous comment.  


The children here are discussing quite adult concepts of economics, politics and geography in relation to the refugee experience.


So, if we choose, we can set up situations in which children can and will do the things that Robin Alexander and many others say they can do.