Posted by: carolread | September 16, 2010

O is for Oracy

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?

Child: Blue.

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.



  1. I love the ‘talking to learn’ … I’ve been using Learning to Read. Reading to Learn. and I can see that Learning to Talk-Talking to Learn fits equally well!

    O is for organization! Without which we’d not get anywhere in the classroom.

    great to have the site back … W x

    • Thanks Wendy. Great to see you here! I completely agree that ‘learning to read, reading to learn’ fits equally well – thanks for pointing this out and in fact it works neatly with writing and listening too.

      I totally agree with you about (a huge capital) O for organization too – if we don’t get that right, it’s hard to get anything right!

  2. Great to have you back Carol and what an excellent post.

    I’m working on response to picturebooks at the moment in my research and it’s very much related to oracy, providing the opportunity for children to respond through language – the points you’ve outlined above are all pertinent.

    I am constantly finding references to Halliday’s four functions of language: informative, heuristic, imaginative and personal, (in his Learning How to Mean of 1975) which help us better understand how children use language to make meaning. I think they help us focus on the fact that our students should be given opportunities to use language for these reasons. We often forget ithe last two functions in particular, I think.

    I have also been looking at learning to read and reading to learn. Surely we must always move from doing something for doings’ sake, to using the skill to learn, (be it reading, speaking, listening, writing, thinking … drawing, dancing. etc) Isn’t that what education is about? If learners don’t take that step, it remains a mechanised process, and the creative part of learning will never happen. Teachers should not forget that, giving children a real reason to use what they know to learn, to exploit the skill.

    Brilliant Carol, it IS good to have you back!


    • Hi Sandie

      Lovely to hear from you and thank you for this great contribution. I can imagine that you must be a real expert on developing oracy as a result of your doctoral research on children’s responses to stories – so any more insights you have would be brilliant to hear too!

      You’re so right to bring Halliday into the discussion – ‘Learning how to mean’ is such a classic book and still so relevant today. I agree with you that there is also a tendency to forget the last two of Halliday’s functions of language – perhaps as a result of our over-utilitarian, test-driven kind of educational world.

      The move from doing something for doing’s sake to using the skill to do/learn something else is the core of educational processes as you say. The key in a nutshell as you point out is in ‘giving children a real reason to use what they know’.

      Thanks again for your thoughts – and making me feel good to be back too!

  3. Thanks Carol!!
    I found your questions very useful to guide our reflections.
    Actually, we set objectives based on the five strands, but sometimes it is difficult to check or see how you and your colleagues are doing.
    Thanks for your ideas.
    Uruguay, South America

    • Hi Mercedes

      Thanks so much for coming by! I’m really glad to hear that you’ve found the questions useful to guide reflection. I also agree that it’s really helpful to talk about these things with colleagues both to increase self-awareness and articulate how you think you’re doing. Setting clear objectives in each strand (I assume you mean the 5 MFL ones I mentioned in the posting?) is also really important and helpful in keeping you (one) on track in what you’re doing in each area in the classroom rather than just muddling through, so many thanks for mentioning that too.

  4. I wish that when you reach letter Z all the alphabet could be published somewhere because I find it useful and what it is more important thought provoking(at least for me :))
    I always try to make communication in the classroom as real as I can,but as you probably know it is not easy, especially with young children because the situation has to be controlled and you want them to learn a specific structure. But what I have found is that if you give them a structure, once they have it, they can create a conversation from it.
    For example. Every Monday morning I ask the children about the weekend (they are six), at first I teach them to say: My weekend was(fantastic-good-ok-boring….) and then I tell them to explain why: because on Saturday or on Sunday I…..and as verbs and situation are usually the same:went, visited, played, at the end they are completely able to tell me and their clasemates what they have done during the weekend which is really satisfaying for them (and for me of course).
    Thank you.

  5. Hi Aitziber

    Many thanks for your contribution and for encouraging me to make it to Z! I’m delighted you find the postings useful and thought-provoking – that’s great to know.

    Thank you also for this lovely description of the way you work with your children in order to build up their confidence and competence about having a conversation about what they did over the weekend. One of the key things here I think is the personalization – that you’re getting the children to talk about themselves and things that really matter to them rather than constructing a conversation in order to use a structure for its own sake. I can imagine how satisfying this must be both for the children and for you – as well as for their parents and the school. Sometimes people think that six-year-olds are too young to engage in conversation in a foreign language in this way, never mind use the past tense, so it’s really useful to hear about your experience. Many thanks again for writing.

  6. Dear Madam,
    You have given us a good article on ‘talking to learn’, and the term ‘oracy’. At first when I read ‘talking to learn’, I started thinking on a different line, about ‘Chatting to learn’. Here, the children are encouraged to have informal talk with their friends and the teachers, and they don’t follow any rule of the language. This would help the child to lose his inhibitions while talking to the teacher and the children in the classroom. Generally, children who learn English as a second language are afraid to talk in English. They have an inherent fear that they may not be able to speak good English. They are also afraid that they are not able to talk like their English teacher. Hence I feel that developing ‘oracy’ in the classroom is a step by step approach, starting from a lower level to the higher level. At the lower level, the child should be given the freedom to talk without following the rules of the language. Once the child develops confidence, the teacher can correct his mistakes, and guide him to speak better English.
    Madam, I think that ‘talking to learn’ should lead to ‘learning to talk’
    With great regards,

    • Dear Sureshr

      Good to see you here again and many thanks for this thoughtful contribution. I love the term ‘chatting to learn’ and completely agree with you that at the initial stages children should be encouraged to engage in informal talk without any concern for rules. This is what happens when children learn their first language and, as you suggest, can be crucial in building up confidence in using English. As you also say, so many children develop a fear of not getting it right. This can be very inhibiting and is usually only likely to get worse as they get older.

      I wholeheartedly agree with your assertion that ‘talking to learn’ should lead ‘learning to talk’ – at least in an ideal world. However, I’m also very aware that in many ELT contexts where lock-step grammatical syllabuses and external exams are the driver, this isn’t always easy. As with many things, we need to find a balance and compromise in the approach we adopt in order to develop children’s fluency and confidence and, at the same time, be able to tick the boxes on the syllabus that we are responsible for teaching.

      Many thanks again for raising these issues and sharing your thoughts.

  7. Hi there,
    This has made great reading for me.
    Working with 4 other schools we are trying to design and oracy project that could work across the schools and in each year group – do you have any ideas!!!
    Many thanks

  8. Hi Mary – Wow! This sounds like a wonderfully ambitious and worthwhile undertaking! It’s tricky to give concrete advice without knowing more detail about your context and the children but a start could be to take the 10 questions in my post as the basis of a discussion with colleagues and use this to draw up a specific action plan across the subjects for each year group. A parallel approach would be to encourage teachers to do some action research by recording themselves in class in order to become aware of ways they address oracy and use this as the basis of sharing ideas of how to develop clear parameters for your project.

    Hope this helps a bit. It would be great to hear from you again once your project is underway. Thanks for writing and glad that you enjoyed the post.


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