The privilege of discussion


Proficiency in oral language provides children with a vital tool for thought. Without fluent and structured oral language, children will find it very difficult to think.


At parents’ evenings in my current school, I am often told ‘They come home talking about your lessons and we debate it’. This makes me very happy for several reasons. It means they’ve probably understood what we were studying, they’re confident enough to explain and discuss the topic with another adult (that may not know anything about it) and of course, it’s particularly useful in defeating that good old Ebbinghaus forgetting curve.

However, this report out today and a discussion with a friend that has just moved into the independent sector, has made me think more about this. Is quality discussion a social privilege?

The poverty of silence

You see, in previous schools, I didn’t hear this said by parents so much. The demographic of my previous schools were not the same as my current school. The privilege of discussion seems to correlate with socio-economic background.* There’s a lot of research to back this up including a huge discrepancy in the number of words a child may know at a certain age, due to socio-economic status.

Sadly, for some children, the nature of discussion and the range of vocabulary is limited at home. How much can we do to try to improve the experience of discussion a child is exposed to?

I know about the research;it’s just struck me this week how it might be a cause of the ‘gap’ and possibly what I do/can do about it. I’m quite lucky that I teach a subject that I mainly teach through discussion. We discuss everything. Students are exposed to a wide range of vocabulary and I love talking about etymology with students. They even learn some Hebrew, Punjabi and Arabic.

What can we do about it?

  • Use subject and pastoral time in school for discussion e.g form time. Example, watch BBC Newsround and then discuss an issue. Ensure all students contribute. Do this regularly. I know some English teachers lament the removal of ‘speaking’ in GCSE but that in itself didn’t go far enough. It’s not about presenting an issue. It’s about proficiency of spontaneous discussion on a range of topics, expanding vocabulary along the way.
  • Give younger students an opportunity to discuss a topic with older students
  • Encourage parents to discuss the topics from school at home. Not just ‘how was school?’ (I know that getting a teenager to talk at all can be a challenge!)
  • Set homework that involves discussion with others.
  • A debating club or better still debating as part of the curriculum for all students

*However we do need to be careful. Whilst FSM can be used as an indicator of financial status it cannot always be a direct indicator of home support and the discussion that occur at home.

Reading: includes lots of relevant research links


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s