One of the only lessons I remember from my kindergarten class more than 60 years ago was when we’d sit in a circle and the teacher passed a box of small glass mirrors around. She told us to hold them so we could see our mouths clearly, then asked us to repeat the letters of the alphabet, blends, numbers, common words and our names.
She was teaching us to be articulate, at least in one sense.
I’m not a linguist, but I would define articulacy (or oracy) as being able to express oneself clearly; to do more than make oneself simply understood, but to be able use language to identify in some detail what one wants or how one feels. (“Me hungry,” is understandable, but, “I’d like two Cornish pasties, please,” is articulate.)
Indeed, this is essentially how it is set out in the objectives for Speaking and Listening, GSCE Subject Criteria for English (June 2015): “Speak to communicate clearly and purposefully; structure and sustain talk, adapting it to different situations and audiences; use standard English and a variety of techniques as appropriate.” Depressingly this is followed by, “Weighting toward final GCSE mark: 0%.”1
The term “standard English” will have some pretty loose interpretations today, but “speak to communicate clearly” – diction – in both senses - is implicit in articulation. First, the very word ‘articulate’ relates to the mechanics of word formation; secondly, diction applies to the choice of the most apt or detailed words to use; this binds diction to both articulacy and literacy.
This is not about accent or, (inevitably in the UK) region or class: it’s about being able to speak accurately and be comprehended by other fluent English speakers.
In today’s difficult job market, it seems to me that articulacy is right up there with numeracy and literacy as competencies looked for by employers. This is why I find it particularly puzzling that examinations boards have essentially dropped a requirement for articulacy by ceasing to allocate marks for its demonstration.
Opening up the issue
There are a number of strands to articulacy that deserve to be explored by teachers and policy-makers. These range from a practical realisation that it should have a place in the curriculum from early on2 as a valued skill, to what implications articulacy has for children making progress; parenting; detrimental effects on career choices caused by inarticulacy, and a lack of success in accessing welfare assistance.3
The reason for not allocating marks to the Speaking and Listening component of the GCSE was because it was felt that it was not possible to assess it consistently.4 What is implied by this is that if something can’t be measured, it’s not worth teaching. Given that philosophers of education have long identified different “grammars” and “truth tests” for different subject areas (i.e., maths is marked differently from English), assessing Speaking and Listening in English should be no more challenging than assessing the oral components of French, German, or other foreign language. (Unless, of course, those results are suspect, too.)
I don’t pretend that there are easy answers here, but at the moment, articulacy is largely ignored.
In 40+ years as a teacher and school governor, I have only heard of the mirror exercise being done once, at a Montessori nursery school. Perhaps it is done more widely, or, perhaps its pedagogical value is minimal; but if so, what is being done instead?
This could be the first step in reinstating a perceived value to articulacy: to help teachers with practical guidelines and suggestions for improving it. For example, insisting on answers in full sentences from whenever the child is capable of doing so, or eliminating over-used, meaningless, or slang words and expressions from classroom speech and writing. Such practices are easily implemented.
Articulacy as an imperative in a democratic society
A democracy is a participatory form of government and when everyone’s vote counts the same, the informed and articulate voter will ultimately be a more active and effective participant.
There is a practice of talking about ‘the post code lottery’ when discussing public services (notably schools, transport and the NHS). The implication is that services are better in more affluent areas – which is sometimes demonstrable. However, the real question is why? Given that politicians from poorer areas need campaign funding as much as those in wealthier areas, the monetary influence argument doesn’t hold up as much as some would like to think.
Could the difference be that the wealthier areas are also more articulate ones?
Perhaps the real reason for dropping the assessment value from articulacy isn’t that it can’t be evaluated, but that evaluations will raise too many other issues which are less urgent. In either case, the consequences of an inarticulate population are too serious to be ignored.
1 The objectives also contain criteria for listening.
2 I know of one academy that has introduced articulacy lessons in Early Years in response to need.
3 The amount of unclaimed welfare benefits totals between £16 – 24 billion annually, depending on sources and definitions.
4 “. . . there are no practical arrangements that we consider we can make to ensure assessment of speaking and listening is sufficiently resilient.” Ofqual Consultation on the Removal of Speaking and Listening from GCSE English and GCSE English Language.