How do you see oracy in the classroom? Is the way your students communicate something you feel compelled to approach with a sense of educational rigour? Or does it cause heart palpitations, and make you fear the disgruntled looks of colleagues when they walk past your noisy classroom?

At the start of the pandemic, the removal of the spoken language component from GCSE English language could be seen as an almost condescending pat on the head that we didn’t need. Far from allowing practitioners to breathe a sigh of relief, what it did was expose the distorted value of spoken language skills in terms of its place amongst the skill triad.

In contrast to its older literacy and numeracy siblings, there remains a lack of explicit reference to oracy skills, leading to them being perceived in some curriculum styles as merely a means to an end, rather than a foundation of opportunity.

Now more than ever, communication and the building of students’ oracy skills can be a guiding light that allows young people to boost both their social skills and academic confidence. It’s time for us to recognise the positive effects of embedding explicit oracy skills, put them under the spotlight and start making some noise.

Communication skills and everyday oracy

Embedding explicit oracy skills can allow students to appreciate the value and importance of having a voice in today’s society. No matter what career path our students choose to follow, the elephant in the room is that communication is key to their future prospects.

Constant reference needs to be made to the significance of these skills outside the confines of the classroom. We should embrace the learning opportunities that oracy affords.

By reflecting with students on everyday scenarios, such as the breakdowns in communication that can occur in any workplace, we can open doors through which students can gain highly informative glimpses of life beyond the school gates.

Good oracy can also do much to encourage academic confidence, by improving students’ ability to articulate any idea they might have prior to commencing written work.

Students approach learning in different ways. By saying that, I’m not pushing any new-fangled pedagogical approaches, or outlandish strategies that require hours of preparation for a 5-minute learning task. Instead, I’m suggesting we focus on their ability to explain and reason in order to embed the knowledge that they’re gaining or retrieving.

For some students, the ability to respond to a given task may come with ease, while others may be more reluctant to put pen to paper. Whether that’s due to a lack of understanding or low energy levels, oracy can be the Lycra-clad superhero that saves the day!

Incorporating discussions into both pre- and post- written tasks will not only help students sculpt their responses, but also start to reflect on and develop them with less apprehension.

Classroom talk – verbal feedback for assessment

Being able to provide verbal feedback could result in a reduction of workload – though note that I said ‘could’. Unfortunately, this elusive unicorn will be completely dependent on your setting’s standpoint.

In peak conditions, however, a grounding in oracy will deliver the gravitas of effective feedback, without having to use six differently coloured pens and creating a key with highlighters. It will allow for dialogue that identifies how progress can be made.

When done correctly, your students should still have a clear focus for progress, without the need for you to burn the midnight oil. Even starting off with a whole-class feedback discussion or a visualizer demonstration can be a positive step in the direction of managing your time more effectively.

Modelling effective oracy skills will do much to support both colleague and student conversations, and promote focused and meaningful dialogue.

The key term here is ‘focused dialogue’. Allow me to let you into a little secret I’ve picked up from my time as both a parent and a teacher – children know how to lead you down the proverbial garden path of conversation in order to ease their workload.

Indeed, they’re already light years ahead in realising that oracy can ease their workload burden! The fact is that both students and practitioners can benefit from taking a moment to reflect on their classroom discussions.

The first step is to establish whether your modelling of oracy skills is truly based on a dialogue, or whether you have in fact embellished your monologic teaching in a manner that would rival a Shakespearean play.

The next lesson is one we all need to master – the age-old habit of thinking before you speak. This goes back to the problem some students may have with understanding what communication actually is.

The explicit reference to ‘thinking first’ derives from the fact that listening is a compulsory component of communication. It’s the thought process that goes into deciding our next utterance, which usually clouds our understanding of what has actually been said previously.

The downfall of many a positive relationship is rooted in an inability to communicate effectively, at the heart of which is often the (in)ability to listen! Embracing oracy skills can also promote established behaviour management strategies, and provide opportunities for restorative dialogues.

Speaking skills – explain your thinking

Think about the last time you asked a student a question and they replied with ‘I don’t know’. What you must consider is whether you read this statement as a lack of understanding on their part, a fear of attempting to answer the question or a lack of engagement.

This can often be explored in more detail through further subtle questioning and development. By adopting this technique, students can be taught to recognise that seemingly simple, throwaway comments and remarks can actually be investigated more closely in order to determine a root cause.

Other examples may arise from comments such as ‘No’, ‘Yes’, ‘I’m fine’ and ‘Okay’, all of which can be interpreted in a variety of different ways, depending on the context.

As practitioners, it’s important that we’re able to identify and consider such factors in order to maintain positive relationships with our students and resolve any issues that may arise.

The main thing to remember in this respect is that we’re all human. We all have emotions, and may sometimes make such comments ourselves.

At the same time, we may well find ourselves becoming frustrated and agitated if we happen to be the recipient of such utterances from someone else, particularly when combined with body language or a tone of voice indicative of defiance. It’s our ability to recognise, diffuse and reflect on this which makes us practitioners.

After working in recruitment consultancy and HR, Sarah Davies returned to her passion for teaching. She has also gained a Masters in English Literature and is now a lead examiner for one of the leading exam boards. Since qualifying as a teacher, Sarah has gained experience as both a lead practitioner and head of English

Her book, Talking About Oracy, is available now, published by John Catt.