George Lucas Educational Foundation

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School 21

Grades pre-K to 13 | London, U.K.

Oracy in the Classroom: Strategies for Effective Talk

School 21 develops confident students who can articulate their thoughts and learning with strategies like discussion guidelines and roles and structured talk tasks.
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Teacher: Put your hand up if someone in your family comes from somewhere else in the world and has come to live in London. Could you turn to the person next to you and have a discussion about this talking point?

Student: I think Stratford is a better place to live because they're not against anyone and it's--

Student: Can I just clarify you? What do you mean by, like, against?

Teacher: Oracy is the keystone to everything that happens in the curriculum. There are such high expectations for talk, and it does really make a difference in the children -- how articulate and how confident they are.

Peter: The vision of School 21 is to prepare young people for the world that they're going to go into in the twenty-first century. I think one of the biggest barriers to the students we serve really getting on in life is lack of good communication skills. We need to elevate speaking to the same level as reading and writing.

Milo: So we have a vote.

What makes me enjoy talking the most is that everybody's listening to you and you're like, part of the world, and you feel respected and important.

Alexia: When I'm talking, they're listening to what I'm saying, and sometimes they give me questions, or then maybe I give them questions.

Beccy: Every child within this school is expected to speak in every lesson, in every opportunity throughout their school day, and try and create lots of different context for young people to hone their skills as speakers.

Amy: So what I want us to do now is have a discussion about different kinds of culture, and I want us to discuss this: some cultures are better than others.

I think every teacher, if you say to them, "Do you talk in your classroom?" of course they're talking in their classroom. But what's different here is the deliberateness of it.

Beccy: Every teacher needs to have that toolkit of things that they can draw on to bring effective talk into their practices.

Amy: We've done a lot of work introducing sentence stems that children can use for different situations, so for agreeing with somebody, for disagreeing politely with someone, for challenging someone.

And while we're doing that, I want you to make sure that you're using some of the sentence stems, so you might say, linking to someone's points or build on something that somebody has said.

Student: Building on there, I agree, because maybe--

Amy: The thing that's had the biggest impact on my practice is probably discussion guidelines.

We are going to be discussing why beliefs were important, or why they weren't important in ancient Greece. Could anybody remind me about any of our discussion guidelines?

Student: One of them is when someone's not contributing. You have to invite them by asking them a question, or saying their name.

Amy: Excellent, why would you do that, Aram?

Student: Then everyone has an idea.

Amy: Everyone gets to share their idea, don't they. Well done.

So discussion guidelines were created in conjunction with the children. These are the five of six key things that we think make a really good discussion. I've been able to take a step back, and I think that the children take on a larger role within the classroom.

Student: I think it should be Ares and Athena because they're both the god of war.

Student: Yeah, but to challenge your debate, there are lots of fishermen--

Amy: So another key way of promoting oracy in the classroom is to think carefully about the groupings that you use. So whether you're getting them to talk in pairs or in trios, or in larger groups.

Beccy: Sometimes it's best to have students in threes. Sometimes we look at how they can stand in the traverse, opposite each other. Each of those different groupings enables a different type of conversation.

Students: If you see inside them, we're all human beings and we're all people.

Beccy: Our oracy program is comprehensive. It has to be seen in maths and science and those subjects that traditionally haven't had a talk focus.

Kate: There are 24 cookies altogether.

Students: There are 24 cookies altogether.

Kate: There are three children.

Students: There are three children.

Kate: Alright, let's see if Alexia--

I would say that I'd always encouraged talk in my maths lessons before, but what's changed is that I really plan very carefully for talk, and also I structure the talk very explicitly.

Okay, so we're going to go and do our talk task.

The talk task, they get to practice what they've done in the new learning, and they're talking through what they're doing. So it's about developing their vocabulary and language of explanation.

Alexia: We were talking about fractions. We'd done four circles, and then we needed to share 24 in each group.

One, two, three, four, fix, six. Your turn.

We were using sentences to help us.

Students: 24 shared equally between four children is equal to six.

Alexia: Let's do another one.

Peter: There are lots of different reasons why we get students who may not feel it's almost their place to speak. So for all those reasons, oracy is an issue of equality, of equity, of social mobility.

Teacher: Wow, I heard some pretty amazing discussions going on just now. So let's get some feedback from some groups.

Beccy: Because of the focus on oracy, we've seen our students become much more confident in their ideas. By creating the context and the opportunities for them to speak, they've just flown, and become eloquent, engaging speakers.

Teacher: Hayden?

Hayden: We came to a decision and said that we disagree with the text. Everyone is unique, everyone's the same, but they do their things in different ways.

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"What makes me enjoy talking the most," explains Milo, a Year 3 student, "is that everybody’s listened to you, and you’re part of the world, and you feel respected and important."

Oracy -- the ability to speak well -- is a core pedagogy at School 21, a London-based public school.

"Speaking is a huge priority," stresses Amy Gaunt, a Year 3 teacher. "It's one of the biggest indicators of success later in life. It's important in terms of their employability as they get older. It's important in terms of wellbeing. If children aren't able to express themselves and communicate how they're feeling, they're not going to be able to be successful members of society."

Oracy is taught during assemblies and wellbeing classes, but "it's embedded into every single lesson," says Gaunt. Students use oracy techniques in the classroom, every day, in every lesson -- guided by their oracy framework -- to discuss their ideas about Ancient Greece, problem solving, and explaining their learning in maths.

From forming different groupings to using talking points, learn how you can integrate strategies for effective talk in your classroom.

How It's Done

Embedding Oracy Into Your Classroom (It's Already Happening)

The first step in embedding oracy into your classroom is accepting that it already happens -- your students talk a lot, and you can leverage that, suggests Gaunt. "You start from the idea that talking isn't an extra thing," she advises. "It's children discussing ideas with each other and coming up with their own conclusions. Talk supports thinking, and that means it supports learning."

Teaching oracy means putting more intention behind how you guide and organize your students' talk. When they gather for group work or discussions, give them talking guidelines, roles, and tools. For example, sentence stems are starting phrases that help them complete their thinking in a full sentence and add intention to how they form their thoughts and communicate their learning.

Create Discussion Guidelines With Your Students

Creating discussion guidelines with your students is a great place to start implementing oracy in your classroom. "Once you've got them, it encourages you to include a lot more discussion within your lessons, and it also gives you a framework for those discussions," says Gaunt. "Having a clear set of guidelines makes sure that discussion is focused and that it has good learning outcomes, as well."

Create your discussion guidelines with your students. Show them examples of what good and bad discussion looks like. You can show them a prerecorded video, or model for them with another educator. "Through looking at the differences between good and bad discussion, we were able to say, 'These are the five or six key things that we think make a really good discussion.' And they become our discussion guidelines," says Gaunt.

Here are a few of the discussion guidelines that School 21 students have created:

  • Always respect each other's ideas.
  • Be prepared to change your mind.
  • Come to a shared agreement.
  • Clarify, challenge, summarize, and build on each other's ideas.
  • Invite someone to contribute by asking a question.
  • Show proof of listening.

"If you don’t show proof of listening, that means the person who’s talking doesn’t feel like they have the proper respect, and they don’t feel like they’re important in the discussion," explains Milo.

Guide Your Students to Reach a Shared Agreement

It's common for young children to stay stuck in their beliefs and want to get their opinions across, which is one reason why it's important for them "to try to reach a shared agreement," explains Gaunt, "but sometimes that's not going to happen." A shared agreement lets students know that it's OK to change their mind, as well as the progression of their discussion and how it's going to end: They will share their ideas, listen to each other, possibly change their minds, and then come to an agreement. Understanding the flow of discussion helps to guide them through it.

Help Your Students Analyze Discussion Guidelines

Use talk detectives -- one or two students who go around the room and observe their peers talking in group discussions -- not only to help enforce the guidelines but also to give students an opportunity to reflect on them. Your talk detectives will have a sheet of paper with the discussion guidelines on one side, and then three boxes to the right of it where they can write students' names and what they said that fit within the guidelines. "For example," explains Milo, "somebody might say they invited somebody to contribute by saying, 'So, what's your idea?' They would write their name and what they said."

"It’s getting the children to think about their conversations meta-cognitively," says Gaunt. "That’s been really successful."

Consider How to Group Your Students

Each grouping will yield a different type of conversation. Consider how to group your students based on the different types of conversations you want them to have. When starting out, focus first on teaching your students how to work in pairs. In the primary grades, School 21 largely uses pairs, trios, and traverse (see image below), and focuses on the other group structures -- like onion grouping -- as they get older. Each group configuration below shows different ways to do partner talk. "The colors represent partners A and B," explains Gaunt. "A blue dot is always next to a yellow dot."

An image of seven group configurations shown by blue and yellow dots, both colors representing different ways to pair students.
© School 21

"We do a lot of, 'Turn and talk to your partner about this,' but what we noticed was that children weren't actually listening to what their partners had to say," recalls Gaunt. "We had to teach them what good partner talk looked like," emphasizing:

  • Looking their partner in the eyes
  • Thinking about the volume they're speaking at
  • Giving their partner personal space

Working in trios is good when students discuss talking points (usually controversial statements) where they start out by agreeing or disagreeing with the statement, and then work toward coming to a shared agreement among the group.

When they begin exploring how to talk in larger groups -- five or six members -- they start to take on roles to help them guide the discussion.

Create Discussion Roles

As adults, there are roles that we innately play in conversations, and we need to teach them to our students, says Gaunt, adding, "I used to think that if you let children talk, they'll just naturally be able to talk, but actually, we need to teach them how to talk."

In primary, there are three roles that School 21 focuses on initially: clarifier, challenger, and summarizer. "We need to teach them what those roles are, what they mean, what they look like in conversations, and the language and phrases that we might use if we're playing those roles" explains Gaunt.

An image showing six types of talking roles -- instigator, builder, challenger, clarifier, prober, and summarizer -- what their role is and ways that they can start conversations.
© School 21

To introduce conversation roles to your students, model them. School 21 teachers play recorded videos of themselves having conversations, and have their students analyze, identify, and discuss the roles they played. "They can then apply that to themselves and reflect back on what they're doing," says Gaunt.

Once your students initiate the roles without guidance, you can introduce them to other roles, like builder, instigator, and prober.

Create Structured Talk Tasks

School 21 uses Talk Tasks, structured activities to help students discuss their learning within a lesson. They often use visuals to describe their Talk Tasks.

In a math lesson about how time is measured, they have a visual split into two columns. One column shows six images relating to different measurements of time, and the other one has sentence stems for partners A and B to discuss those time measurements.

One side of the image has six pictures -- a plane, a family walking a dog, a hand writing, a game controller, a letter, and lungs digesting food. The other has sentence starters for how two students can speak about measurements of time.
© School 21

Talking Points, a controversial statement to initiate discussion, can be used in any subject. Talking points encourage discussion by navigating away from yes or no responses to questions, introducing students to a format on how to carry out the conversation. Students will either start speaking by saying, "I agree with that statement because" or "I disagree with that statement because."

In School 21's history lesson on Ancient Greece, teachers used the talking point, "Beliefs were not important at all in Ancient Greece," and had their students talk in trios.

Ghost Reading is a cross-curricular tool for encouraging students to speak. Have your students read aloud a text together. Leave it up to them to determine how long they read and who reads next.

Collective Writing is a piece of writing created collaboratively. Pick a topic -- whether in science, English, history, or anything else -- and have your students take turns speaking about it. They can offer a paragraph, a sentence, or even a word, whatever they're comfortable with. Write down what your students say, and then read it aloud when they're done.

In studying Ancient Greece, teachers form groups of five and have their students reach a consensus on who should be the new patron goddess or god of the fictional city-state Dasteinia. They share background information with their students on the geography, leadership, and income of Dasteinia, and through the roles of summarizer, challenger, and clarifier, they discuss which god or goddess would be the best fit. One student acts as a spokesperson to share out their decision to the whole class, and another group member takes on the role of talk detective throughout the discussion.

Build Comfort and Confidence in Your Shy Students

With time, the foundations of oracy skills -- discussion guidelines, discussion roles, and choosing the level of participation in structured talk tasks -- build up a student's confidence around speaking.

To ease your students into talking, start them off with sentence stems -- a few words to help them start their sentence. This reduces the uncertainty of what they should say, gives them a framework on how to focus their sentence, and helps them to speak in full sentences.

"Sentence stems are a way of scaffolding people to talk, especially when people are less confident," says Gaunt. "If you give them that structure to hang their ideas and thoughts on, and they don't need to think so much about how they're going to start their sentence, they're more confident to just speak."

You can encourage your students to build on each other's ideas by using sentence stems. They can say, "Linking to So-and-So's point, I think that…" You can also use sentence stems to have your students explain their learning by saying, for example, "I started looking at this math problem by…" Below are more sentence stems that you can use in English, history, art, and science.


  • A similarity between these texts is…
  • A difference between these texts is…
  • The author's choice of X shows…


  • In this era…
  • This artifact shows that…
  • This source illustrates that…
  • This source is biased because…
  • This source is more reliable because…


  • I like this picture because…
  • I prefer the work of X because…
  • The composition of this piece shows that…
  • The techniques I have noticed are…


  • The results show that…
  • The conclusion I have drawn is…
  • There is a correlation between ... and ....
  • An anomaly I noticed is…
  • I have observed...

Oracy is embedded in School 21's culture. Starting in primary, students build their oracy techniques in the classroom, every day and in every lesson. In secondary, they continue to develop their oracy skills through public speaking. "We're practicing it all the time in every lesson we're in," says Matilda, a Year 9 student, "and by the time you get to Year 9, it's almost instinctive."

Comments (29) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Brian Kissman's picture
Brian Kissman
Brian Kissman is passionate about innovative best practice for all things literacy and learning.

I love this topic. One could argue, and research would support, the importance of the science and art of conversation for success in life - be the setting learning, professional, or social. We have had great success establishing "Eight Traits of Conversation." Across grade levels, we aim for ABC automaticity to know, understand, and apply these traits of conversation to empower students to build and shape understanding while exercising their social and emotional growth. Thank you for sharing, and thank you all for the great responses. Brian Kissman, Head of School, Kalamazoo Country Day School

Mireya Rios's picture

Hello. This work has been very useful for a research I am currently developing about oral interaction. I would like to confirm if it is an article. May I now the reference details to cite it in my document.

Amber von Nagel's picture

Hi Mikki,

You're asking about the article underneath the video, right? That was written by Emelina Minero, a member of our editorial team.

Mikki's picture

Yes, Amber, thank you for getting back to me. This is a topic I am very passionate about and believe that there is not enough opportunities for students to communicate within schools. I have seen this first hand as a substitute teacher and aid to teachers for 5 years. I am currently going to school to become an educator and previously got my bachelor's degree in Communication Studies so this is relevant and important to me. I wanted to reference and summarize this article for a school writing assignment.

Aileen's picture

This is a great affirmation of the work I do in my three year old classroom.
I use sentence stems to encourage speaking in complete sentences,
for example, " What is today? Today is ...".
Also, when choosing a center to "play together" partners have to face each other talk about in which center they would like to play, come to an agreement, then approach me to request that center. Initally, there is a lot of modeling turn taking, agreement, one outcome, problem solving, support why one center is preferred Often, I have to have them return to discuss until they reach consensus.
Oracy skills such as listening, turn taking, supporting your choice, etc. begin to evolve.
There are many opportunities to initiate oral language, summarizing and reflecting. After a period of free choice, we gather and share, what center did you play at, with whom ,what did you do.
My favorite part of Show and Tell(the best part of the day next to recess, according to kids) is explaining the roles/characteristics of speaker and audience. Concluding this activity, we ask," what did Joe bring or who brought X". Again developing a accountability and a purpose for listening.
We also have ,"The question of the Day" -something to connect to what we are learning .
yes, I pick the students name card(yay reading recognition), they stand by me, and hold their name card and respond with the stem, Yes I have a tree.. No, I did not eat cereal for breakfast. The stem is a support, as well as checking for understanding, following a conversation,. Some children are able to respond with alternative sentences which is fine.
For the shy child, I've learned to seat them next to a friend to help encourage them.
Letting them know the question before hand also helps.
I like the talk task . This helps direct the conversation. My sister is a math specialist, she'll love this.

Cagri Kanver's picture
Cagri Kanver
Real estate advisory services

There are bunch of things we have been missing while preparing our kids to real life. I was reading about how we all are missing to train our kids on how to use their money. This video remind me another topic that I have been missing. Thanks for the share!

kdmillar68's picture

I found the article very interesting and to connect these ideas of student conversation skills and content development is very important. For older students I am interested in developing the connection for the students to the content, each other and of course developing positive student-teacher relationship. I would like to suggest readers that are interested in collaborative inquiry teaching methods to their classroom please have a read of the following article. Cognitive Flexibilty Theory: Advance Knowledge Acquisition in Ill-Structured Domains by Spiro (1988), his contention is the "promotion of multiple alternative systems of linkages among knowledge elements." The connection to this article is that it provides strategies to use language for knowledge construction.

Julie L. Newman's picture

Your article on "Oracy" is inspiring. It is a great way of sharing ideas and learning. I wish they had this strategy when I attended school. It would have helped take shyness away and given more confidence in what I had to say. Sharing thoughts and ideas in all subjects would have made learning more fun. JN.

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