Student Voice

Oracy: The Literacy of the Spoken Word

School 21 believes oracy is as important as reading and writing, and the research supports it. From Harkness discussions to talk-rich assemblies, learn how you can integrate oracy at your school.

September 15, 2016
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Editor's note: You'll notice British standard spelling throughout this post. It was authored by a U.K.-based educator as part of our Schools That Work coverage of School 21.

What the Research Says About Oracy

Oracy is as important as reading and writing. That’s our claim at School 21. Why do we think this? The research base is strong. (I recommend seeking out any work by Neil Mercer and Robin J. Alexander. You can start here: Mercer and Littleton, 2007 and Wolfe and Alexander, 2008 [PDF]). The theory is that purposeful dialogue focused on the exploration of complex ideas extends student thinking. Deep thinking creates the conditions for retaining and then mobilising important knowledge. Through informed debate, argument, and persuasion, students are cognitively stretched.

But we believe there’s more to it. Teaching oracy is instrumental to better reading and, in particular, writing. In developmental terms, humans acquire oral language first -- a prerequisite for literacy. And the cycle of talk before writing is well established as sound pedagogical practice. It would be hard to imagine teaching writing without any form of discussion, even if that involves teacher-to-pupil talk. Pie Corbett and others have pioneered talk for writing approaches (PDF) that have been shown to improve outcomes.

Oracy Develops Student Voice

There are other reasons, perhaps not as well researched, but certainly aligned to our vision and values. Every student has something to say. It’s the job of a school to help students find their voice, confidence, and poise. Once students know who they are and what they can be, they’ll use their voice to change the world around them. Voices aren’t neutral -- they have the power to shape viewpoints, resolve differences, and overcome obstacles.

Oracy Framework

School 21 uses a framework of four strands to describe our oracy curriculum. Talk is:

  • Cognitive: It’s about argument and logic.
  • Linguistic: It’s rich in stretching language.
  • Physical: It’s reliant on body position and posture.
  • Emotive: It’s supported by persuading the head and the heart.

If you want to integrate oracy at your school, here are some ways to begin.

5 Tips to Integrate Oracy at Your School

1. Make Assemblies Interactive and Talk-Rich

All of our assemblies are in the round -- a circle of the entire year group -- and almost all involve structured discussions. If your year group (grade level) is large, you can break up the circles into smaller groups. Ideally, you would have space for a strong circle of the whole year group and small coaching circles of 15-20 students.

Circles are a symbol of our inclusive culture. They are also a forum for students to discuss and reflect on thorny issues. "How do you respond to difficult situations, rather than react to them?" "How do you know what career to choose?" Using drama techniques, like forum theatre (where one teacher plays the fictional School 21 misfit Colin Chaos and asks the school for advice) allows students to use assembly time for extending their talk and building the school community.

You can also use these techniques to make your assemblies talk-rich:

  1. Pass-and-Go: Ensure that all children get a say by having an inclusive discussion on a key topic. Once a student has spoken, they "pass" to the person next to them.
  2. Talking Points: Show controversial statements to your students, such as, "A silent classroom inhibits thinking" or "School culture is more important than curriculum content." Have students pair up and take each side of the argument before they find common ground.
  3. Critique Partners: Have assemblies with different age groups, and ask older students to mentor younger students through key school challenges, e.g. exams or exhibitions. Support the process by developing a language around coaching and mentoring.
  4. Mini-Philosophy for Children Circles: Provide a rich written stimulus for students, like excerpts from R.J. Palacio’s exceptional book Wonder, and break it down using key literacy techniques. Then decide what questions the passage brings up and discuss as a circle.

For more on redesigning the traditional assembly, check out these five tips.

2. Use the Harkness Protocol for Both Students and Staff

A good way to structure talk with students or staff is to use the Harkness protocol. This involves pre-reading about a particularly challenging concept or dilemma (e.g. How can we build an innovative school culture? Why did the Cold War never become the hot war?). Participants come prepared with arguments, and after warming up, begin a debate. The facilitator steps away from the discussion and tracks the talk -- both its distribution and its link to the overall question. After the debate, participants sum up conclusions using key vocabulary and the facilitator shares meta-reflections on the quality of talk, highlighting whether certain participants dominated or who made explicit reference to the text. The process works best around an oval table!

If you want to adopt the Harkness protocol in your school, start by working with subjects which benefit from this kind of exploratory talk. Humanities, for example, covers hugely contested questions. To ensure buy-in from staff, discuss whole-school strategic dilemmas in this way, too. You can see what the Harkness teaching method looks like in math, history, and English at Stevenson School.

3. Use Portfolio Presentations That Exemplify Stories of Learning

Instead of traditional parents’ evenings, we ask students to present portfolios of beautiful work to their parents and coach. This is work that has been drafted and redrafted until it reaches School 21's high standards. We also ask students to articulate their story of learning against our school attributes (professionalism, expertise, craft, spark, eloquence, grit, and humanity and integrity) and comment on their areas of growth. A panel of three -- a teacher, guidance counselor, and parent -- judge whether they have met the required standards. Students present portfolios of their work twice a year, and at the end of each presentation, they are given a percentage that contributes to their final exhibition grade by Year 12. This process is great for reflective talk and helps involve parents in the learning process.

If you want to try this approach, here's how you can get started:

  1. Get buy-in from parents. Explain that portfolio presentations are a better way of judging their child’s progress.
  2. Provide oracy training for students to help them think on their feet. See "Oracy in the Classroom: Strategies for Effective Talk" for teaching oracy in primary and "Public Speaking: Oracy Skills for the Real World" for teaching oracy in secondary.
  3. Ask school governors -- volunteer parents, community members, and school staff -- to be on the panels. School governors work with the head teacher (the administration) to ensure that the school's strategic plan is being carried out. By bringing school governors (or local community members) to judge on the panel, it raises the standards for the students presenting.

4. Have Oracy "Ignites" Each Year

To dramatise moments of talk, we have Ignites each year. These are individual public speaking events that give children the platform to find their voice and the confidence to command an audience. At 11/12 (11 and 12 years old), students perform a no-notes, five-minute talk on an area of their passion. At 12/13, they research an academic topic deeply and share in an expertise Ignite. At 13/14, students take part in a political Ignite where they formally debate key contemporary issues using Oxford-style debating rules (e.g. "This house believes Britain should leave the E.U."). At 14/15, students present their work from their Real-World Placement (12 weeks working with a business or charity). At each Ignite, students have to perform in front of a large audience. By 15, they’re trying to ignite an audience of over 50 employers!

If you want to bring ignites to your school, here's how you can get started:

  1. Visit the Ignite website for ideas and resources.
  2. Begin with a year-long group where you have the curriculum time to devote to it.
  3. Link the presentations first to student passion before you move on to more cognitive areas.
  4. Invite external audiences to heighten the status of the events.

5. Dedicate Curriculum Time to Oracy

In crowded curriculums this is always tricky, but with a combination of staff from different subject areas (drama, English, history, etc), a couple of periods a week on oracy leads to a brilliant practice. Specifically, our oracy curriculum consists of two periods for each child at 11/12. At 12/13, each student takes a course in Spanish oracy, which attempts to link the skills of talk to a new context. Curriculum content first involves students finding their voice by understanding the strands of oracy (cognitive, linguistic, physical, and emotive), mastering the art of good listening, and attempting performance poetry. The curriculum then helps students to use their voice through the skills of persuasion via human rights campaigns. In each case, students are assessed against our oracy framework and take part in carefully designed tests to measure improvements.

If you want to bring oracy into your curriculum, here's how you can get started:

  1. Visit Voice 21, a U.K.-based resource to improve students' speaking skills, which is filled with school and classroom resources.
  2. See how School 21 integrates oracy into their primary and secondary curriculum.
School Snapshot

School 21

Grades pre-K to 13 | London
750 | Public, Urban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$8072 School
Free / Reduced Lunch
36% Black
36% White
28% Asian
Data is from the 2015-2016 academic year.

This post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from School 21.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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