World Speech Day

Grace Barron, Programme Lead at Voice 21.

As Malala Yousafzi said in her 16th birthday speech at the United Nations, “…we will bring change through our voice…our words can change the world.” With World Speech Day approaching on 15th March, we at Voice 21 are reflecting on these words, and considering how, as teachers and educators, we can empower our young people to find their own voices and use them, too, for success in school and in life. 

Public speaking is one of most feared things amongst adults in the UK – it’s thought that approximately 6 million people suffer from glossophobia or, colloquially, ‘stage fright’. We’ve also found from our own research that 50% of secondary students are anxious about speaking in the classroom. Conversely, we know that communication is one of the top sought-after skills by employers. The Speak for Change APPG Inquiry heard that “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.” And, importantly, as Professor Robin Alexander states in The State of Speaking in Our Schools, “Talk is a fundamental prerequisite for democratic engagement”. According to the UN, “the world’s youth population is projected to reach its peak, at just under 1.4 billion persons (13%).” With this information, it’s clear to see the potential influence young people can have in the world; today’s younger generation are the most informed, educated, connected generation in human history, with a lot of ideas too. So how can we equip our young people with the skills they need, to grow into adults who can speak effectively; who do not fear public speaking; who can change the world with their words?

This year, our spring Oracy Challenge is a speechmaking challenge – asking students “How can your voice change the world?” By developing their oracy skills, and ensuring that these are taught explicitly, young people can learn how to make their voices heard in a meaningful and impactful way. One way for us as educators to begin thinking about this, is to consider all the opportunities for talk we provide in our classrooms. Do students have the opportunity to speak for a number of purposes, in a number of different, and authentic, contexts? Are we setting high expectations for these talk opportunities? In a recent discussion with a teacher at a primary school, we sat ruminating on the feeling of walking into a training course in our early teaching days, and the nervousness and fear that we were struck with at the thought of having to talk to, and in front of, a room full of unfamiliar people and faces. By providing young people with multiple and varied opportunities to speak in front of others, we can do a lot to alleviate future fears around speaking in unfamiliar situations; whether that be at a job interview, training course or performing a speech in front of a large audience. As such, it is important that students have access to a range of different talk possibilities in school – including both presentational talk for sharing ideas more formally with others (such as public speaking) and the exploratory talk we use to share, develop and consolidate understanding through discussion.

Professor Lauren Resnick explains; “Well-guided talk enables students to go public with their own ideas” and the process of developing an idea into a speech enables students to explore what it is they are passionate about and become experts on a topic, building confidence and empowerment amongst your student community. It also allows students the opportunity to reinforce and deepen their subject knowledge. Can you imagine a world without the likes of Malala Yousafzi, Greta Thunberg or Jaylen Arnold? These young people all use their words and their voices to inspire, challenge and motivate leaders around the world to change and make a difference. Their messages are powerful because they are based on personal experience, conviction, and a deep understanding of the issues they are advocating for. 

The Oracy Framework gives us the all-important foundation for introducing the skills needed for all types of talk with our students. For speechmaking, you might want to specifically teach physical oracy skills, and how to vary tone to engage an audience; or dig into the social and emotional strand of oracy and teach power poses – body postures which can have a positive impact on our mental state – to boost feelings of confidence, and make students feel more comfortable in the otherwise uncomfortable. 

As educators, we need to remember that speaking and listening are a teachable set of skills, that not everyone is fortunate to innately possess, so we need to ensure we are planning explicitly for the teaching of these. Research consistently finds that children from low-income homes start school with lower language levels than their more advantaged peers, and these gaps grow as children move through school. Little wonder, then, that so much of our political and media classes come from more affluent backgrounds, with all the singular perspectives on issues that brings. We argue that all young people should feel inspired and empowered to use their voice to bring about change; and it is our job to nurture the skills that make that possible.

This is why we are delighted to be supporting The Day’s Global Young Journalist awards this year, a youth journalism competition that aims to inspire future generations of journalists to build a better world through storytelling. Now in its second year, the Awards feature new categories and invite young people to enter their story in any format they wish. We are supporting the video report category, encouraging future broadcasters to use their voices to highlight the issues of the day they care about. For more information on how to enter visit here

By equipping all students with the skills they need to become agile and articulate communicators, and to have their voice heard and listened to, we are raising a generation who can bring change through their voice and with their words.

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