Why should we be talking more about oracy?

by Tim Oates, 09 June 2021
group of children talking in a classroom

"We fail to say the right words, because we choose to say the wrong words! We choose to say the wrong words, because we fail to think about the right words!" Ernest Agyemang Yeboah

The quote above encapsulates the way in which speaking intimately is bound up with thinking. By speaking, we reveal to ourselves and others the nature and content of our thoughts. It’s no accident that the phrase ‘...that’s not exactly what I mean...’ crops up as a frequent and important part of our own development and our relations with others. Spoken words not only crystallise concepts and ideas but they construct social links to other people - ideas shared, or disputed, or refined. 

Synthesis of the evidence

Compelling evidence that an emphasis on high quality oral exchange enhances academic outcomes.

‘Speak for Change’,(1) the All Party Parliamentary Group for Oracy’s report was published in April of this year. Championed and marshalled by Emma Hardy MP, it represents a brilliant synthesis of the evidence on oracy as a vital part of high-quality schooling. It highlights compelling evidence that an emphasis on high quality oral exchange enhances academic outcomes - elevating scores in formal assessments, as well as encouraging greater engagement and improved interpersonal relations.

The value of high-quality questions

It reinforces the insights from Lucy Crehan’s revealing comparisons of classrooms in different nations, which highlighted the way in which ‘productive talk’ is central to equity and attainment - carefully chosen questions which stimulate and reveal thinking, discussion which involves all pupils and not just some, discussion of misconceptions and errors as well as correct and valid contributions.(2)

This shared nature of thinking, through rich discussion, defines the kind of discourse which we recommend in our Cambridge Primary programme of study, and ‘Speak for Change’ returns to. And it is entirely consistent with my argument in a previous blog about the value of high-quality questions in both assessment and learning.

Importance of spoken language in pupils’ development

But it’s important to note the title of the report: ‘Speak for Change’. It suggests that we are a considerable way from seeing across all schools the didactic and pedagogic approaches which sufficiently support rich oracy. The report does not lapse into naïve or unrealistic demands for change. It takes into account the fact that the 2014 National Curriculum for England rightly departed from previous incarnations by strongly emphasising oracy across all subjects and not just some. This was an important part of our advice to the Secretary of State during the 2010-13 review. Through the curriculum aims for each subject, oracy became a legal requirement of all schools to which the National Curriculum applies. For example, the maths specification in the National Curriculum states: 

The national curriculum for mathematics reflects the importance of spoken language in pupils’ development across the whole curriculum – cognitively, socially and linguistically. The quality and variety of language that pupils hear and speak are key factors in developing their mathematical vocabulary and presenting a mathematical justification, argument or proof. They must be assisted in making their thinking clear to themselves as well as others, and teachers should ensure that pupils build secure foundations by using discussion to probe and remedy their misconceptions.

But ‘Speak for Change’ rightly highlights that this is not treated as a priority, nor is it widely understood or observed - it highlights the gap between policy and practice; a gap which needs to be closed. The report proposes carefully considered and realistic action: 

  • development of non-statutory guidance which lays out clear expectations
  • the UK Government should highlight research on the positive effect of oracy on equity
  • extending catch-up funding to oracy development in particular 
  • Ofsted should include schools’ oracy provision inspection
  • Ofqual should examine how speaking could be incorporated into formal certification 
  • the UK Government funding should be directed to professional development on oracy.

The precise balance across these recommendations needs to be worked through; for example, high-quality oracy will not arise solely through an emphasis on assessing it. As the report suggests, assessment is part of the picture, not the sole policy lever. Our own international comparative work on curriculum highlights that oracy is something which needs to permeate learning, and it will require changes to professional practice through initial training and continuing professional development, as well as change in institutional priorities. 

An emphasis on oracy enhances acquisition of both formal discipline knowledge and wider social and emotional development. Where I depart from the report is in respect of some of the views expressed by respondents to the consultation: that pursuit of attainment in formal qualifications and in oracy is somehow opposed. But in summarising the evidence the report rightly highlights how an emphasis on oracy enhances acquisition of both formal discipline knowledge and wider social and emotional development. In this, oracy helps us to both have our educational cake and to eat it.

About the author:

Tim Oates Blogger v2 

Tim Oates CBE has been the Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment since he joined the organisation in May 2005. Previously he had been the Head of Research and Statistics at the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency for the best part of a decade. In 2011 he Chaired the Expert Panel as part of the Department of Education's National Curriculum Review. Tim was awarded CBE in the 2015 New Year's Honours for services to education. Read Schools Week's profile of Tim.


1↩ Final report and recommendations from the Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry, April 2021

2↩ Crehan, L. (2018) Cleverlands: the secrets behind the success of the world's education superpowers. Unbound.

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