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Oracy – Why it’s good for primary pupils to talk

June 28, 2021, 12:08 GMT+1
Read in 9 minutes
  • Sarah Davies talks about oracy, language skills and language development in the primary curriculum...
Oracy – Why it’s good for primary pupils to talk

According to The Communication Trust (2015); ‘Communication skills are at the heart of social interaction, participation, building relationships, making friends, and making sense of the human world around you.’

At the heart of these positive effects is the knowledge that is acquired during those crucial stages of child development.

Early years settings and primary schools are often at the forefront of using oracy strategies for furthering knowledge acquisition, yet it is easy to become consumed in a trap of perceiving the teaching and the recognition of effective oracy skills being an ‘add on’.

In some situations, the concept of oracy can be deemed as a ‘means to an end’ as opposed to an integral component that requires explicit acknowledgement.

By considering the benefits of implicit strategies that practitioners may be using and making them explicit reference points for oracy development, embedding opportunities of developing this skill is integral to an inclusive and developed curriculum.

Oracy in education and the language gap

According to the English Speaking Union and various other charities that are working to raise awareness of oracy skills in the classroom, there are several reasons behind the explicit teaching of oracy skills in the classroom and the development of communication skills:

  • Disadvantaged students are 2.3 times more likely to be identified as having speech, language and communication needs than those in more affluent areas (The Communication Trust, 2015)
  • In many parts of the country, over 50 per cent of students start school lacking vital oracy skills (Lee, W 2013)
  • Some pupils in inner-city classes contribute on average just four words per lesson (National Literacy Trust, 2019)
  • The UK’s poorest children start school 19 months behind their wealthier peers in language and vocabulary (National Literacy Trust, 2019)

When we take into account the detrimental impact that the recent pandemic has had on the communication capabilities of our students, the alarming likelihood that these statistics have actually become more significant is a realistic assumption.

To reference The Matthew Effect, the recent pandemic will bring with it situations whereby students have not been exposed to a range of audiences and contexts.

Instead, their communication may have been hindered by having to engage remotely and sometimes having limited interaction with others.

High-quality oracy education and the priority of oracy

By consciously considering how and when we are teaching and engaging with oracy skills, we can therefore help our students in much more than their summative educational assessments.

By developing a curriculum that has specific reference for discussions and recognition of effective communications, this consequently promotes the intrinsic skills that are required for post academia. Although in Early Years settings this long-term aspiration may be a distant future, the foundations that are laid are vital to build confident structures.

The implementation of these skills doesn’t just result in a positive impact on the students. The more we develop our approaches to oracy in the curriculum, the more we can begin to establish:

  • The ability to provide verbal feedback and consequently a reduction of workload
  • The ability to model effective oracy skills and support both colleague and student conversations, promoting focused and meaningful dialogue
  • The use of these skills to promote established behaviour management strategies and opportunity for restorative dialogues
  • The use of these skills to support staff/colleague health and wellbeing

When we consider the origin of communication, the need to communicate is one of the first skills that babies are able to attempt from birth.

Whether they are hungry, tired, uncomfortable, in pain, or in need of close physical contact with a caregiver, babies demonstrate their own attempts to communicate. As children develop, their abilities often develop. Infants laugh when they are happy, they yawn when they are tired.

They may not be able to hold a conversation, or articulate their needs, but through the use of body language, facial expressions and sounds, they can make you completely aware of their wants or requirements.

Spoken language skills in schools

As discussed in Talking about Oracy (2020), it is from this young age that we see the emergence of two different sets of communication skills that will form the basis for their future development.

  • Receptive communication is the ability to use vocalisation in order to acknowledge the comprehension and receiving of a message from another person. Although at the start this vocalisation could be a simple ‘coo’ or another sound, the response indicates some receipt of understanding
  • Expressive communication is the opposite. This is the ability to convey their message to others. No matter the form of communication (babble, crying, body language) this is the first key steps to effective communication

From a Darwinist perspective, survival relies heavily on the ability to communicate, particularly when we are in our most vulnerable infantile state. From a modern-day perspective, it is during the early years, that these skills are nurtured and developed in a controlled and measured environment.

Although this is commonplace for all primary settings, the shift in focus to more skills based summative assessment foci towards the later years has acted as the catalyst for a less bespoke and considered approach to the significance of oracy skills.

However, by promoting the development of these communication skills, the suggestion is that communication consequently leads to the ability to develop an internal dialogue that can be used to support knowledge acquisition and consideration.

Vygotsky, cited in Britton (1993), refers to this as ‘speech for oneself’ This process of internalised language is essential for problem solving, reasoning and abstract thinking skills.

This would therefore imply that the inability to internalise language would consequently have a detrimental impact on the cognitive development of the individual. Early infant and carer interactions are essential for all areas of a child’s development.

As language develops, they go from talking in the present tense and progressively to the past and future tense. Piaget suggests that not until a child has learned the concept of time will this be displayed within their language use; however, the more explicit we make these skills the more confident that children become in attempting to develop their vocabulary.

Educational progress in key oracy skillsets

The relationship between oracy and improved outcomes, (not just academically focused), can also be identified by the building of teacher/student relationships.

In 2016, Pearson researched into the qualities of an effective teacher; the findings concluded that relationships were key to forming strong and reciprocal foundations on which learning can take place.

It is the ability to develop a connection with the learner that enables them with the confidence to progress and develop.

Out of all of the contributing factors that were considered throughout the research, the three dominant elements that supported the efficiency of all practitioners was:

  • The ability to develop relationships
  • The perception of being kind and caring
  • The ability to engage with learners

Consequently, explicitly referencing effective communication skills in our pedagogical approaches allows for a deeper recognition of a vital life skill to be embedded.

It is also the recognition of its significance that provides us with the tools to support knowledge acquisition.

From the perspective of all stakeholders, it is the ability to communicate that acts as the foundations onto which all pedagogical knowledge could be adopted.

How a focus on oracy skills can support our students

  • Supporting a reduction in anxiety due to the encouragement of positive discussions that focus on the sharing of thoughts and feelings, even in our current situation
  • Expressing their thoughts and feelings in a more structured manner through articulation and recognition of contextualisation
  • Building an understanding of social issues through active discussion and debate
  • Providing strategies that can be used to encourage restorative practice or to manage difficult conversations effectively through clarity and awareness
  • Collaborating with others and maintaining a dialogue with peers that can develop into friendship as well as encouraging future professional networking for both practitioners and students
  • The ability to recognise the components of oracy skills and how these should be implemented for effective communication
  • The ability to develop critical thinking through communication and dialogue that encourages further development and deeper learning

Sarah Davies is a lead practitioner and head of English in a multi-academy trust secondary school. Her book, Talking about Oracy: Developing communication beyond the classroom, published by John Catt Educational, is out now, priced at £14.