Changing the lens

What is oracy?

There is a buzz around oracy and thousands of teachers are engaging with it . So why has it become so important?


The Great Oracy Exhibition takes place at School 21 this week and will be a showcase of some of the best oracy practice from teachers and students from across the country. The packed programme will give people the chance to see the range, scope and depth of oracy and its potency inside and outside of the classroom.

So what is Oracy? If you look up the word the dictionary definition is ‘the ability to express oneself fluently and grammatically in speech.’ We had many debates at the start as to whether oracy was too baffling a word or because it sounded a bit like numeracy and literacy, it would have more gravitas than the alternatives: voice, eloquence, talk, speaking, communication. When we set up our charity to spread speaking skills to schools across the country we called it Voice 21, but kept the word oracy too. And thanks to the brilliant work of Beccy Earnshaw, Director of Voice 21 and her team, oracy is now very much in the education lexicon. It is definitely here to stay.

But let’s get underneath it. What is it and why does it matter?

For me, oracy brings together what it is to think and what it is to be human. It is the intersection of head and heart. It is the way we build knowledge and the way we build teams. The Greeks talked of the Trivium – grammar, dialect and rhetoric – dialectic and rhetoric encapsulating an ability to discuss, debate and perform.

For those, like us, who wish to close the achievement gap between the richest and poorest children – the most piercing inequality of our day – then oracy is the best route to that goal, the greatest indicator that someone has moved from illiterate to literate, inarticulate to articulate. Finding your voice, in other words, is the big liberator. It says to the world that you’ve got something worth saying and you are able to say it.

Oracy too is a bridge between the divides in education – oracy allows the knowledge-rich and the skills-rich to come together – to be joined in a marriage of deeper understanding. Through talk we make sense of knowledge, we apply it, we challenge it, we articulate it, we explore it. It is through talk we deepen humanity – we support each other, build teams, show our tolerance.

Oracy is about context. Some see it solely as public speaking. But most of us spend little time public speaking. Rather, oracy is about making every spoken interaction more meaningful. Oracy is how 4 year olds make sense of what’s happening in the sandpit and how further maths students solve complex problems. It is exploring a hypothesis in science, explaining a source in history, playing in a football team, working in a drama ensemble. It is discussing who was to blame for the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and whether Communism could ever work. Oracy is about being a friend. It is about standing up for what you believe. It is about summarising a lecture, questioning a speaker, pitching an idea, complaining at an injustice. It is about your inner confidence; saying to your teacher: ‘This homework didn’t stretch me’. Or persuading your mother to stay out late. It is about chairing a meeting and being a tour guide. It is about being interesting. Oracy is about giving feedback that helps not hurts. It is about not being afraid to explain how you feel. It is about saying: ‘This is me, this is who I am, this is what makes me tick, this is what I stand for.’

For one of School 21’s founding teachers, Jeffrey Boakye a key question for any teacher is what is the conversation you want to set up in your classroom. For me, that conversation is one that combines the best knowledge of the past, with the most insightful understanding of personal identity in the present, in order to make a meaningful difference in the future. Isn’t that what teaching is about?

But, there are thorns on the oracy rose too. Oracy as curse, put down; Oracy as sarcasm. No teacher is without a hint of it: What time do you call this? Stop trying to be clever. Are you going to do any work today? Boring you, am I?

Then there are those for whom oracy is one way traffic; who talk but don’t listen: the blaggers, the wafflers, the bore. Those who ‘like the sound of their own voice.’ A dreadful phrase, of course, because we want everyone to like the sound of their own voice. But listening is a virtue. Not just to listen but to hear. Not just to hear but to understand. That requires us “to be present’ in the moment, no distractions. Listening, like talk, takes practice.

So oracy is teaching and learning. It is well-being. It is at the heart of teacher development. It is about the dialogic classroom, as Cambridge academic Robin Alexander, describes it and the dialogic staffroom, as School 21 co-founder, Oli de Botton, puts it.

What makes it work in schools is being intentional about it. Talk about talk and it will get better. Use it to reflect and you will quickly get self-aware pupils. Use it in assemblies and you will get confident, curious young people.

And then…… when the scaffolds are removed and confidence rises, you start to see the moments where oracy inspires, make you laugh, moves you, makes you think afresh. Those are the moments when the best of the head and the best of the heart come together and the spoken word, in all its glorious richness, touches the soul.

© Peter Hyman, 2019