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Oracy in a knowledge-rich curriculum

Published on 17/07/19

If knowledge is power, being able to communicate that knowledge is powerful. Therefore it is hard to understand why oracy is not on the tip of everyone's tongue.

Imagine if I was to tell you that I had an elixir that would improve the retention of subject specific knowledge, vocabulary acquisition and reasoning skills? (W.Millard and L.Menzies, The State of Speaking in Our Schools (Voice21/LKMCo, 2016) You would be rightly enquiring about how to make your own. However, such an elixir exists and it is called oracy.

In its other guise it has been known as ‘Speaking and Listening, which, for me, has become such an unfortunate term. For English teachers up and down the country this implied the chaos of unstructured bolt-on ‘debate’ lessons and the terror (for the students) of ‘presentation’ lessons. This kind of unstructured approach to oracy leads to classrooms that feel chaotic, disorganised and uncomfortable - often for the most vulnerable students. More importantly, it can lead to classrooms where misconceptions are internalised and developed.

We teach, model and guide reading and writing in English lessons all of the time. Why don’t we do the same with oracy? We have explicit expectations about how we want students to write analytically or creatively. However, we expect students to just get better at oracy through exposure. We’d never do such a thing with writing and this is the problem. Voice21 has been pioneering and promoting ‘oracy’. They argue that it should be held in the same regard as literacy and numeracy - it’s hard to disagree.

Talk in a classroom, if it is to happen, should be meaningful and effectively structured. The implicit should be made explicit. For example, working with Year 11 last year I was concerned about their ability to compare and contrast texts, especially as this was necessary for their English Language Paper 2 examination. During one of our first lessons I wrote up six sentence stems:

  • Linking to what X has said …’,
  • ‘In contrast …’,
  • ‘I agree with X because …’,
  • ‘I disagree with X because …’,
  • ‘In a similar way …’,
  • ‘Alternatively, …’.

I don’t mean to pretend that these are perfect. However, they were, for these students, the beginning of lessons where oracy was scaffolded, modelled and taught. Each time a student offered an answer that was fragmented or partial, they were asked to consider and repeat it. Each time a student developed, or added to, a point that another student had raised, they had to use a sentence stem from my board. By doing these things for a number of weeks something interesting began to happen. My students began to self-regulate their contributions. They might stop themselves and correct their verbal answers mid-speech. More than this, I noticed a marked improvement in their writing - the students had begun connecting their ideas together in their essays using the sentence stems! In other words, the work we had done on oracy had become a part of them.

The above is a good example of how oracy could be structured. We can also ensure that students attend to accurate knowledge by guiding discussion. This is, arguably, the most powerful for our weaker students who struggle to attend and retain knowledge. For example, using no-hands up questioning to elicit responses from the students. By articulating aloud students have to engage with knowledge, and by doing so are retrieving and activating it. This allows the teacher to clarify misconceptions and avoids the dreaded internalisation of misconception.

Oracy is more than just helping my Year 11 students achieve well in their English Language exams. It is about having young people who are articulate, who can express themselves and their opinions.

  • Matthew Carnaby is English standards leader at the Inspiration Trust