The Importance of Oracy in our Schools

Speaking and listening often appear as the poor relation within the English Curriculum with far greater emphasis on reading and writing, grammar, punctuation and spelling. The spoken language objectives that run through the English curriculum and link across all curriculum areas are rarely given the same status as that of other curriculum areas.

The Speak For Change Report By The Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group

In April 2021, The Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group published their report Speak for Change. The report highlights the importance of oral language within the classroom and makes many recommendations for the future. What then are the implications of this report for educators?

What Is The Importance Of Oracy?

The Speak for Change reports defines oracy as ‘our ability to communicate effectively using spoken language. It is the ability to speak eloquently, articulate ideas and thoughts, influence through talking, listen to others and have the confidence to express your views.’ In other words, it is an essential life skill which we need to support all pupils to develop. The report states that oracy matters because it:

  • Improves educational outcomes
  • Underpins literacy and vocabulary acquisition
  • Supports well-being and confidence
  • Enables young people to have access to employment and thrive in life beyond school
  • Develops citizenship and agency

The report says that oracy is particularly important for pupils from low income and disadvantaged backgrounds. Many of these pupils enter school with much lower language levels than pupils from middle-class backgrounds. It is not, therefore, something which we can afford to ignore.

Literacy and Vocabulary Acquisition

One of the areas in which oracy matters is in the development of literacy skills. Listening skills can be developed through reading aloud to pupils. This also introduces them to literary language, explains how stories work, exposes them to a range of genres, and enables them to hear a rich and varied vocabulary.

An element of the School Inspection Framework, linked to early reading and phonics, is that ‘stories, poems, rhymes and non-fiction are chosen to develop pupils’ vocabulary, language comprehension and love of reading’ (Ofsted Inspection Handbook). Reading aloud to pupils should be high on every classroom teacher’s agenda.

The Importance of Oracy for Writing

Oracy is also important for writing. The National Curriculum writing objectives specify that pupils should compose and rehearse sentences orally before committing them to paper. If pupils cannot construct sentences that use grammatical elements they have been working on, for example, conjunctions, fronted adverbials, dialogue, how will they be able to use these in their writing?

In addition, exploring a subject in depth through drama, the retelling of stories, vocabulary games and other speaking and listening activities often leads to writing with greater depth and focuses than would have been achieved without this preparatory work.

A Focus on Oracy Supports the Acquisition of Vocabulary

Many research studies point to the fact that children from disadvantaged families enter school with much lower language levels than pupils from more affluent households exposed to higher levels of language. A limited vocabulary has been shown to impact educational attainment. In contrast, a wide vocabulary impacts positively on reading comprehension and the ability to make inferences. It enables pupils to make sense of what they are reading.

Access To A Wide Vocabulary Impacts Writing

In writing, access to a wide vocabulary means that the writer can choose the word or phrase which most adequately expresses what they want to say. For example, describing a coat as faded, shabby or worn rather than just old, thus painting a more accurate and evocative picture. They will draw on their knowledge of language to include literary features such as similes and metaphors. Therefore, it is important to ensure that all pupils have access to a broad and rich vocabulary within our educational settings.

The Next Steps for Oracy in Education

The Speak for Change reports calls for the status of oracy in education to be raised, suggesting a need for a shared expectation that oracy will be taught in all year groups and a clear learning progression to be provided.

It requests that resources be made available to teachers to increase their confidence and capability in this area. It also asks for evidence on the impact of oracy skills on closing attainment gaps for disadvantaged pupils to form part of the guidance for schools on spending their pupil premium and catch-up funding. The report also suggests that Ofsted inspectors should be trained on inspecting a school’s oracy provision. 78% of pupils interviewed for the report said that oracy should be prioritised ‘a lot’, but only 32% said it was a priority in their school. In the words of one pupil….

“Oracy should be taught more in schools…At the end of the day, communication skills help you get on in life. Exam results are important, but you need good communication in everyday life because you’re always communicating with others.”

We as educators must ensure that all our pupils are given the best possible opportunities to develop their oracy skills. Let’s start by putting oracy high on our agenda.

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