by Clare Wagner
I have taught in a variety of schools during my career, but most of my time has been spent in girls’ schools, initially as a history teacher, then as a Deputy and now as a Head. Having lacked confidence myself at school and having noticed that many girls are very quiet in lessons, I decided that I would research the topic of why girls are reluctant to speak in class. Why is it important for them to learn to do so and how we can teach them to be confident and to speak up, not only in lessons, but also in a wide variety of contexts? We want them to leave school with the ability to speak with confidence and clarity in their personal and professional lives. In the past two decades, a great deal of research has gone into this topic, which is now known as oracy.
Oracy is defined as the ability to speak eloquently, articulate ideas and thoughts, influence others though talking, listen to others and to have the confidence to express one’s views. Any study of the literature on oracy will show that good oracy skills help students with their cognition (learning and understanding) and with metacognition, i.e. it helps student to learn how they learn. Strong oracy skills are also vital for success beyond school i.e. at college or university and in the workplace.
There is some interesting research on girls’ oracy in mixed schools but very little research on oracy in single-sex girls’ schools. We do know that girls tend to speak differently to boys in school (both inside and outside of lessons) and that women often speak differently to men (both inside and outside of the workplace). Research has shown that women and girls use different words and tend to be more supportive of each other and discuss topics relating to family and friends, whilst male talk can often be competitive and focus on ‘one–upmanship’. Not only do they speak differently, but the way that females speak can lead to different outcomes, with regards to both academic and professional success. This applies to academically gifted girls and highly qualified women. It is not about intelligence, it is about skills and confidence.
We know that the Gender Pay Gap in the UK is still at 15% (see PayGapApp for more information) and that there are fewer women than men holding the top jobs in Law, Medicine, Politics, Accountancy and Education, as well as sitting on the boards of the FTSE 100 companies. Added to that, when women retire, their pension pot is likely to be, on average, one fifth of that of men. Promoting oracy with girls at school seems to me to be a powerful tool for emancipation and for narrowing the Equality Gap in the UK. If women are empowered to become articulate and gain confidence in school, then they are more like to perform well at interview and in their jobs, and are therefore more likely to gain the top jobs in their chosen careers.
There is also a great deal of evidence to show that, whilst girls and women are gaining excellent results at school and university (often better than their male counterparts) they are still more likely to be jobless, work in low paid jobs or have a male boss. Wilson (1991) showed that at school, girls gain the approval of their teachers through demonstrating ‘quiet diligence’ in lessons, but later in life more ‘active and assertive verbal communication’ is demanded and girls are not prepared for this. Lakoff (2004) has shown how, at university, women participate in class less than men and also shows how women can come across as uncertain and unassertive, through the use of indicators such as “well” and “I guess”, to which we could add “um”, “so” “basically” etc. This is also perhaps because women are so used to being interrupted that it is a tactic to stop them being interrupted. Baxter was convinced that men dominate the corridors of power because they are dominant linguistically, in both the language they use and the manner in which they use it, which is why girls need to be taught to speak persuasively and powerfully.
I see it as vital that all teachers who are educating girls, in whatever setting, are aware of these issues and know how to encourage girls to speak in class. I am fortunate enough at my school to have time in the timetable to teach all of Year 7 Public Speaking. Every Year 7 student at my school has a 35 minute lesson in Public Speaking & Rhetoric a week for the whole of the academic year. More on this later!
The research: Oracy, girls and learning
There is so much to the topic of oracy in the classroom and I think it is very helpful to know how the original ideas and principles emerged. I find that explaining this to staff and indeed students helps them to see that oracy is not a fad or an add-on, but a fundamental pillar of pedagogical theory and practice.
One of the cornerstones of oracy research was laid by Vygotsky (1962), who showed how ‘thought undergoes many changes as it turns into speech’. This means that when children speak and discuss in class, their understanding of what they are learning is affected and can improve. Reseearch by Alexander (2009), Barnes (2010) and Mercer (1995, 2013) has laid this out even more clearly, stating that ‘the cognitive development of children is “strongly affected” by talk in the classroom’. Barnes goes on to say that ‘when pupils discuss, new connections can be made or options considered, thus what is already known is reshaped and improved, indeed new understanding is considered.’ There is a great deal of convincing research behind these findings.
Although there is less research that focuses on girls in schools, Jo Baxter (1999) studied the topic of female oracy in great depth. She highlighted the following points:
- Schools in the UK do more to develop the public voice of boys than girls
- Women will be empowered if they learn to ‘speak out’.
- It is important for women to be taught how to speak persuasively and powerfully in a range of unfamiliar, formal and public contexts
- Some of the reasons that girls/women give as to why they don’t like speaking out in class or in front of an audience (familiar or unfamiliar are) that:
- They don’t like people looking at them
- They don’t like being put on the spot
- They don’t want to get things wrong or make mistakes
- They don’t want others to think they are stupid/too clever/showing off
When I speak to girls and women about the above, these points really resonate with them. Many girls and women, especially in school, wish to remain under the radar or invisible in lessons for all of the reasons cited above. It is also true to say that girls are not always kind to each other in school. Girls who are confident, who are keen to answer questions in class or who are seen as ‘swots’ or ‘show-offs’ can be given a hard time by their peers, which can in turn lead to them becoming discouraged and refusing to speak out, even if they were confident previously. This is not common, but it does happen and, in my view, needs to be addressed overtly in the classroom.
The research also shows that coming from a disadvantaged background can (but does not automatically) have a detrimental impact on a girl’s oracy skills. More work is done in private schools than state schools to encourage confidence, debate and discussion (see Laura Kahwati’s (2022) blog here). So, this is an issue that should be of interest to all teachers who teach girls, but especially those who teach disadvantaged girls, who are the group in school least likely to speak in class and also least likely to become successful professionally after school.
The research: Oracy and metacognition
As mentioned above, there is also a strong link between oracy and Metacognition, with Metacognition defined as the awareness of the individual of his or her own learning process. Research by Leat and Lin (2004) and by Jones (2007) has shown that teachers can use oracy techniques to help students to learn about, and then improve, their own learning, which can include how they learn in class and when studying independently, how they respond when they do not understand something and how they study for tests. Such oracy teaching techniques can include conducting interviews after lessons or giving pupils opportunities in lessons to think about and discuss their thinking processes and understanding of a topic. Girls in particular have been shown to really enjoy, and benefit from, these activities.
The research: Oracy and confidence
It has been shown that in lessons in which oracy is promoted, pupils developed greater confidence because they could make mistakes in a safe environment (Thompson, 2006). John Hattie (2009) states that confidence is ‘a most powerful precursor and outcome of schooling’. Young’s (2009) argument is possibly the most compelling since he emphasises that for some pupils, school is the only opportunity they will have to gain what he calls ‘powerful knowledge’. This not only refers to curriculum content, but also to the skills that are overtly taught in school, which can include how to study, write and communicate and also how to speak with clarity and confidence. This reinforces the key topic of social justice and the importance in schools of improving the socio-economic future of disadvantaged children, who may have less developed oracy skills than their advantaged peers. Young states that powerful knowledge is acquired through active participation in lessons, rather than just listening passively to the teacher. Similar research conducted by Cruddas and Haddock (2003), which shows that girls can benefit from the emancipatory potential of the promotion of pupil talk to counteract their “diminished voices” at school and beyond. Just the idea of girls and women in society having “diminished voices” should be enough to make every teacher of girls sit and up engage with this topic. I would love all of my students to have powerful voices.
So how do we do it?
The good news is that there are many ways of promoting oracy in the classroom. A huge amount has been written about this, with a great deal of excellent information available from the Oracy Cambridge website. There are other fantastic projects and organisations that, like Oracy Cambridge, are supporting schools to promote oracy, such as Voice 21, The English Speaking Union, the Jack Petchey foundation and many more.
When teaching in a single-sex girls’ school, it is important to remember that there are specific teaching strategies and approaches which will work well when teaching only girls.
- The Classroom Environment: Girls are at their most comfortable and at ease when the classroom environment is warm, friendly and inclusive. The teacher can make it clear that the class is supportive, that it is fine to make mistakes and that talk and discussion is encouraged. In classrooms where there is high quality pupil talk, teachers and pupils often make rules together to ensure that everyone is listened to and there are high levels of mutual respect and understanding. The point that it is not only acceptable but useful to make mistakes and get things wrong is key. This is a technique that PSHE teachers often use, but I have seen it work well for all subjects. I do it in my Public Speaking and my History lesson, and reiterate it often throughout the academic year.
- Whole Class Discussions and Debates: Girls enjoy these, but they have to be well planned and orchestrated. Pupils can be given different sides of an argument in advance to research and prepare. An important technique is to allow a pupil to speak and then ask another pupil if they agree with the point, if so, why and if not, why not. Pupils should always be encouraged to explain their points using details/example etc. and to use subject-specific language and terminology. The teacher can chain ideas around the class and be the facilitator of the discussion – or ask one of the pupils to take on this role. They quickly get used to this. A key aspect of oracy is listening, so this only works well if the pupils are taught to listen carefully to each other’s points – something that they are not always good at initially!
- Building in thinking time: Research shows that girls really enjoy having thinking time. They say that it is important for them to be given time to think before having to answer a question. As Jo Baxter said (see above), girls don’t like being put on the spot, so it is important for them to learn how to do that too, but whilst the are growing in confidence, having time to think before being called onto speak helps them to talk clearly and confidently. It is important to set the thinking time, i.e. one or two minutes and stick to it, otherwise the class can lose focus.
- Think, pair, share: Girls find this very helpful for the reasons outlined above. In my experience, girls enjoy this and benefit more from this than from group work, but that is just my opinion! It is important to change seating plans and discussion partners so that they talk to pupils they know well and those they know less well – otherwise they can end up just chatting with their friends.
- Group Work: this can work well and allows pupils to discuss topics and work together, solving problems or researching something together. This does have to be planned really well and outcomes need to be clear, in order for it to be an effective learning exercise. Mercer shows the many benefits of the exploratory talk that takes place within group discussions between pupils. For example, it can be an excellent method of promoting cognition and metacognition, allowing the transformation of individual thinking via intermental activity and can promote effective problem-solving and decision-making. It can also help pupils to develop their ability to reason and interrogate different viewpoints and perspectives, as well as ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard. In my research, girls said that they did not like it because they ended up doing all the work or they liked it because they gave all the work to someone else and they did not have to do anything. However, that was a very small-scale research and there is a great deal of evidence that shows the many benefits of group work in the classroom. Successful group work depends on a group agreeing to a set of Ground Rules or Talk Rules (see James Mannion’s Oracy Cambridge blog, 2020), which will enable every one of them to take part in Exploratory Talk. From my research, Think, Pair, Share (i.e. working in twos) also seems to work very well with girls.
- Presentations: this is a topic I feel very strongly about! Being excellent at delivering presentations is a key life skill. Most girls, when asked to prepare a presentation, will research the topic in detail, prepare several A4 sides of text and read it out word for word, hiding behind their papers. This is not how to deliver a presentation! Girls should be taught how to speak in public and deliver a presentation using only a set of bullet points, using a strong, confident voice and body language, good eye contact, an interesting modulating voice and possibly even humour and spontaneous talk! One of the most brilliant and inspiring talks about women, voice and body language is a TED Talk by Amy Cuddy: see Amy Cuddy Ted Talk.
- Role Play/Hot seating role-play lends itself better to some subjects than others. Those who teach Drama, English, History and MFL may well already incorporate role play into their lessons. Role play can be an excellent opportunity for girls to learn to speak with confidence and on their feet. I have done some memorable hot seating activities e.g. a GCSE History revision lesson with key figures from the course, who had to sit and answer questions from the class. This included interview with Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Dr Martin Luther King, Truman, Khrushchev and other figures. A particular favourite of mine was when we met Diggers, Ranters, Levellers, Quakers and Baptists from the era of the English Civil War. It is important that these activities are not just “fun”. Pupils need to research their characters and then write up their findings, as well as take part in the role play activity. In my class, I then collate their findings and present a booklet to the rest of the class so that everyone has all of the required material.
Building Oracy into the Curriculum
School21 and others have built their curriculum around the promotion of oracy skills. At my school, every Year 7 pupil has a 35-minute Public Speaking & Rhetoric lesson every week for the whole academic year. The topics covered are as follows:
Autumn Term: Body language, voice and building confidence. Pupils deliver speeches on “Introducing me” and “A person I admire”. They are encouraged to speak without detailed notes. They are also encouraged to ask each other questions. Each pupil is given feedback by another student. This will be one point that they think was very good and a point for further improvement. We always start the school year by setting out the rules for a supportive classroom. I also explain to them why they are having these lessons – that it is important for them to be confident speakers, that this will help them be successful in interview and their careers outside of school, but it is also essential for them to learn to speak and discuss in class, as this will help them to understand what they are studying in all of their subjects.
Spring Term: Speaking on the spot! Pupils have to speak on the spot without preparing the topic in advance, incorporating the skills they learn in the previous term. We play Just a Minute and also have on the spot debates. I have a list of topics and I give these to them when it is their turn – no preparation time! The solo speaking competition also takes place in their English lessons.
Summer Term: The Art of Persuasive speech: pupils learn the ancient art of rhetoric and how to persuade others through speech. At the end of the term, each pupil delivers a final speech on a topic that is close to their hearts, incorporating everything they have learned throughout the year.
We are fortunate that we have found time in the curriculum for Public Speaking. I would like to incorporate more lessons further up the school. We take part in the Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge in Year 10, which is brilliant and spend a lot of time working as a teaching staff to incorporate oracy techniques into our lessons. We also have Debating Club, LAMDA activities, Bar Mock Trial Club and take part in Model United Nations (see https://www.un.org/en/mun).
Finally, I am sure that much of the theory and the strategies suggested will also work well in boys’ schools and mixed schools. I feel strongly that it is girls in particular who need to be taught these skills in school, so that they can be successful at university and beyond. We need to eradicate diminished voices so that we can narrow the gender pay gap and ensure that women enjoy the same professional success as men.
If you would like to learn more about any of the points in this blog, please do not hesitate to contact me!
The Henrietta Barnett School
You can read my full research paper here
Alexander, R.J. (2009) Towards Dialogic Teaching. York, Dialogos.
Barnes, D. (2010) Why Talk is Important. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 9, 2, 7-10.
Baxter, J.A. (1999) Teaching Girls to Speak Out: The Female Voice in Public Contexts. Language and Education, 13, 2, 81-98.
Cruddas, J. and Haddock, L. (2003). Girls’ Voices. Stoke on Trent, Trentham Books.
Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning. London: Routledge
Jones, D. (2007) Speaking, Listening, Planning and Assessing. Early Child Development and Care, 177, 569-579.
Kahwati, L. (2022) Helping students find their voice in writing. https://oracycambridge.org/laura-kahwati-voices/
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Leat, D. and Lin, M . (2003) Developing a pedagogy of metacognition and transfer. British Educational Research Journal, 29, 3, 383-415.
Mannion, J. (2020) The importance of talk rules – and how to make them work for your pupils. https://oracycambridge.org/talk-rules/
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Vygotsky, L.S. (1962) Towards a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge, MA: Bellknap
Wagner, C (2015) An Investigation into Pupil Oracy with Year 10 pupils studying GCSE History in an all girls’ school. Masters Dissertation, University of Oxford. available here
Wilson, M. (ed.) (1991) Girls and young women in education. A European perspective. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Young, M. (2009) What are schools for? In H. Daniels, H. Lauder and J. Porter, with S Hartshorn (eds) Knowledge, Values and Educational Policy. Abingdon, Routledge.