From the mouths of ministers

Oracy, it seems, is on the minds of those responsible for developing education policy. In the last couple of weeks both Nick Gibb and Damian Hinds have spoken out on the issue, albeit through slightly different lenses.

Nick Gibb made the first mention of oracy in a speech at the Wonder Years Knowledge Curriculum Conference, explaining what proponents of oracy have been saying for years that ‘oracy is not talking more- it is precise, productive and purposeful discussion to sharpen thought and challenge perception of the world.’ Not only does oracy ‘sharpen[s] thought as well as language’, he explained, it reveals ‘a pupil’s thinking and misconceptions’. He finished with a call for a debate on how oracy can work effectively to support the delivery of a knowledge-rich curriculum.

The mention of oracy at a conference for those usually characterised as ‘traditionalists’, marks a significant step forward in the recognition of oracy as a powerful tool for learning. It is also a welcome step-change in the wider curriculum debate which, with its narrow focus on what should be taught has risked, as Barbara Bleiman points out, treating teachers as ‘deliverers’ of a curriculum rather than a professional workforce trusted to make pedagogic judgments.

Last week Gibb’s colleague, Damian Hinds, celebrated oracy for a different purpose: developing character and resilience. Included in Hinds’ ‘5 Foundations for Building Character’ is ‘performing’ which includes, amongst other things, debating and public speaking. Whilst Hinds has been quite rightly derided by some commentators for suggesting that ‘public school confidence’ is a ‘hard-won quality’ rather than a marker of privilege, a focus on providing pupils with increased opportunities to practice ‘presentational talk’ should be cautiously welcomed.

Gibb and Hinds’ differing views on oracy are captured, somewhat simplistically, in the Venn diagram below.

Gibb’s focus on developing understanding and reasoning through purposeful discussion can be roughly described as learning through talk, whilst Hinds focus on developing the skills needed to speak to an audience can be characterised as learning to talk. However, in reality the two are very much intertwined; a meaningful education in oracy must provide students with opportunities to learn both to and through talk.

Gibb, in his call for ‘purposeful discussion to sharpen thought and challenge perception of the world’ draws heavily on Robin Alexander’s pioneering work on dialogic teaching. In Towards Dialogic Teaching, Robin Alexander calls for classroom dialogue which extends children’s thinking, developing their understanding and reasoning through both whole-class and group discussion. Dialogic teaching has been the subject of a number of recent large-scale studies, including an EEF trial, which have shown that developing an approach to teaching which encourages pupils to extend and develop their ideas, questioning themselves and others, leads to improved attainment across the curriculum.

However, in order for students to be able to engage in productive classroom talk, with the benefits espoused by Gibb, they must have the necessary skills and understanding to do this effectively; in short, students must also learn how to talk. It is important then that, as many schools begin to re-examine their curriculum, that time and space is also found to teach students ‘knowledge of oracy’. That is, both declarative knowledge of oracy, knowing the hallmarks of an effective discussion, for example, and procedural knowledge of oracy, the practical application of this knowledge, successfully developing someone else’s idea as part of a discussion, for instance. Oracy is therefore integral to the what and how conversations around curriculum design.

A comprehensive, school-wide approach to developing oracy also provides opportunities for students to practice, what Douglas Barnes terms, presentational talk, which includes those more performative elements of oracy, such as public speaking or debate, cited by Hinds. It is crucial, however, that opportunities to engage in presentational talk, in which the speaker must consider the needs of an audience, are afforded to all students, rather than a privileged, often self-selecting few.

Access to these opportunities should be a core part of a school’s curricular, rather than extra-curricular, offer. To become confident, agile communicators, students must have opportunities to speak in different contexts, to different audiences and be explicitly taught the skills needed to do this successfully. When incorporated into the curriculum, these are more meaningful and provide an opportunity for pupils to strengthen their subject knowledge by selecting and adjusting the content of what they say to the needs of an audience.

Although public speaking and debate are both good contexts for presentational talk, there are other less high-stakes contexts schools could consider too, such as interviews, radio broadcasts, podcasts, storytelling, teaching others or tour guiding. Consider the impact of these on both a student’s oracy and subject knowledge when combined with an authentic audience and real curriculum content. For example, in order to give a podcast on an aspect of local history, a student would need a deep enough understanding of the subject matter to make informed choices about what listeners might find interesting, combining this with an understanding of relevant elements of the Oracy Framework.

Recent proclamations on oracy by both Gibb and Hinds are welcome and evidence of a growing recognition of the importance of oracy. They are not, however, the full story. To develop a comprehensive and inclusive approach to oracy, schools must combine and build on the Ministers’ suggestions, creating a culture of oracy in which all students find their voice for success in school and in life.

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