Oracy tips for the classroom
One of the things I love most about a child’s journey through their school years is how they grow and develop as a result of taking part in school productions. From full on musicals to plays and poetry recitals, nativities, assemblies, carol services complete with lessons, and end of term reviews, there is the potential throughout the school year for many opportunities for children to experience speaking in public and developing their oracy skills, and consequently their confidence and presence too.
So – what is oracy?
The English Speaking Union says that “Oracy is to speaking what numeracy is to mathematics or literacy to reading and writing.” It is “being able to express yourself well. It’s about having the vocabulary to say what you want to say and the ability to structure your thoughts so that they make sense to others.”
While it is virtually impossible to settle on a purpose of education that has universal agreement, we can all agree that communication and oracy skills such as listening and responding, being able to reason and explain why, and being able to organize and prioritise thoughts, for example, are critically important if children and young people are to thrive in a competitive world.
Oracy is not just about external success. It is also about the sense of wellbeing that can come from being able to express yourself effectively. It is about being able to listen, critically analyse, and respond. It is about taking an active part in our world.
The concept of oracy gained traction in the 1960s when Andrew Wilkinson observed that “The spoken language in England has been shamefully neglected. He suggested that there were many reasons for this: “One, certainly, is that teachers and educationists have not considered it important. Of the oral skills, reading aloud (which few people are ever called upon to use) has had some attention in the classroom, usually for the wrong reasons. But the ability to put one word of one’s own next to another of one’s own in speech, to create rather than to repeat, a skill which everybody is exercising most of the time, has not been regarded as worthy of serious attention.”
These are words which make as much sense today as they did nearly sixty years ago, but have we actually moved towards giving oracy the status that Wilkinson and other researchers of the 1960s felt it should have?
We know that improvements in spoken English can lead to improvements in written English so giving children the opportunity to develop their vocabulary in situations where they speak will be fruitful. But this is not the only reason to develop skills of oracy. Being confident to articulate ideas, to think and speak critically, to develop arguments and to eloquently and elegantly defend a position are skills that can be used to great effect in many job situations.
In her foreword to the final report and recommendations from the Oracy All Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry (published in 2021), MP Emma Hardy wrote that there is reason to be optimistic about oracy in education. “Despite the challenges posed over the last year, the Inquiry found that young people, teachers, school leaders and employers place a high priority on oracy. There are many bright spots where schools and organisations are developing excellent oracy provision, proving that our ambitions are realistic and achievable.”
How can we highlight oracy’s importance?
So how can we work towards giving oracy a heightened importance in our schools? These ideas for improving oracy education may help to make a difference in the classroom and beyond:
- Prioritise oracy. Add it to agendas for meetings to help focus minds, and keep it in mind when planning and delivering lessons. Add discussion sessions to lessons so that children get time to develop specific skills associated with improving oracy. Make oracy the focus of a lesson in your subject/age group.
- Use sentence stems for specific spoken situations. This can help children to articulate their thoughts. For example, I agree with…, building on what Amy said…, I think…, and so on. Using a range of groups in the classroom can help oracy too. What is most appropriate for your needs? Pairs, threes, in a circle, in lines facing each other? Experiment to see what works best.
- Use story, and reading aloud, as a tool for developing oracy. This works with any age and any subject. Read stories, prose and poetry aloud so that children hear the spoken word on a regular basis.
- Give performance a heightened role in your school. Have classes present assemblies, give children the opportunity to read aloud, or recite a passage from a book or a poem to an audience of peers. Some children may naturally take to this and others won’t, but all need to develop these skills.
- Teach key oracy skills. The APPG report recognizes that oracy education involves learning “the specific linguistic, cognitive, physical and social-emotional knowledge and skills that support effective spoken communication in a range of contexts and settings.” These can be supported and nurtured across the curriculum, but additional impact can come from extra-curricular opportunities. Debating clubs, poetry recitals, discussions on current affairs, and creative writing groups can all help to develop oracy skills.
- Acknowledge the role of listening in oracy development. Listening, reflecting back to the speaker, questioning the speaker, all help to develop oracy. Give your children opportunities to hear effective speakers beyond the teachers they encounter each day.
- Introduce talking points in each classroom. These might be a quotation on the wall, an extract from a book, an interesting object, a scene from a film or a play and so on. The aim is to trigger comment, discussion and reflection. Having a pre-agreed set of guidelines for discussion can help.
- Consider increasing your use of presentations by children in the classroom and beyond. Help them to get used to speaking to their peers and holding a line of argument or a thread of information for a relatively sustained time. Articulating learning or a hobby or special interest all help with oracy skills development.
It is wonderful to see children developing their confidence in themselves and the things they have to say through their growing oracy skills. We can harness this in many ways throughout the school day and the benefits are there for the taking.
Find out more…
- What is oracy and how can you teach it? | English-Speaking Union (esu.org)
- THE CONCEPT OF ORACY* - WILKINSON - 1965 - English in Education - Wiley Online Library
- Understanding oracy - Voice 21
- Oracy_APPG_FinalReport_28_04 (4).pdf (inparliament.uk)
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world. Elizabeth has also taught on education courses in HE and presented at national and international conferences.