Superpower: The Power of Speech

As I write this post, 16-year-olds and their teachers in Scottish secondary schools are, literally, wrapping up their Standard Grade English folios for the last time, as the qualification which was introduced to bring equality to the qualifications and certification system  is being replaced from next year by new National 4 and National 5 Certificates. Loved and despised in almost equal measure, Standard Grade and its attendant portfolio of writing, ushered in the era of ‘exams for all’, in the mistaken belief that treating everyone the same was the same as treating everyone equally. The subsequent ‘setting’ of classes and the self-fulfilling prophecy of identifying ‘Foundation kids’ from the start of the course soon put paid to that notion.

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One of the rarely-mentioned consequences of the current change, it would appear, is that talking and listening will no longer be a formal, assessable element of the course, which will come as a relief to many teachers, for whom the administration of talk assessments was of nightmare proportions, and to many kids, for whom standing up and delivering a speech in front of their peers was an ordeal, to say the least. It was never meant to be done that way of course, but not for the first time, expediency and the assessment tail found itself wagging the curriculum dog. Nevertheless, one of the unintended outcomes, I fear, is that the development of the spoken word, so vital in a hyper-networked world, will yet again be relegated to the category of ‘desirable, but not essential’. Which is a real shame, considering that young Scots, with some notable exceptions, have not traditionally been renowned for their verbal dexterity, and considering  the emphasis put on orality by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), especially in terms of valuing one’s own culture and identity. In its 2004 position paper, The Plurality of Literacy and its Implications for Policies and Programmes, the organisation for whom the meaningful acquisition and application of literacy lays the foundation for positive social transformation, justice, and personal and collective freedom, recognises the importance of spoken language in enabling individuals and groups to articulate their own ‘meanings, knowledge and identity’.

“In acknowledging the fact that literacy involves oral, written, visual and digital forms of expression and communication, literacy efforts conceived in terms of the plural notion of literacy intend to take account of the ways in which these different processes interrelate in a given social context. Because all such processes involve expressing and communicating cultural identity, the promotion of literacy must foster the capacity to express or communicate this identity in one’s own terms and especially language(s). In a multilingual society, the plural notion of literacy entails designing multi-lingual policies and programmes for both the mother tongue and other languages as well as recognising the complementary relationship between literacy and orality.”

The Plurality of Literacy and its Implications for Policies and Programmes, UNESCO 2004

All of which gives me an excuse, if I needed one, to share with you this wonderful TED talk by Ron Finley, which I think demonstrates admirably the power of the spoken word, the importance of pride in cultural identity, and the ability of individuals to make a difference if they feel powerfully enough about the need to do so. I hope you enjoy it and share it with your students.


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