Oracy: Powerful Talk and Meaningful Communication in Schools

·

·

Since its initial propagation as a term in 1965, oracy has been a sticking point for many schools, staff and students. Dr Andrew Wilkinson, in the first sentence of his offering on the Concept of Oracy, describes spoken English as having been ‘shamefully neglected’ and that ‘to create rather than to repeat, a skill which everybody is exercising most of the time, has not been regarded worthy of serious attention.’ [1] One of the greatest challenges – and joys – of my work is helping to re-establish oracy and spoken communication as a key priority – and skill – within the education sector.

This is not least because oracy is very difficult to define. Thankfully, a cross-party parliamentary group, in their 2021 report, entitled ‘Speak for Change’, produced the following definition that works well for our purposes here: 

‘Oracy is the ability to speak eloquently, to articulate ideas and thoughts, to influence through talking, to collaborate with peers and to express views confidently and appropriately. Oracy refers both to the development of speaking and listening skills.’ [2] 

Whilst this serves as an overarching definition, it is still relatively abstract. Just what are these ‘speaking’ and ‘listening’ skills? What do they look and sound like in someone who has mastered them, and what do we expect students to be able to do at different stages of their developmental journey? 

The National Curriculum in England for KS3 and KS4 (2014), in language which largely mirrors that of the Spoken Language requirements of the primary phase (Years 1-6) [3] provides some guidance: 

‘Pupils should be taught to speak clearly and convey ideas confidently using Standard English. They should learn to justify ideas with reasons; ask questions to check understanding; develop vocabulary and build knowledge; negotiate; evaluate and build on the ideas of others; and select the appropriate register for effective communication. They should be taught to give well-structured descriptions and explanations and develop their understanding through speculating, hypothesising and exploring ideas. This will enable them to clarify their thinking as well as organise their ideas for writing.’ [4] 

This is all useful information, but one fundamental question remains. It is the single question that, once we are truly prepared to live the answer, transforms the way we approach oracy with our students: 

Why? 

Why Oracy?

Why expose yourself to the level of discomfort, awkwardness and frustration this pursuit often brings, at least initially, on an individual and organisational level? Why expose your own vulnerability and insecurity as a public speaker (25% of us are conscious about our accent, never mind our proficiency as orators) in the pursuit of helping young people excel at something we struggle with ourselves? Why insist on meaningful participation and heightened responses when getting any response or meaningful participation from teenagers feels like a resounding triumph? 

As Simon Sinek aptly suggests: ‘Lots of people can tell you what they do. Some can tell you how they do it. Very few can tell you why they do it.’ [5] 

So – why oracy? 

I think it comes down to believing three things: 

  1. Proficiency in spoken language is the only and essential key with which students can open certain doors of opportunity that would otherwise remain closed; 
  1. Our students have the potential to become future leaders and decision-makers that will rely daily on the skills we are helping them to develop; 
  1. Despite our fallibilities, we are the most qualified and worthy individuals to provide this level of education and, whilst we should earnestly strive for continual improvement in our own communication, should deem ourselves adequate to undertake task at hand. 

Visualise this as a triangle. The closer we find ourselves to the centre of this triangle, the more rapidly progress will be made. However, leaning towards one point of the triangle at the expense of the other two elements will bring added frustration and resistance. 

When we live according to these beliefs and positively re-evaluate what we envision is possible, we place ourselves in the greatest possible position to help our students preserve their relationships and mental health, as well as see them becoming positive contributors to society and democratic discourse. Paul Dreschler, former chair of the CBI and Teach First, puts it well: ““You cannot be recruited if you cannot speak effectively. [These skills] are a passport to work – a fundamental requirement – as important as the oxygen we breathe when it comes to opportunity in the future. [6]” Considering a 2018 LinkedIn survey exposed oral communication skills as the biggest skills gap by a significant margin, the wider employment sphere has already outlined the urgent need for the re-oxygenation process to begin.  

The current educational picture shows that there is scope to improve our levels of confidence and performance in this area. Despite it being a statutory part of the National Curriculum, 39% of secondary teachers say they are ‘not at all confident’ in their understanding of the spoken language requirements outlined therein [7]. Over 90% of those surveyed also asserted their belief that the ‘word gap’ (where children have a vocabulary below age-related expectations) has widened further between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students following school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. On average, however, oral language approaches have a high impact on pupil outcomes of 6 months’ additional progress, showing a significant possibility of slowing, and potentially reversing, this decline [8]. 

So, what does this look like in a classroom setting? What can teachers do on a weekly, daily and lesson-by-lesson basis to help students develop these vital skills? 

The Education Endowment Foundation, in their report ‘Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools’, provide seven strategies for more effective deployment of oracy in the classroom [9], including: 

1. Teachers modelling what effective talk sounds like in their subjects, including subject specific language and vocabulary; 

2. Deliberately sequencing talk activities alongside reading and writing tasks to give students opportunities to practise using new vocabulary, develop ideas before writing, or discuss ways to overcome common challenges; 

3. Using sentence starters and prompts to help students to structure and extend their responses – teachers can prompt students to extend their answers with questions; 

4. Selecting questions that are open-ended, well-suited to discussion and allow opportunity for authentic student response rather than direct replication of teaching; 

5. Setting goals and roles, particularly for small group discussions. By ensuring students have a clear goal—for example, a question to answer— it is more likely that talk will be focused and that students fully participate. It can also be beneficial to assign roles; 

6. Using wait time to develop students’ responses, by leaving a pause after they have first given an answer, which gives them a chance to reframe, extend, or justify their reasoning; 

7. Giving precise feedback relating to different elements of accountability. For example, in addition to praising a student’s use of evidence, teachers might praise the way in which students follow the norms of discussion. 

Say it Again, Better, By… 

At all levels within the current educational framework, students’ ability to speak coherently is less robustly assessed than their ability to read and write. Therefore, the opportunities we create for meaningful talk are of immense value.   

The ‘Say It Again, Better’ strategy, according to Tom Sherrington, means asking students to ‘re-form their response with greater depth and sophistication, or using more technical vocabulary. Whilst we accept initial answers freely so as not to inhibit students’ willingness to contribute, we then invite them to reframe the answer by saying, ‘Ok, now say it again, better, by…’ 

Sherrington encourages us to provide specific feedback; for example, ‘Thanks, that’s great. Now say it again, better. Try again, but make sure you add in X and link it to idea Y.’ It also takes courage: “Don’t be afraid to ask the same student to reform their answer several times if necessary. Be relentless in sending out the message that you won’t accept weak answers.” [10] 

In my own practice, I like to also try and address more practical strategies of effective communication. I call these the ‘four Ps’:  posture, projection, pace or pause. I might say, for example: ‘say that again, better, and match my volume’ (projection), or, ‘say that again, better, by speaking slower (pace) so you can reduce the number of fillers you’re using.’ Students can also be invited to ‘Say it Again, Better’ by improving their phrasing or use of language. Suitable wait-time, or use of a mini-whiteboard, can help students develop their articulation quickly with immediate, directive feedback. Not all answers to the questions we ask need to be developed. Not all responses need this level of intervention. However, where the subject specialist deems necessary, weak answers must be optimistically challenged and a suitable invitation extended. 

As James Britten outlines, “reading and writing float on a sea of talk.” By inviting students to develop proficiency in the verbal articulation of their ideas, we help prepare them for the rigours of academic reading and writing. This strategy, whilst maintaining the consistency of the core principles, can easily be adapted by different curriculum areas. Thus, oracy need not be something we feel forced to ‘break out and do’ in a performative manner, but rather can become seamlessly integrated into our current classroom practice and curriculum map – it is simply deciding that oracy is the most appropriate processing task in our toolkit at a given moment and in tackling a given problem or ‘clarifying their thinking and preparing students for writing’ as the National Curriculum suggests. 

Think, Pair, Share 

In a world where everything is expected to be super-fast, on-demand or even instantaneous, we can erroneously apply the same impatient approach to successful thinking. However, the process is far more complex and needs sufficient time – more than the average 0.9-1.7 seconds a typical teacher gives between posing a question and demanding an answer.  

Careful framing is needed to give students time to think meaningfully. Not only is the time important, but environmental stimuli also need to be carefully managed. As Willingam explains, “Successful thinking relies on four factors: information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long-term memory, and the amount of space in working memory (2010, p.18).’  

Gaps in prior knowledge, noise on the corridor, the lawnmower outside, distractions within the room, ambiguous instructions and a plethora of external factors can disrupt and undermine thinking. Creating a climate for effective thinking is more than half the battle.  

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has identified communication as one of four key competencies for life-learning and innovation. Creating a structured, purposeful channel for students to engage in natural, dialogic talk is critical. Through two roles, those of the ‘contributor’, and the ‘critical friend’, students can explore key topics and questions in a courageous way, heavily supported by the subject specialist at first before gradually moving towards independent, disciplinary interrogation. The conversation between the ‘contributor’ and the ‘critical friend’ will also be metacognitive in nature – supporting the contributor to reflect, self-regulate and improve their oracy. 

Note this example from a Year 7 English lesson. The question at the top will eventually be an extended written response. The teacher could stand at the front, trying fruitlessly to probe for a minutely specific, highly complex response, or they can create an environment in which students can draw these answers out of each other. 

The students are provided the core question and an appropriate window of time to generate their ideas, in silence, on whiteboards. Instructions are front-loaded, with the means of participation being issued before the question (the ‘how’ comes before the ‘what’) so attention is not split. Following the silent window, students are instructed to turn and face each other, deciding who will be the ‘contributor’ and who will be the ‘critical friend’. An appropriate window of time is then provided for students to fulfil both roles, swapping half-way through. Prompts like those below, with additional key words if desired, can be used to help students frame and deepen their responses. This strategy allows students to formally articulate their ideas and be appropriately challenged by their peer. This externalisation process, in both writing and speaking, prepares students to contribute to a whole-class level discussion, empowered to contribute meaningfully as the thinking process has been carefully managed. A study in the Journal of Psychology and Education concludes: “exchanging ideas with a partner is an essential condition to foster elaboration of ideas and confidence in sharing them in class.” [11] 

Choral Speaking 

Though it can initially be accompanied by a level of discomfort, the use of choral speaking in classrooms is also accompanied by a plethora of benefits. As well as presenting an active learning opportunity for every student in the class, it can also support students that might be navigating confidence barriers or language barriers to acquire new courage and new vocabulary. It can help colleagues address misconceptions and misbehaviour simultaneously as students’ contributions – and conduct – are more closely scrutinised.

Choral singing has been shown to provide several physical and mental health benefits, not least due to the focus placed on ‘breathing, posture and muscle tension’ and the release of endorphins [12]. It is not unreasonable to assume these same benefits, fostered by a sense of community that has been vital throughout our evolutionary history, must also be experienced in no small degree through choral speaking.  

The current picture is bleak. The National Literacy Trust (2019) noted that in some inner-city classes, disadvantaged children contribute, on average, just four words per lesson and usually start school 19 months behind their wealthier peers in language and vocabulary [13]. The oracy gap continues to grow throughout school and can be as much as five years by the age of fourteen. Considering that ‘disadvantaged children are 2.3 times more likely to be identified as having speech, language and communication needs than those in more affluent areas’ [14], every opportunity to speak gives disadvantaged students a chance to close the oracy gap. Given students with poor verbal communication skills at age five are twice as likely to be unemployed at age thirty-four [15], the role we can play as educators, during some of the most impressionable years of their lives, can be pivotal for the future life chances and employability of the young people we serve.  

Providing more opportunities for choral speaking, including key words (I say…, you say…), definitions or quotations, helps to foster a sense of community and, by appealing to the same for ‘oracy Ps’ as in individual feedback, helps frame the means of participation from the outset and manage the students’ cognitive load. 

Cognitive load can be further managed by deploying the same strategies, and shared language, when undertaking performative reading in KS3, drawing inspiration from elements of Reader’s Theatre. Following a complete read of the extract, the adult returns to a pre-identified ‘assigned extract’. Using the same strategies and language as assigned to choral speaking activities in mainstream lessons (posture, projection, pace, pause), the class read the extract aloud together, imitating the teacher. The teacher then initiates a ‘turn and talk’ activity, in which students practise reading to each other and performing the same ‘contributor’ and ‘critical friend’ roles to which they are already accustomed. Discussion stems are included in the reading booklets to facilitate this, following which a second choral reading exercise is undertaken. Thus, we can see how oracy, reading and writing are not mutually exclusive disciplines, but complimentary threads that gradually intertwine, strengthening the knowledge, skill and resilience of our young people.  

Assessing ‘Presentational’ Oracy

Sceptics may want to see tangible outcomes from prioritising oracy, especially given the fact that it is discounted as an examinable component of the English Language GCSE.  

Aside from examining NEET figures and reductions in negative behaviour data, the below grid may be of some assistance when considering oracy as an assessable component of a sequence of learning. Students can write an extended piece, which can still be assessed and marked, but giving some time over to rehearsal and delivery of a spoken element can be powerful, especially if each curriculum area assessed oracy once a year at KS3. The grid below provides a score out of 50 for key competencies derived from the world’s top public speaking bodies, and students receive a copy from their teacher and their partner. Scores can be tracked for each subject across Year 7, 8 and 9. Learning to adopt these skills and use them as a part of speaking prepares students for engaging in the workplace and contributing to organisations in the wider world. Of course, this is only a small part of the oracy picture, addressing structured ‘presentational’ talk rather than exploratory or dialogic talk, but we would be doing considerable disservice to our students, given how many professionals struggle in this area, without carving out explicit opportunities to hone this skillset. 

Celebrating Oracy 

The deliberate practice of good spoken language outside the classroom is at least as important, if not more so, for development of confidence and fostering a sense of community. Students leading worship services and participating in assemblies, speech contests or special celebrations, right through to everyday interactions with members of staff about challenges they are facing, can help each person appreciate the value of spoken language as a means to foster meaningful relationships and access vital support. Wilkinson (1968) supports this when he describes, ‘the climate of oracy within the school… is clearly connected with the relationships existing between teachers and taught.’ [16] Explicitly recognising and celebrating good articulation, as well as modelling it ourselves and providing directive feedback as needed, even in unstructured conversations, places spoken language at the forefront of students’ minds as their primary interface with the wider world.  

I was privileged to host our Year 8 speech festival last year in which, with every student in Year 8 having completed a unit on the art of rhetoric, written their own speech and delivered it to their class, 15 of these speakers addressed their year groups on challenging topics such as deforestation, fetal alcohol syndrome, the four-day work week, public speaking anxiety and school uniform policy. Diverse voices were heard and celebrated; we enjoyed a wonderfully rich and fulfilling event as well as providing a vital platform for some of our most disadvantaged and vulnerable students. This is now an annual event on our calendar and we always look forward with excitement to the opportunity to celebrate our students becoming more courageous advocates and contributors.

Students of all year groups have also been been improving their oracy by undertaking a gratitude initiative. This topic has been addressed in assemblies and, in the last week of each half-term, students have been invited to fill out a postcard before handing it to a fellow student or member of staff. There are no post-boxes and no anonymity; students are encouraged to articulate their appreciation. This has been a highly successful initiative this year during selected weeks, and the anecdotal evidence suggests morale and culture have been enriched during these times. This asserts that oracy is not just an academic or formalised discipline – it is a key element in building, maintaining and restoring relationships that are the building blocks of a successful school culture. 

Conclusion 

Michael Young asserts that knowledge is powerful if it ‘allows you to envisage alternatives.’ Dickens, speaking through Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, declares: “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead… but if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” Powerful speaking, therefore, must result in our staff and students’ ability to envision those new ends, new destinations and new doors of opportunity opening in response to the words they speak.

There is no doubt that oracy is vital to our students’ future personal and professional interactions, and it will largely influence the level to which they can be positive contributors in society. It is clear more teachers need to understand it, more students need to harness it and more people need to believe in both the process and themselves – my work in academy trusts and universities is driven by this mission.

In a world that is rapidly leaning towards artificial intelligence, it is possible to mistakenly believe that our ability to speak powerfully, articulately and incisively is somehow devalued, undermined or made redundant. A moment of reflection on the most meaningful interactions in our own lives can serve as a stirring reminder that there will never be an adequate replacement for the right words, spoken in the right way, at the right time – for these are anything but artificial. Investing in learning how to command and master language, therefore, must be re-prioritised and become our earnest pursuit – our futures may quite literally be dependent on it. 

References 

 [1] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0013191770170401a 

[2] https://oracy.inparliament.uk/sites/oracy.inparliament.uk/files/2021-04/Oracy_APPG_FinalReport_28_04_21_4.pdf 

[3] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5a7de93840f0b62305b7f8ee/PRIMARY_national_curriculum_-_English_220714.pdf 

[4] The national curriculum in England: Key Stages 3 and 4 framework (2014), DfE. 

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4ZoJKF_VuA 

[6] https://oracy.inparliament.uk/sites/oracy.inparliament.uk/files/2021-04/Oracy_APPG_FinalReport_28_04_21_4.pdf 

[7] https://oracy.inparliament.uk/sites/oracy.inparliament.uk/files/2021-04/Oracy_APPG_FinalReport_28_04_21_4.pdf 

[8] https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/education-evidence/teaching-learning-toolkit/oral-language-interventions 

[9] https://d2tic4wvo1iusb.cloudfront.net/eef-guidance-reports/literacy-ks3-ks4/EEF_KS3_KS4_LITERACY_GUIDANCE.pdf?v=1683625458 

[10] https://my.chartered.college/research-hub/say-it-again-better-setting-high-expectations-by-asking-students-to-re-frame-their-initial-answers/ 

[11] https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/learning-and-individual-differences/vol/88/suppl/C 

[12] https://www.ox.ac.uk/research/choir-singing-improves-health-happiness-%E2%80%93-and-perfect-icebreaker  

[13] https://voice21.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/ESU-Speaking-Frankly.pdf 

[14] https://www.esu.org/oracy/ 

[15] https://speechandlanguage.org.uk/media/3215/tct_talkingaboutageneration_report_online_update.pdf 

[16] https://www.jstor.org/stable/41386406 

Additional sources: 

https://www.theconfidentteacher.com/2023/03/getting-reading-fluency-right/

https://my.chartered.college/impact_article/applying-the-powerful-knowledge-principle-to-curriculum-development-in-disadvantaged-contexts/

https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/education-evidence/early-years-toolkit/communication-and-language-approaches

https://my.chartered.college/impact_article/speaking-up-the-importance-of-oracy-in-teaching-and-learning/

https://voice21.org/why-oracy-matters/

https://my.chartered.college/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/8.-Say-It-Again-Better.pdf

https://www.kent.edu/ctl/wait-time-making-space-authentic-learning#:~:text=What%20Is%20Wait%20Time%3F,pause%20after%20a%20student%20response.

https://www.teachertoolkit.co.uk/2021/09/04/wait-time/

https://www.marietta.edu/sites/default/files/documents/21st_century_skills_standards_book_2.pdf

Daniel T. Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?, 2010



Speak With Simon