Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Theory suggests that talk-based – or “oracy” – education improves the life chances of young people: it underpins concept formation, supports knowledge acquisition and develops language, consequently raising attainment; it builds communication and presentation skills; and it prepares pupils for participation in democratic dialogue. Despite this, oracy has long been viewed as less important than literacy and numeracy in English state schools, whereas, in the private sector, oracy is securely embedded. This situation has recently been exacerbated by funding cuts, and by the diminishment of oral assessment at GCSE. Angered by this injustice, and loss of opportunity, educationists are lobbying for change, and encouraging all schools to invest in oracy. This thesis examines the consequences of heeding their advice in English state secondary schools.

Over three years, interviews with pupils and teachers, and observations, were conducted in three contrasting English state secondary schools that were actively investing in oracy education. Data was analysed using Straussian grounded theory methods, and the resultant case studies unfold as chronological narratives that foreground participants’ voices. The long-term, qualitative nature of this study complements and builds upon other studies and surveys of school oracy. The multiple case study design allows for the drawing of common conclusions about the challenges, opportunities and outcomes associated with investing in oracy. These findings, and consequent recommendations, are presented in the final chapters of this thesis.

This study shows that while pupils and teachers generally value class discussion, the pressures of delivering the curriculum – intensified by the introduction of new, content-heavy GCSEs in 2015 – can compel teachers to rein in tangential or challenging voices. This can entail a sudden switching from dialogic talk, where original responses are invited, to didactic or dialectic modes, where only “correct” contributions suffice; pupils often find this bewildering. By signposting movements between talk modes, and clarifying the purpose behind each new phase of talk, teachers might support enjoyable, productive oracy. Initiatives designed to develop presentational talk and communication skills are also largely valued by teachers and pupils, and have a positive impact. However, their growth is threatened by time pressures and, in the case of purchased programmes, low budgets. This thesis argues that the (re-) introduction of curricula that value exploratory talk, higher-stakes oracy assessment, and greater funding, would allow oracy to flourish in English state secondary schools.

While this study demonstrates that oracy does build academic understanding, it warns that scholarly talk does not necessarily translate into writing; further interventions, such as modelling writing, may remedy this. Furthermore, due to group dynamics, social pressures, or conflicting values, pupils may resist participation in oracy, or challenge the authoritative voice. Thus there is a conflict between valuing personal freedom and authentic dialogue, and socialising and enculturing young people: school leaders are advised to unpack and communicate the aims underpinning their oracy strategies.

This thesis endorses educationists’ calls for reform, and testifies to the benefits of investing in oracy. English state secondary schools are therefore encouraged to invest in oracy but, due to the current educational landscape, and the pedagogical dilemmas oracy generates, to do so with cautious optimism.
Date of Award2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorBethan Marshall (Supervisor) & Simon Gibbons (Supervisor)

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