Research suggests that oracy, or the “ability to express oneself fluently and grammatically in speech”, is an essential life skill that can impact your success in life and improve employability.
However, in most instances, there is a limited focus on this in schools, apart from in extracurricular activities that can contribute to the development of these skills among students.
The Sutton Trust notes in its 2017 report, Life Lessons: Improving essential life skills for young people, that 94 percent of employers deem life skills such as communication just as important as academic results for the success of young people.
Meanwhile, oracy, or a lack of it, can also affect social mobility.
Peter Hyman, Co-founder of London’s School 21 which promotes an oracy-based curriculum, said: “Teaching oracy is an issue of social equity. Too often young people are denied the opportunity to learn how to articulate their ideas effectively and gain the confidence to find their voice – opportunities consistently afforded to more advantaged students.
“Which would have a bigger impact on social mobility: more grammar schools or every child being taught how to become an eloquent speaker?”
Developing oracy skills
In a report by the English Speaking Union titled Speaking Frankly: The case for oracy in the curriculum, Neil Mercer, an emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge, said: “Children can transcend their destinies if schools provide the kind of experience and tuition which will develop their use of language for self-expression, reasoning, reflection and self-regulation. This is one reason why oracy skills deserve the kind of attention traditionally given to literacy and numeracy.”
Activities such as debates are said to help build students’ confidence, help them express their views and argue their points objectively, listen critically and learn new things beyond the classroom by researching about a range of topical issues, among a host of other benefits.
In the UK, Ofsted seems to have acknowledged its value. The Telegraph reported that the Department for Education recently announced that schools with debate clubs will be rewarded under a new inspection scheme seeking to build resilience in the youth.
But not all schools have debate clubs or societies, or even teachers who encourage students to engage in a healthy discussion during lessons. This means that some students are missing out on the potential benefits of participating in activities that build their oracy skills.
Supporting oracy in school may not be overly difficult for teachers who already have talkative students in a class.
Amy Gaunt, a primary teacher and oracy lead at School 21, noted in the report that students are already expressing oracy in the classroom by talking a lot, which teachers can leverage from.
“You start from the idea that talking isn’t an extra thing. It’s children discussing ideas with each other and coming up with their own conclusions. Talk supports thinking, and that means it supports learning,” she said.
Meanwhile, author Martin Robinson notes in Speaking Frankly that it’s important to teach children about different viewpoints and to “refrain from judgment until they have studied all sides of a debate”.
“Pupils need to be taught through a vibrant curriculum, to see the interplay of arguments, thoughts and ideas.
“Teachers need to select texts that juxtapose arguments when set against another judiciously selected text, or ensure that, where possible, the topics, texts and works covered are taught in a way that unlocks the arguments within. This, if you like, is a canonical approach to teaching, great texts presented in a way to create great dialectic,” he said.