Month: October 2015

The Oracy Priority

*This article was written for the bi-monthly newsletter
of a national education organisation.


“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein


It is no great secret that British politics and many top professions in the UK continue to be steered by an overwheming majority of “public” school graduates. While we might attribute much of this to students’ consistently hard work, avid parental support, privileged learning experiences and networking opportunities through financial circumstance (not to mention some darn good ‘pedestalled-by-people-in-power’ teaching), we must not neglect another significant constituent lying beneath the surface here.
These schools are masters in cultivating learning environments that nurture students to become confident, articulate public speakers. A degree in neuroscience is not required for me to suppose that regular exposure to effective speaking and listening skills – modelled by confident speakers who talk effectively to other confident speakers, whilst employing a wide range of impressive vocabulary to express themselves and their ideas – is far more likely to be the reason why we become confident speakers ourselves, rather than some genetic predisposition to possessing superior oracy skills from birth.


Neil Mercer, Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge, explains,

“The British public schools, which educated many members of the present Westminster government, of course place great emphasis on developing the confident and effective use of spoken language. For the sake of social equality, state schools must also teach children the spoken language skills that they need for educational progress, and for life in general.”
Despite being considered one of the top three skills that employers look for in potential employees, leaders in education could be considered guilty in recent years of overlooking the importance of the explicit teaching of oracy. Current evidence of this within government legislation includes both the downgrading of ‘speaking and listening’ to ‘spoken language’ in the Primary Curriculum, and the entire removal of the oral language assessment at GCSE in 2014. The message this sends is contrary to large volumes of educational research advising that opportunities to discuss, debate and reason with others are essential in the process of assimilating new knowledge and broadening vocabulary. While some students regularly participate in debating groups and thrive in smaller classes where teacher-student and student-student interaction is optimum, others simply dread the moment when their name might be called to answer a relatively straightforward question in front of their peers.


Studies in this area have revealed that by providing greater opportunities within the classroom for structured exploratory talk, which promotes the sharing and challenging of ideas raised by peers in a safe and well-managed environment, this leads to a greater and more ‘rounded’ understanding of topics raised. Geoff Barton, Headteacher, author and leading literacy expert in his book “Don’t Call it Literacy!” (2012) suggests,

“Group work provides an opportunity for the word-poor to mingle with the word-rich, to hear language being used by pupils of their own age in ways that they might not otherwise encounter. So, at the risk of being too grandiose, we mustn’t forget the importance that thoughtful groupings give to the social mobility agenda.”
Another crucial type of talk is one that enables students to review concepts and ideas in a critical manner, reflecting in a way that leads to higher order thinking. Designing opportunities where students can rehearse presentational talk is also vital in ensuring that we are fostering future generations of confident public speakers.
Good oracy is clearly an essential tool in achieving success, not only to enhance a list of employability skills on a CV, but it is also necessary for the process of learning itself. Best practice oracy teaching includes; effective communication modelled by teachers and staff within a school, a range of opportunities provided to rehearse talk through intentional, planned discussions, a combination of different types of talk, discrete teaching of advanced and unfamiliar vocabulary, exemplar modelling of good oracy skills and feedback on student progress in oracy with built-in revisits to enable future improvements.
With so many obvious advantages to teaching oracy, not least to function as the foundation on which all reading and writing is constructed, it is perplexing that this fundamental aspect of literacy has been removed from the education agenda. As long as the metaphorical ‘gap’ continues to exist between private and state schools, so too should any intervention we can offer that seeks to close it.