Oracy in the classroom: a teacher's guide

Paul Main

Oracy in the classroom: A teacher's guide to the development of pupils speaking skills for knowledge acquisition.

What is Oracy?

Get them talking, that would be our advice for any teacher thinking about developing really strong language work in the classroom. The importance of oracy in language development cannot be emphasised enough. Discussion is central to all aspects of the curriculum including areas such as grammar development. If the conditions are set up correctly with the right sort of tools, children can have purposeful discussions about the possibilities, effects and meaning of the curriculum. Oracy can be described as learning to talk and learning through talk. This article focuses on the latter, we are particularly interested in how using active discussions can form the foundation for pupils understanding of curriculum content. Enabling children to understand the different types of discussion roles available to them broadens their repertoire of classroom talk. As well as being a tool of communication, effective oracy skills enable pupils to participate in deep learning activities where they can exchange ideas, explore new areas and challenge assumptions. This area of pedagogy has particular significance for disadvantaged or low-attaining pupils. Within this article and the rest of the website you will find examples of how classroom talk can be used for knowledge acquisition and the development spoken language skills.

Using classroom tools to stimulate speaking
Using classroom tools to stimulate speaking

Oracy is to communicate what literacy is to reading and writing; and numeracy to mathematics. The term ‘oracy’ was first used by Andrew Wilkinson in the 1960s. Andrew believed that oracy – one's ability to express themself with fluency in speech – must get equal status to math performance and literacy in school curriculums. In simple words, oracy is to be able to express oneself well. It relates to having a broad range of vocabulary to say what one needs to say and the proficiency to structure thoughts so that the person makes sense to others. More recently, oracy has become even more important. This is because, education in schools is predominantly provided in English (in the UK), but many children lack spoken communication skills because they speak another language at home. Once schools begun reopening after the initial pandemic lockdown, many educators reported a dip in oracy skills particularly in children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Modelling oracy skills with teachers
Modelling oracy skills with teachers

How do you measure Oracy Skills?

Many studies have discussed the potential role of teachers and schools in building Oracy skills in students. In recent times, online learning has made serious negative impacts on students such as social isolation, and poor communication skills. After opening, the majority of schools can reduce the negative impact of online education through different competitions, programmes and resources based upon 4 key oracy skillsets: evidence and reasoning; response and listening; delivery and expression; and prioritisation and organisation. Schools must teach and develop students' proficiency in these skillsets just like literacy and numeracy.

Monitoring how well pupils articulate their ideas to each other
Monitoring how well pupils articulate their ideas to each other

Improving Oracy Skills in the classroom

Schools can take the following steps to build strong foundations of oracy skills for the students in a classroom:

1. Allocating Extra Classroom Time for Oracy Techniques: More than anything else, classroom time is needed for building correct language speaking skills in the students. Although each class has a fixed timetable to follow, the teachers must try to engage students in oracy explicit activities within the classroom time. Also, teachers must not be hesitant to make oracy an objective or focus for a lesson. Learning through Oracy must be practised in every classroom.

2. Promoting Oracy in the Classroom: The most effective teachers take the responsibility for the language development of children very seriously. They make sure to commemorate oracy in their classroom environment. Following are some of the ways to promote oracy in the classroom.

a. Children’s verbal comments must be gathered and displayed in the classroom.
b. Teachers must frequently read aloud and tell stories to the students.
c. Children must be invited to perform the poetry and plays.
d. Displaying unusual objects in the classroom and encouraging children to talk about them.
e. Making a ‘talking corner’ in the classroom and inviting guests to talk about an interesting topic with the class.
All the above activities will build students' confidence and enhance their oracy skills.

3. Explicitly Teaching Oracy: Teachers must use direct vocabulary instruction especially with the students having any other native language. They must teach oracy related topics in the classroom. It is suggested to start by teaching a language structure or speaking frame each week. But unfortunately, teachers cannot give everything they know to the students. Children have to grab things and make them their own. Hence, teachers must support children to reflect and analyze their language skills - not only after they've completed their written tasks but also while they're writing their ideas and vocabulary.

Using graphic organisers to structure classroom thinking and talking
Using graphic organisers to structure classroom thinking and talking

4. Providing Opportunities to Practise Oracy: To make children confident speakers, teachers must provide them with a lot of opportunities to use their oracy skills in the classroom. Teachers must try different ways to talk about different topics and the structures they use in the classroom. Teachers can ask questions about students' major achievements in education or, prompt or comment about any topic. Teachers need to build upon students' comments. It is a must to think about how frequently children get the opportunity to report verbally, both planned and unplanned. It is also recommended to allocate some of the classroom time for children with poor communication skills and design additional language-related activities for them. Teachers can build a ‘conversation station’ with some rules to facilitate conversations between children.

5. Practice to Elaborate: An element of communication that's extremely powerful is 'elaboration.' Elaboration means to explain one's idea to someone else and add details to it. This method acts as a verbal rehearsal before writing ideas on paper. For young learners, oral practice separates the process of the creation of ideas from the more complex task of writing them. Older children can practice elaborating which help them in trying out different ways to write sentences and to listen to their writing aloud.

6. Expect Oracy from each student: For teachers, it is crucial to teach students about the fundamentals of classroom talk and model what good communication sounds like. A teacher's thinking voice plays an important role in building children’s metacognitive skills in both oracy and writing. To think about the most useful ways to phrase speech and to verbalise oracy choices are keys to supporting the development of oracy skills. It is an effective way to give feedback about Oracy. A teacher must not highlight if a child says something incorrectly, it might be more effective to repeat what they said incorrectly using the right words.

7. Make Oracy a fun-filled Activity: It is necessary to enjoy oracy explicit activities in the class with children such as games, role play, performances and debates. Teachers can design a thorough curriculum for oracy including many oracy related activities to improve oracy in children.

A child first acquires language to build upon natural fluency. Each student must get the opportunity to improve their content vocabulary through oral presentations and discussion rather than learning new vocabulary to be used in writing. Improvements in a student’s spoken English are usually followed by developments in their writing skills. However, incorporating tier 2 direct vocabulary instruction into the curriculum has been shown to have positive outcomes for pupils.

What are the benefits of Oracy Skills for the pupils?

High-quality language development activities in primary classrooms can greatly improve educational attainment, from improving science and SAT results in maths to enhancing reasoning, reading and writing skills.
There is an extensive body of evidence that suggests that students with better communication skills are 4 times more likely to achieve five A* at GCSE. When teachers engage students in cognitively challenging classroom talk students do not only improve their language skills but also gain additional progress in subjects like science and mathematics. High-quality oracy education improves different techniques of writing in students; mainly including extended writing and collective writing skills. Oracy also has a positive impact on children's spelling and reading comprehension. The spoken language supports children's cognitive development, helping them to understand the world around them.

More recently, teachers and employers think that life skills such as communication, confidence, resilience and motivation are equally or even more important than educational qualifications. Oracy improves a child's academic and cognitive outcomes, his mental-wellbeing, self-esteem, employability, social mobility, and civic engagement. With companies now rating effective speaking as the most desirable skill, having superior public speaking and communication skills and a strong ability to express ideas through discussion are more needed in life beyond school.

There are hundreds of schools all across the country where teachers have understood the importance of building strong Oracy skills within the students. But, despite having all the above advantages and teachers' realisation of its importance we don't see the oracy curriculum receiving as much attention as literacy and numeracy in the school curriculum. According to academic evidence, pupils' average contribution in each class remains limited to just four words per lesson. Therefore, it is suggested that just as literacy and numeracy, oracy framework and key oracy skillset must be taught and, essentially practised for developing communication proficiency in students.

reward positive spoken communication
reward positive spoken communication

Building learning conversations

As a teacher you can't give them what you know. Learners have to take it and make it their own, and it's the discussion that really helps to do that. You can really support this by giving children tasks that require them to create several versions of something and then discuss which is best. Using the ‘Writer’s block’, we have seen children make changes and then reason their ideas to someone else. So you might say,‘write several opening sentences and discuss which one is the best’. The children can then use the Structural Learning blocks to move and change the parts of the sentence without any fear of ‘getting it wrong’. As learners make changes, they always justify their thinking to their peers, a gateway to critical thinking.

promoting the development of oracy skills
promoting the development of oracy skills

Classroom talk for generating ideas

Another important role for talk in writing is the kind of talk that helps children to generate the ideas.

You can't write if you haven't got anything to say and the talking to generate ideas helps you to work through your ideas in a logical way. One element of talk that's particularly powerful is elaboration. This is the idea of explaining your ideas back to someone else and adding details along the way. This approach acts as an oral rehearsal before pen is committed to paper. For very young children, oral rehearsal separates the formulating of a sentence from the very difficult demand of writing it.

With older children it helps them try out different possibilities for sentences and to hear their writing aloud. And finally, talk is important for reflection and evaluation. We all know how hard it is to get children revising their work. Support children to reflect and evaluate on their writing - not just after they've written but also as they're developing their ideas and vocabulary. The block structures can easily be manipulated into different combinations, it’s a lot less daunting than putting a line through it. Focus their revision with key evaluative questions tied to the learning focus.

Remember, talk is the foundation of all learning.