The term ‘oracy’ was originally coined in the 1960s and refers to the development of listening and speaking skills, including spoken interaction. Oracy is broadly concerned with the complex ways in which language skills, interpersonal skills and thinking skills work together and affect each other in the social context of school. Based on an analogy with two other key educational terms, literacy and numeracy, the new term was first introduced to emphasise the vital role of talking and listening in children’s learning and academic development across the curriculum. It also served to put talking and listening on an equal, or at least more balanced, footing with reading and writing than had been the case previously.
In mainstream primary education in many countries today, oracy is seen as one of the essential pillars of children’s early development. Through ‘talking to learn’ in the social context of the classroom (and note the echoes of Vygotskyan principles here), children are active participants in developing understandings and making knowledge and skills their own. This is frequently through concrete experiences, practical experiments and investigations, problem-solving, creative thinking tasks, collaborative projects and discussions, both with their teachers and with peers. The ability to listen actively, speak clearly, communicate articulately and fluently, and to be able to engage in the to and fro of spoken interaction with others is seen as a vital, integral part of the process of children’s learning and academic development in any subject, whether science, maths, history, geography, music or art.
These days, in some contexts, primary language teachers are increasingly being called on to deliver curriculum subjects such as science through CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) programmes. In other contexts, teachers are being called on to support CLIL programmes by laying the foundations of the language and skills needed for studying academic subjects through English in content-enriched language classes. In both cases, this means that the role of oracy and ‘talking to learn’, as an essential part of children’s academic and language development, is more important than ever before.
In order to discover how you rate yourself in developing children’s oracy in your classes, here are 10 questions to think about:
1. Who does most of the talking in your classes – you or the children?
It may be worth thinking about how far things have changed since research in the USA in the 1970s established the ‘two-thirds rule’ i.e. that typically two-thirds of class time is spent on talk and two-thirds of this is done by the teacher.
2. Who does most of the listening in your classes – you or the children?
Listening actively to children’s talk can provide invaluable insights into how they think and learn. If children sense that you are genuinely interested and willing to listen to what they have to say, they are also much more likely to reciprocate and listen to what you have to say too.
3. How much of your talk is spent on such things as information-giving, instructions, class routines, asking questions or discipline? How much is spent on exploring issues and ideas, including collaborative talk to develop children’s understandings of the ‘meat’ of the lesson?
It may be worth exploring ways you could change the balance of your classroom talk in order to put a greater emphasis on developing children’s oracy to lead to specific learning outcomes related to the lesson content.
4. How many of the questions you ask in class do you already know the answer to? How many are closed questions requiring only one or two word answers at most?
Research has shown that the large majority of teachers’ questions are closed questions, mainly used for checking understanding, prompting recall, testing knowledge or gaining attention. Although these have a role, they only require a low-level cognitive response and so it is worth considering how you can use more higher-order, open-ended questions in your lessons as well.
5. How many of your exchanges follow the IRF pattern (Initiation, Response, Feedback), for example:
Teacher: What colour is the horse?
Teacher: Very good!
IRF patterns are one of the most frequent types of classroom interchange. The main purpose is usually display or assessment. IRF exchanges tend to close down any further communication although they can also be used effectively to encourage participation and as a way of scaffolding classroom interaction, particularly with very young children. It is best to avoid establishing a ritual pattern whereby you always give immediate feedback to every response, and to focus on extending children’s utterances and thinking as well as giving other children time to contribute with their ideas in response to your question.
6. How often do children initiate asking questions in your classes and what do they ask questions about?
When children ask questions, exchanges often follow the AA pattern (child Asks, teacher Answers) which, similarly to IRF, also tends to close down further communication. It’s worth thinking about strategies you can use to encourage other children to contribute, and collect their ideas first before you respond. If children only ask questions about tasks and instructions (i.e. what to do) rather than issues and ideas (i.e. the content of the lesson), it’s also worth thinking about how you can redress this imbalance.
7. How much thinking time do you give children to respond to questions before answering yourself?
As teachers we’re often fearful of silence and also notorious for leaping in to answer our own questions! Children need time to assimilate what we ask them, so it’s usually a good strategy to pause and give plenty of ‘thinking time’ (accompanied by still, neutral body language) before expecting children to reply.
8. What kind of opportunities and contexts for developing different aspects of children’s oracy do you provide?
These are many and varied. They include all the typical activities that we regularly use such as songs, rhymes, games, storytelling, drama and role play, discussions, pair and group work, problem-solving, creative and critical thinking tasks as well as regularly providing opportunities for personalised, divergent responses. It is important to establish desired learning outcomes and to keep in mind the social, cognitive and language demands of tasks to ensure that they are appropriate.
9. How frequently do you model thinking processes, strategies and language that children need to use to carry out tasks successfully?
Children cannot be expected to develop oracy without a lot of guidance and support. Through modelling thinking processes, strategies and language in a formative way, children have examples to follow and are helped to discover how to use talk (and internal talk) effectively for their own thinking and learning.
10. Do you monitor the development of children’s oracy in your classes? If so, how?
This is a complex area and at the same time an essential part of any primary teacher’s ‘reflective cycle’ in making improvements and planning for future teaching. Effective monitoring and feedback can also have a potentially positive influence on individual children’s self-esteem, motivation and progress. You can monitor children’s oracy development in a range of ways e.g. through listening to children, through systematic observations, recordings, note-taking, as well as through conferencing sessions or informal interviews. It is important to have a clear framework, rationale and criteria for the approach(es) that you use. Children’s self-monitoring through e.g. questionnaires and learner diaries can also contribute to this process and enhance the experience as positive.
It seems curious that, despite its obvious relevance and importance, oracy is a term that is rarely used in the context of English language teaching to children*. Instead, writers and others tend to refer to oral/aural skills or to speaking and listening skills, including spoken interaction. Could this perhaps be a reflection of our profession which is often more concerned with children ‘learning to talk’ and the main focus on practising language for its own sake, rather than ‘talking to learn’ and the main focus on using language as a vehicle to develop children’s minds as well?
Any thoughts on this?
* Oracy is, however, one of five strands of MFL (Modern Foreign Language teaching) in Britain. The other four are literacy, intercultural understanding, knowledge about language and language learning strategies.
The photo is from Footprints, Level 4, Carol Read, Macmillan Education.