Talking Floats On A Sea Of Write

 By Clare Sealy


Can oracy be developed in isolation, or does it often depend on the quality of the written word?

‘Writing floats on a sea of talk’ said James Britton in the 1970s.’ If you can’t say it, you can’t write it. The assertion is that teaching children to write articulately necessarily involves teaching children to speak articulately.  But this assertion assumes that writing is transcribed speech. However, because speech and writing are produced in very different communicative situations, there are significant differences in how they are structured. What is more, writing enables a different type of more formal speech.

Exploratory talk and presentational talk, to use the categories first proposed by Douglas Barnes and then expanded upon by Neil Mercer, are different from everyday, conversational talk. More formal ways of talking are dependent upon writing.

If you can’t write it, you can’t say it.  Or as Quntillian said in the first century, ‘By writing we speak with greater accuracy and by speaking we write with greater ease.’ Talking floats on a sea of ‘write.’

Whereas talk is transient, fleeting and  ephemeral, writing is durable. It has permanence. Spoken words appear and then disappear in the moment, vanishing without trace. Since working memory is fairly limited, the transience of speech means that it is hard to articulate and organise complex thoughts or to revisit the complex thoughts of others.  The development of the technology of literacy extended working memory by outsourcing it to an external memory field – the written word – giving humans the ability to store and retrieve ideas efficiently and accurately.

The very fact that writing could store and enable retrieval of ideas resulted in a new type of communication allied to, but different from the spoken word. Because speech and writing are produced in very different communicative situations, there are differences in how they are structured. Both types of communication involve trade-offs.

As writing is durable and has permanence, it does not usually involve live interaction with a listener.  Writing is both asocial and asynchronous. This has the advantage that it is possible to communicate across time and space but this comes with a price. With face-to-face speech, the speaker receives immediate feedback should their listeners appear confused, and can act on this and add in more detail. Writers do not receive real time feedback from their readers so cannot spontaneously adapt their message. This places a responsibility on writers to explain things more clearly and explicitly than when talking.

Everyday conversation usually takes place between people who share a context. The speaker can make assumptions about what the listener already knows that a writer cannot. This is further compounded by differences of culture or history. Vernacular ways of speaking work fine in a local, immediate context. But for written material that may be read by a reader at some remove in time or space from the author, standardised ways of writing need developing that mitigate linguistic differences.

The transient nature of spoken language places burdens on the working memory not only on the speaker but on the listener. Spoken language is structured to accommodate this.  For example, when speaking, we buy thinking time both for ourselves and  listeners by using voiced hesitations such as ‘um’ and ‘ah’. We pause, repeat and rephrase so that listeners have time to absorb the spoken message and to give ourselves time to plan our next utterance.  Hesitations are not only acceptable, they are necessary.

The fixity of writing means these working memory workarounds are not necessary. The written word does not vanish once uttered. The reader can revisit written utterances. The reader can pause, hesitate. The writer is expected to have already rephrased their thoughts into the clearest utterance possible prior to publication. Repetition, so necessary in spoken language, is frowned upon in writing.  Writers deliberately try to use synonyms rather than repeat the same word within a sentence.

Speaking involves thinking on the spot.  Writing gives you take up time to monitor and edit your thoughts. You can write a sentence, pause, reread it, reword it, change the order, extent it, abridge it or delete it.  You have time to think about word choice, literary devices, removing repetition, adding in rhetorical devices, changing sentence length. Writing can be polished in ways that conversational speech cannot. Writing is expected to be polished in ways that conversation speech is not.

Fragments abound in conversational speech. In writing, the sentence rules. The basic unit of spoken language is what is called a tone group, not the sentence. A tone group is a group of words said in a single breath and carrying a single thought. The permanence of writing permits more complex sentences, sentences which might include subordinate clauses. Sentences and clauses are ways of indicating to the reader the boundary between one thought and another.

In speech, tone of voice, timing, volume, stress and timbre communicate not only meaning but also attitude and emotion. These have no direct correlate in writing. Instead, punctuation plays a crucial though not entirely straightforward role in communicating meaning and emotional intent. Adverbs and adjectives are also much more common in writing, since emotion and intensity cannot be inferred from tone, stress volume or facial expression.

Far from perceiving the absence of social interaction as weakness, formal academic writing sees its deliberate impersonal stance as underpinning objectivity. Academic thought becomes an ongoing truth quest untrammelled by group loyalty or personal circumstance. It codifies detachment from the sphere of social influence by such deliberately impersonal devices as writing in the third person, using  passive voice constructions and nominalised forms of verbs (evaporation rather than evaporate, decision rather than decide). Modal verbs convey the provisional, tentative and  challengeable nature of written thought.

Learning to write is therefore really complex. Learning to write isn’t just about learning to transcribe transient spoken utterances into permanent representations, it is about learning to communicate differently, using a different syntax.  It’s learning a whole new way of sentence-based communication. When we learn to write, we learn a new language, a language that is no one’s natal tongue – the language of ‘write.’ And it is a language we need to learn to speak not only in order to write – maybe AI will do a lot of that for us in the future – but in order to think the kind of complex, extended thoughts that writing makes possible. Learning the language of ‘write’ turbocharges the ability to think abstractly and analytically.  If you can’t write it, you can’t think it or say it.

This language of ‘write’ can be spoken as well as written. It is the language of presentational speech. When listening to a speech or a documentary, you are probably listening to the language of ‘write’. But at some point, this oral event was written before it was spoken. There’s a script or an article, or a blog or a book or a plan behind the spoken event. People just don’t talk at length in extended and coherently joined sentences without either having written it down first. Behind the scenes will be planning and preparation, research and revision.

So what does this mean for oracy in the classroom? The phase and subjects we are working  within must shape our decisions. With younger children who cannot yet  decode or handwrite with fluency, talk acts as a scaffold for thinking in ways that writing cannot. Children are beginning to learn sentence-based communication through being read to and by hearing adults use exploratory and presentational talk and through being encouraged to begin to use such forms themselves.

Ideally, though sadly far from the norm, writing lessons will include explicit focus on developing sentence-based communication both orally and in writing before expecting writing at length. Oral rehearsal is not a replacement for writing, it is part of learning how to write well.

Acquisition of the basic building blocks of phonics, handwriting and sentence syntax are necessarily foundational to becoming a writer and it does children a disservice to expect them to write  at length before these prerequisites are in place. Instead, oral storytelling, prompted by story maps, provides the space for composition. Alongside this, teachers should plan for and encourage talk for a range of communicative functions – see EYFE the language of learning by Alex Bedford and Julie Sherrington for more on this.

Once children can decode and handwrite – writing is able to act as a scaffold for talking (and vice versa). Though we must pay heed to what makes sense in curricular terms for each discipline. Imposing school-wide oracy rituals without due regard for what works for specific subjects is an all too familiar way of taking a good idea and ruining it. But where exploratory talk does make sense within a subject,  initially this may take place in the casual vernacular. Sentence dominated idioms are too clunky for spontaneous, social interaction, and plain weird used within conversations.

Exploring ideas with others in the moment means participants need the thinking time that voiced hesitations and repetitions provide. But children need to learn how to switch code. They need to translate informal conversational talk into the more formal language of ‘write’, revisiting, editing, extending  or abridging their thoughts with the aim of being able to share with an audience using polished formal presentational language whether orally or in writing. White boards are helpful here, acting as a ‘no man’s land’ between transient speaking and the formally phrased sentence, enabling  fleeting phrases to be captured, revised and recast into sentenced-based idiom, while allowing erasure of that revision.

It is sometimes assumed that because conversational language comes naturally, including talk in the curriculum will make learning more accessible because talk is easier than writing. This misconception leads some to embrace oracy as fairer and more inclusive and others to reject it as involving a dumbing down of expectations.  But learning to communicate in the asynchronous and asocial language of ‘write’ is not easier than conversational language; it’s much harder. This is not about chatting in class. The language of ‘write’ is a specialised kind of language that gives students the ability to talk about and hence think about things that otherwise they couldn’t. If we believe that all children belong in academic spaces, then all children are entitled to be taught how to use this powerful language.

Learning through talk, though potentially valuable, is not by itself going to be enough to enable children to develop the syntax of the language of ‘write.’  Children also need to learn about talk, and in particular the sentence-based structures of exploratory and presentational talk[1].

Curriculum planning needs to include explicit instruction in the syntactic structures of the disciplinarily appropriate language of ‘write’. Expecting children to use writing or speech to communicate extended thought, when children are still novices in learning the syntax of this new language sets many up for failure. Talking in ‘write’ is even more challenging (given you are attempting to speak spontaneously in a medium designed for asynchronous communication that you may not have been explicitly taught) than writing in ‘write.’

Calls for more oracy often seem to place more emphasis on the mode of communication – spoken rather than written – rather than the type of communication – casual, consultative or formal. Oracy is not a simple alternative to writing; writing enables powerful oracy. If we want better oracy, we also need better writing.



[1] See James Mannion The transformative power of oracy – ORACY CAMBRIDGE


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