Oracy is the New Black Pudding

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Oracy would seem to be the new superfood, like black pudding: it’s always been there but people have only recently recognised its worthiness. Now we know you can talk your way out of a locked cold store room with a bit of oracy…

I recall it used to be virtually impossible to find a definition of it, definitely in hard-copy dictionaries, and especially in the early days of computer search engines when even the spelling wasn’t recognised – and as I type, Word right now red-underlines oracy as an error.

Typing the word in Google Search today, here are some first lines from suggested reads:

Talk supports thinking, and that means it supports learning

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the need to help young people develop their abilities to use spoken language effectively

 Skills in oracy (the use of spoken language) will be more important for most people when they leave school

 For most of the British population, oracy has never really been a subject in the school curriculum

 If there was ever a generic skill that was most essential for success in life, it would have to be oracy: the power of effective oral communication

 It helps students formulate their ideas into clear thoughts

All of these are to a degree knowing and positive, but even here there are worrying slants [no pun intended, see soon…] and misconceptions and annoying contextualising. I know I can be easily irked, but these wrong-rub my understanding of oracy:

In recent years – I have been aware of and put into practice oracy as a principle of teaching and learning from the early 1980s and throughout my teaching career

(the use of spoken language) – oracy is this but equally and critically about listening [thus the latter term, especially at GCSE English, Speaking and Listening]

has never really been a school subject – it isn’t a subject, it is a pedagogical principle/approach that should be applied to all teaching and learning in all subjects

That nit-pick is simply to fine-tune. Indeed, the point is that quotes 1, 3, 5 and 6 above are pretty much spot-on as encapsulations, especially the first one.

There would appear to be a ‘resurgence’ in thinking about and promoting oracy, especially in teaching English, and I have picked this up largely through twitter posts, as I did this article today about oracy from Schools Week which has prompted this posting in the same way it did my tweet, which was:

As reported, this comment ‘a “family lunch” which “implicitly models oracy” through a daily discussion of a political or ethical topic’ is just fundamentally dumb in its complete misunderstanding of oracy as a principle of teaching and learning

Yes, irked. Sometimes school leaders and other representatives of the Return to Gradgrind brigade [see post here] say the stupidest things, firstly in candid defenses of their nonsense, then, as here, in little meaningless caveats of how their nonsenses are really not all that bad.

But enough on the philistines.

My introduction to oracy was through the DES 1982 Bullock Resisted: A Discussion Document by HMI which articulated and promoted the principles of oracy, so we are going back a few years before its more ‘recent’ resurgence. As a new English teacher – I started in 1980 – I was around that time working with my then English Advisor and my Head of Department in devising teaching materials incorporating the primacy of student talk in classroom methodology as well as disseminating this to other English teachers in the county. It was an exciting and positive time. Other influences were the Resources for Learning Development Unit, based in Bristol, whose teaching projects also placed student speaking and listening at the core of the work.

So I am both excited and dismayed to see oracy’s renaissance but then also the counter move to these absurd SLANT instructions which are in the Schools Week article further absurdly referred to as a process

in which pupils fold their arms and track the teacher with their eyes in silence, is used to “ensure pupils are actively listening”, another element of oracy.

‘Another element of oracy’? You cannot coerce students into positive and productive speaking and listening. It has to be through a culture and ethos within a continuing classroom experience. It also concerns me that, as reported, some apparently promoting oracy do so by references to ‘rhetoric and debate’ and ‘academic terms’ and this leads to my final concern that Voice 21, again as reported in the article cited, and promoted [in good faith I am sure] by Emma Hardy, Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle, is presenting oracy as

…the art of teaching children to speak well

This may be a gross simplification of the aims, but nonetheless, having started with definitions of oracy as a key place to begin making clear what it should and shouldn’t be, this definition is completely wrong.

Indeed, I have just visited the Voice 21 online site, and whilst its aims and objectives aren’t presented in any detail – sadly – there is this stated objective which, as a definition, does seem much more expansive than the one about speaking well:

All children & young people, regardless of their background, should have access to high quality oracy education enabling them to develop the communication skills and confidence necessary to thrive in the 21st Century

Educators and education commentators need to be aware of the dangers in misrepresenting what oracy is. I don’t care if teachers today think it is a new approach – though I have, I accept, been elsewhere a little defensive about its actual history – but I do have real concerns about flaunting it as a means of ‘improving’ speaking.

Worse is suggesting the occasional ‘serious discussion/debate’ makes up for other co-existing practices where student voices are made entirely passive. Worse still is missing entirely the fundamental purpose of oracy which is, as our first definition succinctly stated, appreciating how student talk supports thinking, and that means it supports learning.

6 thoughts on “Oracy is the New Black Pudding

  1. Hi Mike
    I read your blog with interest and as Director of Voice 21, I wanted to reassure you that we do not define oracy as the ‘art of teaching children how to speak well’ – those are the words of the journalist not Voice 21. On our website you will find our oracy charter which outlines our beliefs re. oracy (https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/2c80ff_ccd5718b6ca84a74b0eaefcd8ee01f14.pdf

    Voice 21 Oracy Charter
    – Oracy is the capacity to use speech to express our thoughts and communicate with others
    as outlined in the four strands of the Oracy Framework.(the Framework was devised with Neil Mercer and team at Cambridge University and can be found here https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/2c80ff_1c4bb315fb26438b9eaa2fc4899bafe6.pdf)
    – Teaching improves oracy and oracy improves teaching and learning.
    – Effective oracy teaching and learning is purposeful, scaffolded and structured to deepen understanding and develop critical thinking.
    – Children and young people should become agile communicators who learn to navigate
    the expectations for oracy in different contexts through the provision of a wide
    and varied curriculum.
    – Oracy is the responsibility of every teacher and the entitlement of every child

    You might also be interested in this research we commissioned last year which explores this in more depth https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/2c80ff_91a02276fdf645d2b70ad433049306a3.pdf or this blog (there are some short videos on this site too) https://www.edutopia.org/blog/oracy-literacy-of-spoken-word-oli-de-botton or this essay in the ESU’s Speaking Frankly publication https://www.esu.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0025/13795/ESU-Speaking-Frankly.pdf

    I am sorry you could not find more details about our aims and work on the website – it is all there on links from the homepage but we will review the site to ensure people can find this info more easily. If you want to see the kind of approaches we promote you can have a look through our resources on http://www.voice21resources.org

    Finally, I totally agree with your points on oracy not being something new (many of the approaches we use have their roots in Ancient Greece!), however as the polling we conducted with teachers and school leaders found, most schools are not giving oracy the focus (we believe) it deserves for a variety of reasons (these are explored in the research) and we want to support teacher and schools to put a greater emphasis on oracy and increase the quality and quantity of dialogue within classrooms.
    Do get in touch if you would like to discuss any aspect of our work,
    Many thanks


  2. Out of interest, have you challenged ‘Schools Week’ for its reporting? I did use ‘as reported’ because of my concerns about some statements, and did go to your web site to check that quote about teaching students to speak well! To explain perhaps, rather than click on the site as it comes up in a search engine, I went to ‘our work’, thinking that would be the precise area for aims and objectives, and found my quote there.


  3. No I haven’t challenged Schools Week as the article does not state that Voice 21 defines oracy as the ‘art of speaking well’ or suggest that this definition is a quote from us.
    Thanks for the explanation on the website – it is in need if some updating and better links to different areas of the site – we have been so busy we haven’t had a chance to give it the overhaul it needs!


  4. Pingback: Gnomes of Oracy | mikeandenglish

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