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The spoken word wields immense power. Everyday conversation is the basis of human relationships: communication underpins collaboration, the engine that facilitated the success of our species (Crystal, 1987, p. 293; Harari, 2011, p. 25). So how much are we doing in class to foster understanding of, and develop, this human superpower?

Although ‘spoken language’ is a requirement of the national curriculum for English, the topic of ‘conversation’ – how and why talk happens – is strikingly absent in UK schools. English curricula – in thrall to literacy and literature – rarely focus on language, and even less on talk: even GCSE ‘English Language’ is based on literary texts. If oracy is mentioned, it typically involves literary dialogues, formal presentations and speeches, all of which are planned and written texts.

‘English curricula – in thrall to literacy and literature – rarely focus on language, and even less on talk: even GCSE “English Language” is based on literary texts.’

Yet if contemporary education truly champions inclusivity, diversity, equality and wellbeing, the most prominent feature of English – talk – needs discussion. It is through talk that such values are manifest. English classes are well placed to explore the rules of informal talk (chit-chat, teasing, banter, gossip) as well as formal talk. How we talk to one another matters, in class and beyond: it has consequences.

I therefore argue that a revised English curriculum should provide opportunities where students can be helped to identify, recognise and understand the ‘rules’ and patterns of talk. This requires knowledge, know-how, ‘know-when’ … and practice. As with grammar, conversational rules are tacit conventions that are typically followed, and we notice and feel perceived transgressions.

For instance, some rules concern how we talk. When two people converse they take turns: a greeting is met with a greeting, a question generates an answer, an invitation requires a response, also known as ‘adjacency pairs’ (Goodwin, 1981); but in such an exchange, how long can a listener remain silent before the speaker feels something is wrong? Listeners are expected to say something, and promptly, for a delayed retort can imply reservation, or even disagreement. As such, rules vary across cultures, and opportunities for misinterpretations are rife.

Another rule concerns duration, or ‘holding the floor’: how long can a speaker’s turn last before the hearer starts to feel offended? Conversely, if the listener starts speaking too soon, the speaker may feel interrupted or frustrated. Timing and turn-taking in conversation are also culturally sensitive, as demonstrated by four decades of research around people, relationships and conversational effectiveness in romantic, healthcare, legal and commercial contexts (Sacks et al., 1974; Stokoe, 2018).

Terms of address are also governed by tacit rules. How we address one another reflects perceived (in)equality, while the audience can also affect choices – is it ‘Bond’, ‘Mr Bond’, ‘James’, or ‘007’?

Other rules concern content. When somebody speaks, we assume they have something to say; that they are being forthright and honest; and their turn conveys sufficient information for us to make sense of their words. The philosopher, Paul Grice, demonstrated how conversation is predicated on shared assumptions: conversational ‘maxims’. These are patterns of communication most people follow, most of the time, and concern what we say, how much, how clearly, when and why (Grice, 1975). If speakers deviate from such conventions, we look for an explanation. Like any language ‘rule’, users are not obliged to conform, but most do; when they don’t, we notice. As a result, when we get a very short (or lengthy) response, or a vague answer, or if someone changes the subject, or lies, this attracts attention – it is meaningful.

Finally, showing we are listening can matter as much as how we speak: the accusation ‘you’re not listening’ is damaging. How we manage everyday conversations can have profound effects on one’s relationships, life chances and happiness. Irrespective of background, a person’s views, values and sense of self are all conveyed through their conversation. As Stokoe suggests, ‘You are the turns you take’ (2018, p. 63).

Unless we include conversational skills in English, we are not educating the ‘whole person’ – the social, emotional, responsive, cultural and intellectually evolving self. The revised curriculum must include explicit opportunities for teaching about talk, and more opportunities to talk. Furthermore, if we want to stimulate interest in GCSE English and increase A-level entrants, we should examine what matters most to young people in the 21st century, and recognise how talk is central to developing connections, collaboration, communication, compassion and kindness.


Crystal, D. (1987). The Cambridge encyclopedia of language (2nd edn). Cambridge University Press.

Goodwin, C. (1981). Conversational organization: Interaction between speakers and hearers. Academic Press.

Grice, P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. L. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and Semantics Volume 3 (pp 41–58), Elsevier.

Harari, Y, N. (2011). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. Vintage.

Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., & Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language, 50(4), 696–735.

Stokoe, E. (2018). Talk: The science of conversation. Robinson.