Teaching students to read between the lines

Teaching students to read between the lines

Covid-19 has exacerbated the problem of fake news. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation, declared in February 2020 that Covid-19 was not the only public health emergency the world was facing — he said that we were also suffering from an “infodemic: fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”

Man sat down at a table using a tablet
"There are no signs that the infodemic is receding." - Arlene Holmes-Henderson, Fellow

The ability to ‘read between the lines’ of communication, or critical literacy, was the subject of my 2013 Churchill Fellowship. I travelled to Australia and New Zealand as I had identified that policymakers, curriculum designers and educators in those countries had been pioneers in equipping young citizens with the skills to separate fact from fiction. I learned that their conception of critical literacy was closely linked to ‘being a good citizen’, and that teachers taught students to be critically literate through active listening, rhetoric and debate. As a classicist specialising in ancient rhetoric and the history of communication, this was of particular interest to me.

I was recently invited by Emma Hardy MP, convenor of the Oracy All Party Parliamentary Group, to share my Fellowship findings in a parliamentary evidence session. The session centred on ‘international approaches to classroom talk’ – how to engage learners in purposeful dialogue, and many other associated activities. I spoke alongside three other experts: Andreas Schleicher (OECD), Prof Lauren Resnick (Institute of Learning, University of Pittsburgh) and Dr Sandra Berkowitz (US debate team coach).

I decided to focus on the international comparative research that I had conducted in the Australian state of Victoria, where oracy (the term used by the Victoria Curriculum and Assessment Authority to describe speaking and listening skills) is a formally assessed element of both the Victoria Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) and the Victoria Certificate of Education (VCE) qualifications. I view Victoria as something of a gold standard internationally for the way its qualification body has raised the status, profile and currency of oracy in classrooms across the state.

Key learnings I shared with the inquiry included the fact that students on the VCAL are assessed in ‘oracy for self-expression’, ‘oracy for knowledge’, ‘oracy for practical purposes’ and ‘oracy for exploring issues and problem-solving’. These pupils are often preparing for further education or the world of work. VCE students are often preparing for higher education, and they analyse how argument and persuasive language can be used to position audiences, and create their own oral presentation that shows awareness of intonation, stress, rhythm, pitch, timing, volume, gesture and eye contact. They are required to detect bias and faulty reasoning in the arguments of others, while showing active listening, checking and questioning during debates and discussions. These are assessed elements of the English subject curriculum and are credit-bearing. These skills are vital for success in contemporary society, whether face to face or via video platform.

After returning from my Fellowship, I secured follow-on funding from the Churchill Fellowship to hold a day-long conference, ‘Oracy across the curriculum’, at Mercers’ Hall in September 2016. The event brought together more than 100 key stakeholders to discuss the intersection of oracy, rhetoric and critical literacy. I am now building on this work in the Speaking Citizens project at the University of Sussex. This inter-disciplinary project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (2020-2023), brings together academics from history, sociolinguistics, political communication and classics to investigate the role of speech in the education of citizens. Beneficiaries will include teachers and learners in classrooms, senior leaders of schools, chief executives of academy trusts, policymakers in the departments of education of all four devolved nations, educational charities and colleagues designing curriculum and assessment policy internationally.

There are no signs that the infodemic is receding. The Government has now issued official SHARE advice to all members of the public to help them establish whether communications they encounter may be misleading:

  • Source - make sure information comes from a trusted source
  • Headline - always read beyond the headline
  • Analyse - check the facts
  • Retouched - does the image or video look as though it has been doctored?
  • Error - look out for bad grammar and spelling

My research combines the critical evaluation of communication with an investigation into the importance of teaching speaking and listening. The future of our society depends on it.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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