Oracy development is often overlooked, in favour of written literacy and numeracy. But prioritising it is hugely important, as Kelly Coleman explains.

In recent years, the term “oracy” has been increasingly used in education. The term was first used by Andrew Wilkinson in 1965 to describe the speaking and listening skills needed to be a good communicator. This was echoed more recently by Geoff Barton, who noted that we need to see oracy as an integral part of teaching and learning.

To get our classrooms talking then, we need to provide opportunities throughout all subjects (not just in English lessons) and make it a school-wide focus.

The Communication Trust published a report, Talking about a Generation in 2017 in which they identified some staggering statistics:

  • By the age of 5, 75% of children who experienced poverty persistently are below average in language development compared to 35% who hadn’t experienced poverty.
  • Those same children are 10 times less likely to achieve expected levels in Maths.
  • They are also more than twice as likely to be unemployed at the age of 34.
  • They are twice as likely to experience mental health difficulties.

Furthermore, The National Literacy Trust noted that in some inner-city classes, disadvantaged children contribute, on average, just four words per lesson and usually start school 19 months behind their wealthier peers in language and vocabulary.

With this current research, and the increasing gap thanks to the Covid pandemic, why should schools prioritise oracy, in the same way as written literacy and numeracy?

Firstly, according to the Better Communication Research Programme, those with good communication skills are 4 times more likely to achieve GCSE grade 4 or higher.

Secondly, it improves verbal reasoning and can gain the equivalent of 2 months progress in Maths and Science , according to the Education Endowment Foundation.

More importantly though, is the positive impact it has on confidence, self-esteem, resilience and engagement in society. This is according to the Sutton Trust and 97% of teachers and 94% of employers agreeing.

With all the research pointing towards a correlation between oracy and progress, the bigger question is how do we make our classrooms talk? And how do we achieve this without making it another tick-box exercise, or another layer of work for already busy staff?

Some simple, yet effective oracy strategies:

  1. Questioning that requires pupils to “think”. Get them to clarify, probe and/or recommend. The more that students require depth from their responses, the greater the opportunity for oracy-development.
  2. Thought stems (in the same way that writing stems are used).
  3. Allowing thinking time for students to formulate thoughts. One tip I took from a colleague is I take a drink of water while pupils are thinking so that I don’t inadvertently rush them.
  4. Pupil-led feedback and critiques. Gallery critiques are a great way to peer assess, but to also encourage constructive talk.
  5. Use the register! Legally, we have to do it, so why not make it part of the lesson? For example, as you call the register, rather than replying with “yes”, get the pupils to recall one thing they learnt from the previous lesson or even just one thing they did at the weekend. Contribution is the most important thing here, rather than the quality of response.
  6. Random tasks on display that get them talking: Would You Rather? Thunks, Riddles to Solve, Tongue Twisters, Problems to Solve (I’ve noticed that the more random ones get the most engagement!)
  7. Build confidence by using critical buddies, triad-groups, or think, pair, share.
  8. Debate questions: In my previous school, I stuck random questions on classroom doors and as pupils entered the room, the teacher would ask them for their view. It’s a quick, friendly entrance to the room and builds great rapport quickly too. I circulated the questions every week and stuck them on different doors so that pupils saw different questions each time.
  9. Scenarios: putting pupils into imagined situations. The scenarios can be as imaginative as you like. Get students to think creatively and present their solutions to the problems you’ve presented them with.
  10. Lockdowns have given us technology – so let’s use it! At my current school I have started using Teams which allows pupils to video, or record themselves, and submit it to me to listen to. As an English teacher, this has changed my life when marking homework! (You can also record verbal feedback.)

Oracy is ultimately a whole-school responsibility and the impacts can be huge. As James Britton noted, “Reading and writing float on a sea of talk”. Therefore by encouraging oracy-development, we are also at the very root, cultivating the skills needed by our pupils to support their development in literacy, numeracy and social skills too.

Further Reading:


Kelly Coleman is an English teacher at an International School and previously 17 years teaching in the UK as Head of Department, Assistant Principal and Lead Practitioner as well as a GCSE Examiner.

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