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The four (or maybe five) defining traits of oracy education

People are talking about oracy again. That’s good. However, there are important questions being asked about what we mean by oracy and whether we even need this term at all.

Rather than attempting a simple definition, I suggest instead four possible hallmarks to distinguish a focus on oracy in education from a more general interest in spoken language.

Oracy as a term was coined by Andrew Wilkinson in 1965 to describe ‘general ability in the oral skills’. This naming was an attempt to position spoken language alongside numeracy and literacy with its own terminology and as an essential quality of an educated person.

Wilkinson’s rationale for this initiative gives us our first distinguishing hallmark: oracy is about highlighting spoken language as something of value and status in its own right.

Why is status important? For one thing, it helps to elevate purposeful speech above its now-notorious ministerial characterisation as ‘idle chatter’. For another, it reminds us that spoken and written language have important differences in form and function. Talk is not always the prelude to, or something that should mimic, a written ‘main event’.

What distinguishes oracy – our second hallmark – is not simply greater attention to talk as a facet of all subjects, but crucially an explicitness about that attention. This might be enacted in teachers’ modelling, their planning for specific oracy teaching points and the meta-talk and shared understanding supported by resources like the Oracy Framework.

Explicit teaching of oracy in this way raises dilemmas: what are the assumptions, values and cultural norms underpinning teacher’s expectations for their students’ spoken language? How do these relate to notions of ‘standard English’, as well as to standardised ways of interacting and contributing more generally? On whose terms are we teaching students to communicate?

Part of the response to these difficult questions lies in seeing oracy not as an arbitrary checklist of skills to teach (content in search of a context) but as talk with someone and about something. Even the most presentational monologues presuppose an audience and a purpose.

Oracy is not an arbitrary checklist of skills to teach

And here we have our third hallmark: oracy involves students developing linguistic judgment. Judgments about content, tone and delivery must be rooted in learning to understand the appropriate ways to communicate for a given occasion, purpose and audience.

In this vision, diverse dialects and modes of communication have their places as part of learning to talk in various contexts.

This question of context has another dimension. Contexts for talk in school are often contrived as a means of learning. In an educational landscape that is too often binary and reductive, we should be clear that learning through talk does not necessarily imply a student-centred ideology, or indeed any particular form of pedagogy. Instead, classroom practice involves a broad, well-informed repertoire of talk modes.

This brings us to the final essential feature of oracy: deliberateness about the use of talk as a strategy. By this, I mean the thoughtful identification and staging of spoken language opportunities for specific educational purposes, knowing not just how, but when and why to use a minute of paired talk, a brief episode of small-group exploration, or a whole lesson centred on formal debate (or, equally, teacher explanation and modelling).

So, perhaps the essence of oracy, seen holistically as both content and pedagogy could be explained as:

Talk which has status and is valued in its own right, deliberately planned for and taught explicitly,through a range of meaningful contexts, purposes and opportunities which develop students’ linguistic judgment in service of specific learning goals.

I wonder, however, whether there is one more hallmark. Does oracy also imply a stance that signals a commitment to student voice, participation and agency? This is a broader remit and ambition, but one ultimately more transformative than merely becoming a better communicator.

If we accept that the purpose of school is not just about attainment, but also development in social and personal terms, how far should we go, and how bold should we be, in promoting oracy as integral to these wider – but more contested – educational aims?

This article is part of an upcoming collection of short essays commissioned to offer perspectives on the remit of the Commission on the Future of Oracy Education in England

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