Not so long ago, whenever you heard someone speaking, be it in person or on TV, their words were frequently punctuated by this sound: “Knowtamean?”.
Formed by putting the question, “Do you know what I mean?” through a verbal compressor, this painful utterance was so common it established itself in popular culture through songs and comedy. But, if you think about it, it only came into being through a lack of something: oracy.
What is oracy? Coined in the 1960s by British researcher and educator, Andrew Wilkinson’s oracy definition is the ability to express yourself fluently in speech. Had it taken off earlier, it might have eradicated the “Knowtamean” abomination because no one would ever have needed to check whether people understood them.
Over the decades, the role of oracy in education has become better understood and more highly valued. Speaking and listening skills have been taught and assessed in primary school for quite a while now but their evolution into the concept of oracy has partly been driven by the realisation that its importance goes beyond the English curriculum. After all, what better way could there be to demonstrate understanding than having the communication skills to convey an idea clearly to someone else? This holds true in everything from explaining your reasoning in maths to responding appropriately to an alternative perspective on life in RE or PSHE.
Nevertheless, the skilful manipulation of words forms the bedrock of oracy, and literacy is, therefore, the area in which it is most appropriately taught. Being able to write standard English well begins with being able to speak it fluently. That’s why it is so important for young writers in particular to rehearse sentences verbally before putting pencil to paper.
Spoken language skills
Good oracy covers many different aspects. These range from basic features of communication/speaking skills such as the volume, clarity, pace and tone of the delivery to broader considerations such as respecting the audience, listening and taking turns. Then of course there’s choice of words, rhetoric and content, not to mention the ability to organise and explain your ideas verbally whether in a discussion or delivering a spoken presentation. If you’re beginning to realise that there’s more to improving students’ oracy skills than you had previously thought, good. But also, don’t worry, because there are lots of ways to practise all these skills within your lessons without devouring huge chunks of your teaching time.
Oracy in the classroom
Like most skills, language dexterity can be broadened and strengthened and there are a number of oracy activities that will help your pupils to achieve this. First, however, you need to set some rules and expectations. For a start, insist on standard English whenever your pupils are talking within a class context and don’t be afraid to correct them if necessary: “It’s those pencils, not them pencils,” and so on. That means, of course, that you need to set a good example so work hard to eradicate any bad habits that you might have developed over the years.
Word games for oracy development
Make time for short word games, perhaps as a warm-up activity. There are plenty for you as a teacher to choose from – too many to list here – but the ones that involve questioning and responding are particularly good because they cover many aspects of oracy. For example, younger pupils might enjoy the opportunity to play ‘Twenty Questions’ (in which only ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers are allowed) while older ones might enjoy some version of ‘Just a Minute’, the long-running radio game.
Vocabulary and oracy skills
A broad vocabulary is an essential part of improving pupils’ life chances. Use Oracy activities to help children expand their personal lexicons, perhaps by getting them to explain or define less common words, or even challenging them to include these words in everyday conversation. You might have some particular favourites you would like them to focus on. Alternatively, you could use our Tier 2 words cards for Year 6 pupils.
Oracy skill – rhetoric
One way that makes people more interesting speakers is their use of rhetorical devices such as humour or figurative language. Anyone who has heard a badly-pitched wedding speech will know that using humour effectively is not as easy as it might seem, so school could provide a safe space for practising that. Much the same is true of rhetorical flourishes so encourage pupils to use techniques such as similes, metaphors and personification when they are speaking. Our figurative language posters could provide a valuable, visible reminder of what each of these involve.
Oracy education – student debate
Of all the oracy skills, the ability to debate effectively must be one of the most useful because it encompasses so many important aspects, from marshalling ideas and information to ‘reading’ the audience. You could include oral debates as part of the planning and preparation for a persuasion or balanced argument writing unit, such as our Bug Banquet persuasive writing resource. Or why not make time for a weekly debate based on current affairs? Through our association with The Week Junior magazine, we offer Topical Tuesdays: stimulating debate ideas and writing challenges based on fascinating news articles.
By introducing oracy activities to your timetable, probably on a ‘little and often’ basis, you could have a massive impact on your pupils’ ability to express themselves clearly. That will be good news for both their academic achievement and their life chances. Innit, though?
Do you want to extend your pupils’ vocabulary?
If you are looking for ways to close the vocabulary gap and ensure progress from the start, take a look at our Word Woosh resources. We have over 48 resource packs for years 1-6 that will help your pupils to learn 144 ambitious tier 2 words – a new word taught each week. Find out more here.