A voice from the chasm: “Please sir, can I have some more (oracy)?”

| by James Mannion |

Image: Wikipedia commons


Last month, Hughes Hall College in Cambridge hosted the two-day launch of the inaugural Oracy Cambridge/Voice 21 ‘Oracy Leaders Programme’ (OLP). Cards on the table, this amazing year-long programme has been organised more by the fabulous people at Voice 21 than by us, but we are thrilled to play a role in this exciting development. Avid readers of this blog will be aware that for a whole range of complicated and annoying reasons, spoken language skills are under-represented and under-developed in schools and the wider society, relative to written forms of literacy and numeracy. Nobody denies that written forms of literacy and numeracy are important, but ask yourself: what proportion of your life do you spend reading and writing, compared with speaking, listening and observing? Exactly.

Despite the word oracy having been coined over 50 years ago, most people still don’t know what it means. In my experience, most teachers don’t know what it means. Which is a shame because it’s a really good word, and the ideas and practices it represents are super important to our individual and collective prosperity. What this means is that most of the time, when we talk about oracy we’re preaching to the already converted: who would turn up to listen to a talk about a funny sounding word they’ve never heard of? Either that, or we’re introducing the basic ideas to people. But make no mistake: this situation is changing, and it’s changing fast. At the OLP launch, we were talking to a room full of school leaders (it was over-subscribed, don’t you know) who have not only heard of oracy, they’ve read quite a lot about it and many of them are already leading on exciting initiatives in their schools.

A few months ago, I spoke at the fantastic Northern Rocks conference in Leeds, entitled Why oracy is more important than literacy and numeracy put together. In this talk I discussed the ‘law of diffusion of innovation’, a fancy phrase used to describe how ideas spread, or how products come to gain market share. It looks something like this:

Image: adapted from Wikipedia Commons


Quick disclaimer: What follows is entirely out of my head, and people who know more about these matters (either about the law of diffusion of innovation, or my potted history of oracy) might wish to set me right on the finer details.

The blue bit on the left represents the oracy innovators. While much of the pioneering work around spoken language in schools has been done by classroom practitioners, all too often their names are lost to history. As such, when I think of the innovators I tend to think of the researchers and authors who describe, evaluate, articulate and share their practices. Here, then, we find such pioneering spirits as Andrew Wilkinson (who invented the word ‘oracy’), Douglas Barnes, Robin Alexander, John Holgate, Neil Mercer, Lyn Dawes and Rupert Wegerif in the UK, and people like Gordon Wells, Sarah Michaels, Catherine O’Connor, Noreen Webb and Lauren B. Resnick in the United States. We also find organisations like the English Speaking Union, the Communication Trust, I CAN, the National Literacy Trust and so on.

In the red bit, we find the early adopters. Here we find more recently established organisations like Voice 21 and Oracy Cambridge, and – importantly – teachers like the attendees of the OLP. You will notice that there’s a gap in the red bit, which is referred to in business-speak as “The Chasm”. The Chasm represents the leap that must be made in order for something to “tip” into the green area, where it starts gaining widespread recognition. I would venture that the reason oracy has not yet “tipped” into the realm where it achieves parity with written forms of literacy and numeracy is that the numbers of people involved have not yet been sufficient to make the leap. Instead, over the years, despite the concerted efforts of many, the tide of oracy has gently lapped up and down the blue and red wedge on the left-hand side of the diagram.

Image: memegenerator.net

It is said that predicting the future is a fool’s game. Well, I’ve never been one to shy away from that mantle, and so here it comes: I predict that in the next 5 or 10 years, oracy will “tip” into the green zone, rapidly gaining market share in the -acy market and becoming seen as a bread and butter issue for all teachers, in all schools, and then on into the wider society.

Wait just a doggone minute, I hear the sceptics cry. We had a National Oracy Project in the 1980s and that petered out before it could clear the chasm… And that had the word ‘National’ in the name. What’s so special about 2017? Why should it be any different this time?

Well, that’s a doozy of a question. In no particular order, here are a few answers to those questions:

1. Innovation is happening at a rate of knots. At the OLP weekend, it was great to hear not only that school leaders with a responsibility for oracy now exist in numbers, and not only that they are trialling small scale tweaks to their practice – but that whole-school approaches to developing oracy are kicking off all over the place. As we evaluate the impact of these initiatives over the coming year, share the findings and learn from one another, this flurry of activity is only going to snowball.

2. The evidence is mounting. From evidence relating to oral language interventions like Thinking Together, Philosophy for Children and guided reading, to the recent York EEF and Cambridge ESRC large scale studies into dialogic teaching, to my own research about an oracy-based curriculum that led to significant gains in subject learning at 3 and 5 years – a body of evidence is mounting to suggest that spoken language, when it’s done well, is a powerful driver of learning.

3. An important change in perception. For many people – and among a certain subset of government ministers in particular – oracy has been tangled up with the idea of child-centred pedagogy, characterised by ineffective discovery learning, permissive approaches to behaviour management and the ineffective use of group work. Increasingly, however, people are starting to realise that oracy isn’t about pedagogy at all. Teaching young people how to talk together, to share ideas, to solve problems, to think together, to get along with each other, to participate in structured debates, to deliver a knockout presentation, to participate in democratic processes… this is not about pedagogy. Oracy is a curriculum matter.

4. Social media. I know it’s clichéd to say social media has changed the world, but it’s blindingly obvious that it has. Teaching in particular has benefitted greatly from this unprecedented opportunity to share good practice and to challenge long-cherished ideas, especially through Twitter and blogging. Teachers and education researchers are learning from one another at a rate of knots – and this is only going to get better from here on in. Check out this little nugget of loveliness, for example:



Social media can be a frenzy of hostility, and teaching is no exception. But oracy is unique in being perhaps the only issue in education today that nobody disagrees with. Whatever your political persuasion, and whatever your position in the knowledge / skills debate, it is a rare breed indeed who says out loud that they don’t think all young people should develop the ability to speak and listen with confidence. We’re pushing at a million open doors.

5. The Oracy Network. Recently, organisations such as those listed above – and many others besides – have started meeting up to think about how we can join forces to make oracy into a movement. It’s early days still, but the stage is set.

I could go on, but I’ve got a PhD to write. The point is, these are exciting times and to me at least, it feels like we’re approaching the chasm and we’re building up a head of steam. The OLP launch was concrete evidence that we are further up the ramp than I had previously realised. Who knows, we might even be half-way across the chasm. It can only be a matter of time until we land. Once we do, oracy will ‘tip’: the word will become ubiquitous; high quality spoken language skills will be everywhere, in all manner of forms; and the benefits will be abundant for all to see, in schools, in families and throughout the wider society.

My role in the OLP programme is to help coordinate the ‘Impact project’, whereby participants evaluate the impact of oracy initiatives in their schools through collaborative inquiry. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this develops throughout the year. It also seems that the increasing demand for the OLP (did I mention it was over-subscribed, because it was) means that there will be regional versions launching in the coming months. So, watch this space. In fact, don’t just watch this space – create your own space and get in touch, and we’ll come round and fill that space with OLP goodness.

Hughes Hall alumni conference, and an invitation to guest bloggers

As though all of that isn’t exciting enough, in October Oracy Cambridge hosted a one-day conference for Hughes Hall alumni, entitled ‘Oracy: the importance of spoken language’. I don’t have space to do justice to the conference here, suffice to say it was awesome. You can see some of the best bits on our Twitter feed.

Finally, we are currently looking to invite guest bloggers to share stuff on the Oracy Cambridge site. If there’s something going on in your school that you’d like to share, or if you have an oracy event, programme or service that you’d like to promote – please drop us a line at hello@oracycambridge.org.

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