Are We “Doing Oracy” Now?

By Andy McHugh

 

Oracy is on the way. We know this because (a) the most likely next government are talking about it and (b) teachers on Twitter are already arguing about what it means and whether it matters.

There seem to be two camps already: those who say we should do it (this means books and CPD courses are on the way) and those who say we’ve always been doing it (which I disagree with).

Why do I disagree? Well, oracy is more than just ‘speaking and listening’. They can both be done without real thinking. Have you ever told students to chat to their partner about topic x, only for one of the partners to do all the talking? Or for the 1 minute of talking to be ‘completed’ by the students after 10 seconds? And just how well did the ‘listener’ understand the speaker? Did they even listen at all? Can they remember a thing that was said?

This is the issue with ‘speaking and listening’: sometimes neither of those things are done well. Oracy, in my view, is an attempt to do these things well, so that both the speaker and listener both contribute and receive more, ‘activating more learning’, for want of a better phrase.

So, should we aim to include more Oracy in our lessons? I’m not so sure. There are a lot of leaders out there who, for the right reasons, would insist on adding evidence of Oracy to a list of criteria for lesson observations. This could lead to all sorts of tick-box surface-level ‘oracy tasks’.

Not only this, but ‘structured talk’, a popular attempt to define and implement oracy, isn’t always conducive to the highest quality responses over time. What if one partner has nothing to contribute, is fearful of speaking aloud, or only has misconceptions to spread? What if one partner is highly knowledgeable? Should we cut them off mid-flow to let their relatively mute counterpart take over?

I argue that we need to allow for some professional autonomy here (which is often in short supply if teachers on social media are to be believed). Class teachers often know best when to deploy different strategies suited to the students in front of them. This sometimes does mean practising more prescriptive forms of dialogue, but sometimes it doesn’t. Students sometimes need the time and space to talk freely, without their dialogue being restricted by arbitrary timeframes, or by using special sentence starters (as helpful as both of those may sometimes be). Not everything has to be the most ‘efficient’ use of time. There, I said it.

We should tread carefully. ‘Doing oracy’ has the potential to improve greatly the ways that students speak and listen – sometimes they’re truly terrible at it, through little or no fault of their own. But let’s not use it as a blunt instrument.

 

You can read other articles by Andy McHugh here.

Author

Editor of HWRK Magazine, Andy is a teacher, Head of RE and Senior Examiner who loves nothing more than a good debate.

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