A primary school deputy headteacher points to a “dramatic improvement” in children’s speaking and listening and to clear impact across the curriculum – “from problem solving in maths, to expressing opinions about books, to resolving playground conflicts”. The leader of an educational charity talks of “transformative power”. Both are champions of oracy. Both backed the recent call (via letters to the Guardian newspaper) for more space for oracy in the curriculum, which we wrote about in our Giving children a voice blog. Evidence suggests that the benefits of teaching oracy go far beyond developing children’s competence in public speaking and debating. It also improves engagement in learning and fosters wellbeing and self-confidence – fundamental goals of any curriculum.
One of the letter-writers was Russell Findlay, who is the chief executive of Speakers Trust, a charity that delivers workshops to young people and provides resources to schools and other organisations. Its vision, it says on its website, is “that every young person is able to speak confidently and be heard”. It claims to have worked directly in over 20% of state secondary schools in England over the last twelve months.
I was encouraged by reading of Keir Starmer’s ambition to put speaking lessons at the heart of the curriculum. Despite this causing some to fear that schools would revert to children reciting “How now, brown cow”, oracy or public speaking lessons can build young people’s confidence and career prospects.Letter in the Guardian from Russell Findlay, chief executive of Speakers Trust, July 2023
The charity I lead, Speakers Trust, has visited 600 state schools and worked with 35,000 young people – almost half of whom say they don’t have the confidence, skills or opportunity to share their ideas in public.
In our 17 years of commitment to young people, Speakers Trust has experienced first-hand the transformative power of oracy lessons. It’s not just about articulation; it’s about building confidence, sharpening influencing skills, and empowering each student to find and express their unique voice. These are essential skills for young people’s futures.
It is a welcome sign that politicians are recognising the importance of oracy as an essential life skill for young people. Working in some of England’s most deprived communities, we understand that developing oracy skills is not just crucial to individual growth, but also a key driver of social mobility.
Voice 21 is a charity that campaigns for oracy to have a higher status in the education system and supports schools to provide high-quality oracy education by delivering teacher-development and school-improvement programmes. On its website it argues (with supporting empirical evidence) that oracy:
The English-Speaking Union, meanwhile, is an education charity that “works with teachers and schools to support the development of all children’s speaking and listening ability (oracy) and cross-cultural understanding as a foundation skill for life”. It has recently launched what it describes as a comprehensive self-teach resource for teachers called Oracy in Action to support the effective development of speaking and listening skills in children aged 7–11 and “kickstart meaningful talk in the classroom”.
The English-Speaking Union talks of four skillsets that underpin oracy. It is easy to see how these skills have wider curriculum applicability. (Voice 21 organises its explanation of the benefits of oracy around the terms ‘cognitive’, ‘physical’, ‘linguistic’ and ‘social and emotional’.)
Thinking and evidence-gathering – the cognitive skills we need to construct (and then defend) a cogent argument. What points do I want to make? What supporting information should I provide? This ability is obviously applicable to any academic or real-life situation in which we are preparing to make a case for something, orally or in writing.
Listening and responding – the ability not just to actively listen to the arguments of others but also to formulate our own response in order to then engage in discussion. It is a key element of public debate and perhaps the most difficult skill of all because it requires you to do two things simultaneously and instantly. When we discuss or debate an issue with someone, do we actually listen carefully to what they are saying, or are we too busy formulating our follow-up based on what we assume they are saying? Do we properly evaluate their counter-argument, or do we simply draw from a bank of stock responses?
Organising and structuring – the ability to set out your argument in a sensible, logical and easy-to-follow way. It is one thing to have a valid argument but how do you present it in a compelling way? How do you start? Which point do you make next? There is an obvious link here with essay writing.
Expression and delivery – the area most obviously connected with helping develop self-confidence and also empathy (the ability to put yourself in the position of another person). What tricks can you use to hold an audience? How do you know whether or not you are even connecting with your audience?
The third blog in this short series on oracy will consider how poetry can help children become more confident public speakers.
Image at the head of this article by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.