On defining oracy

by Dr James Mannion

Edit: This blog led to an interesting debate on X, where I wrote two further long posts to clarify my position – please see here and here, or here if you want to see the full thread. 

SHORT VERSION:

Oracy is multidimensional, and this makes it difficult to define.

It’s important to separate out the pure concept of oracy from two related ideas: oracy education and dialogic teaching. 

In this blog I suggest that we should adopt the following definitions:

Oracy: the ability to speak and listen.

Oracy education: developing the ability to speak and listen in a range of contexts.

Dialogic teaching: a pedagogical approach which uses spoken language as a medium for learning.

Please note, these are definitions – i.e. they aim to capture the meaning of the word or phrase as succinctly as possible. There is much more that we can say about each of these terms!

We can explain the difference between them as follows.

Oracy is synonymous with literacy (defined in the dictionary as ‘the ability to read and write’) and numeracy (defined as ‘the ability to understand and work with numbers’).

Oracy education views spoken language as a curricular object, as a set of knowledge and skills that all children and young people should learn. This includes learning how to talk and learning about talk.

In contrast, dialogic teaching is a pedagogical approach that views spoken language as the medium through which learning happens. This is about learning through talk.

For more on why it’s important to distinguish between oracy education and dialogic teaching, see this blog by Neil Mercer.

For more on why I think we should adopt the definitions above, read on!

LONG VERSION:

Recently, Alex Quigley wrote a blog called Questions about Oracy in which he wrote:

‘We need to define oracy more precisely. Is it speaking and listening, ‘dialogic talk’, ‘exploratory talk’, ‘accountable talk’? There are lots of useful models for both theory and practice, but it can make things confusing for busy teachers who want clarity so they can calculate their classroom efforts.’

On X, Mr Lim shared Alex’s blog and asked:

‘What is the most useful definition for oracy? I am still confused about the above after listening to oracy podcasts and its literature.’

In response, Barbara Bleiman acknowledged the complexity of oracy and offered a tripartite definition:

It means slightly different things to different people. Like any other aspect of education (eg literacy too) it is a complex set of ideas, which can also evolve & develop. For me, the simplest way of expressing it is “Talk for learning, learning to talk and learning about talk”.’

To which James Durran responded:

‘Yup. To, through and about.’

It is perhaps worth mentioning that this discussion is taking place in the context of the ongoing Oracy Commission, which lists among its aims and objectives:

‘Define the vision, values and intent of oracy education as part of a broad and enriching education.’

Since the question of how best to define oracy is in the air, I thought I’d share one or two thoughts of my own.

Although I’ve worked in the field of oracy education for many years now, I must admit I haven’t ever really thought too deeply about the question of how to define oracy.

For what it’s worth, I’ve never found this to be a problem. In my experience, people in schools share an understanding of the word oracy as a practical shorthand for all things to do with the teaching of spoken communication skills, as well as how we use spoken language in our own teaching.

However, I appreciate that for people who are new to oracy, the lack of a clear definition could pose a problem.

I am therefore grateful to everyone who is currently raising this as an issue, as it has prompted me to sharpen up my thinking.

The remainder of this blog is very much ‘thinking out loud’ rather than what I consider to be the final word on the matter. I’ll be interested to hear what others think.

Let’s dive in!

 

THE PROBLEM:

Oracy is multidimensional. This can perhaps be seen most clearly in the Oracy Skills Framework, which breaks oracy down into four dimensions – physical, linguistic, cognitive and social/emotional – each of which is then further broken down into several sub-criteria.

In other words, like love, oracy is a many-splendoured thing!

This makes defining oracy a tricky task, because a definition is supposed to offer cast-iron clarity about what something means, and capturing the essence of a many-splendoured thing in a pithy phrase is no mean feat.

Let’s look at a few existing definitions and see if that gets us anywhere.

 

EXISTING DEFINITIONS:

The Venn diagram

In recent years, oracy has often been defined as the intersection between two things: learning to talk, or learning how to talk (i.e., oracy education, teaching the essential skills of speaking and listening), and learning through talk (i.e., dialogic teaching).

This definition is often used by my Oracy Cambridge colleagues, as well as within Voice 21 and elsewhere. Sometimes, this definition is presented as a Venn diagram which was initially developed by Neil Mercer, and then adopted by Voice 21:

Personally, I’ve never been entirely happy with this Venn diagram. If ‘learning to talk’ and ‘learning through talk’ are both aspects of oracy, then surely both circles should be considered oracy, and not just the area of overlap in the middle.

An alternative is to describe ‘learning to talk’ and ‘learning through talk’ as ‘two sides of the same coin’. This makes more logical sense, and I myself have used this phrase myself in the past. But while it may work as a metaphor, it’s a bit clunky as a definition.

The tripartite definition offered by Barbara Bleiman builds on this idea, including ‘learning to talk’ and ‘learning through talk’ (the latter of which Barbara describes as ‘talk for learning’) and then adding in a third element – ’learning about talk’.

On the one hand, I think it’s good that both the Venn diagram and Barbara’s definition attempt to capture the multidimensional nature of oracy. On the other hand, these definitions fall short because they omit other key aspects of oracy – most importantly, listening.

Both of these definitions use the word ‘talk’ as a kind of collective noun for all things speaking and listening. I think this is a problem because associating oracy with speaking at the expense of listening is an all-too-common oversight. It’s possible to be good at talking and not so good at listening, and so when we’re defining oracy we should make the importance of listening really explicit.

These definitions also focus heavily on the word ‘learning’. The words talk and learning each appear three times in Barbara’s definition. But oracy isn’t always about talk – and as we will see, it’s not always about learning, either.

So far, we’ve looked at two definitions and we can already see that the task of defining oracy is surprisingly complex.

Let’s return to the source to see whether oracy’s genesis can shed any light on our predicament.

Andrew Wilkinson / The dictionary

The word oracy was coined in 1965 by Andrew Wilkinson in an attempt to give spoken language the same status as that afforded to written literacy and numeracy. In a polemical publication that opened with the zinger ‘The spoken language in England has been shamefully neglected’, Wilkinson defined oracy as:

‘the ability to use the oral skills of speaking and listening’ [1]

I suspect Wilkinson used the phrase ‘the oral skills of speaking and listening’ to emphasise the etymology of the word oracy. And it’s interesting to note that he talks about the use of these skills, rather than the learning of them.

I also suspect that Wilkinson used the existing dictionary definitions of literacy and numeracy to formulate his definition, because it follows the same format. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines literacy as:

‘the ability to read and write’.

 And numeracy as:

‘the ability to understand and work with numbers’.

Incidentally, the OED now defines oracy as:

‘the ability to express oneself fluently and grammatically in speech’.

And the Cambridge English Dictionary defines oracy as:

‘the ability to speak clearly and grammatically correctly’

(As an aside, in reviewing this blog, Neil Mercer commented: ‘I think we should all be particularly dismayed by the definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary, because “the ability to speak clearly and grammatically correctly” is awful’. I am minded to agree.)

Although the current dictionary definitions are somewhat problematic – more on this later – they do at least frame oracy as an ‘ability’, in common with Wilkinson as well as the definitions of literacy and numeracy.

At this point, it’s interesting to return to the tripartite definition proposed by Barbara Bleiman:

‘Oracy = talk for learning, learning to talk and learning about talk’.

The parallel here would be to define literacy as:

Learning to write, writing to learn and learning about writing’.

And it still would not have mentioned reading, just as Barbara’s definition doesn’t mention listening.

So while Barbara’s definition provides a helpful working description of three key aspects of oracy education, I’m not sure it should be our resting place as a definition of oracy per se.

The Literacy Trust

To introduce a further layer of complexity, The Literacy Trust defines literacy as:

‘the ability to read, write, speak and listen in a way that lets us communicate effectively and make sense of the world’

This suggests that oracy is a subset of literacy, and that perhaps we should think in terms of written literacy (reading and writing) and oral literacy (speaking and listening).

Personally, I think this way madness lies – although it is interesting to note that this is close to the technical meaning of the word, which derives from the Latin or-, meaning mouth, and –acy, meaning ‘on the pattern of literacy’.

I do think ‘mouth literacy’ has a certain charm, but I can’t see it catching on.

Let’s turn now to a couple more ways in which oracy has been defined in recent years, before I offer what I believe to be a way out of this linguistic labyrinth.

Voice 21

On the What is oracy? page of their website, Voice 21 define oracy as:

‘the ability to articulate ideas, develop understanding and engage with others through spoken language’

Elsewhere, they define oracy as:

‘the ability to speak and listen in a range of different contexts – one-to-one, in groups and to a larger audience.’

While these definitions differ, they both use the same formulation as both Wilkinson and the dictionary – i.e. framing oracy as an ability. And both these definitions are essentially lists, with clauses, commas and ‘ands’. More on this later.

Finally, this framing of oracy as ‘spoken language’ brings us to the last of our definitions – that used by Oracy Cambridge.

Oracy Cambridge

As an organisation, Oracy Cambridge has never offered a definition of oracy, although various members of the OC team have defined the concept in our many blogs.

However, the strap-line of Oracy Cambridge is ‘The Hughes Hall Centre for Effective Spoken Communication’. Thus, you could argue that Oracy Cambridge implicitly defines oracy as ‘effective spoken communication’. I’ll return to this below.

For now, this concludes our brief survey of the various ways in which oracy has been defined in its 59-year history.

While I was writing the above, several questions started to form in my mind which I think may be of help in guiding us towards a solution. Here they are, along with my nascent answers.

 

SOME GUIDING QUESTIONS:

1. Should the definition refer to ‘spoken communication’ or ‘spoken language’?’

No. The argument for this is that it overcomes the plurality of ‘speaking and listening’ by wrestling the two concepts together into a single collective noun. But for my taste, the phrases ‘spoken communication’ and ‘spoken language’ make oracy sound a bit too abstract. After all, we want this concept to make sense to small children.

2. Should we define oracy in terms of ‘speaking and listening’?

Yes. I’m much more comfortable with ‘speaking and listening’ because these are verbs that people – including small children – already understand. Also, literacy is defined as ‘the ability to read and write’. If literacy can handle its inherent plurality, oracy should be able to do the same.

3. Should the definition mention a ‘range of contexts’?

No. When it comes to defining oracy as a pure concept, I think we can take it as read that people speak and listen in a range of contexts, just as people read and write in a range of contexts. When it comes to oracy education, I do think it’s helpful to mention a range of contexts – more on this below.

4. Should the definition use the word ‘talk’ as a kind of collective noun for all things speaking and listening?

No. There is a tendency within oracy education to focus on the performative aspects of spoken communication – namely, presentational talk and debating – and to overlook the importance of things like listening, conversation and turn-taking. I think we should be wary of over-emphasising talk at the expense of these other aspects of oracy.

Also – and this is personal taste – but I’m not really a fan of using the word ‘talk’ as a noun. (Likewise, Ofsted’s ‘Big Listen’. Ugh.)

5. Should the definition frame oracy as an ability?

Yes. I think it’s important to play by the same rules as the definitions of literacy and numeracy. It also makes sense in an educational context because it allows us to frame oracy as a verb – something you can get better at doing, through practice – rather than defining it as an abstract noun such as ’spoken language’, which makes it sound a bit more remote and academic.

6. Should the definition feature commas, or include the word ‘and’?

Not if it can be avoided. Commas indicate clauses and that suggests you’re listing things. Likewise, I think we should avoid the word ‘and’. However, I’ll make an exception for speaking ‘and’ listening because these are commonly associated as a pair, in the same way that ‘reading and writing’ are a pair. This leads me to reject those definitions above which feature commas and ‘ands’.

7. Should the definition include value statements such as ’effective’, ‘articulate’, ‘fluent’ or ‘grammatical’?

No. The definitions of literacy and numeracy don’t use such terms. Of course we want people to be effective at these things. But the definition should include the possibility that someone could be ineffective without stepping outside the definition of the construct. This is achieved with the word ‘ability’ – it includes the possibility of being unable also.

For what it’s worth, I do think ‘effective spoken communication’ works well as the strapline for Oracy Cambridge, because we’re an advocacy group and that’s what we’re trying to achieve. But I think it’s too value-laden and abstract to serve as a definition of oracy as a concept.

8. Given the issues outlined above, should we even use the word ‘oracy’?

Yes, for the simple reason that it’s in the zeitgeist. Some people may still not have heard of it – especially those outside the field of education – but the word has been in the ascendant for several years now, and with the Labour Party having announced their intention to place oracy at the heart of their vision for education, it looks set to become a part of the national lexicon in the years to come – in England, at least.

 

SO… HOW SHOULD WE DEFINE ORACY?

I think the way to overcome the problems outlined above is to separate out oracy from two other related concepts – oracy education and dialogic teaching.

With regard to oracy, notwithstanding the undeniable appeal of ‘mouth literacy’, I think we should keep things as simple as possible and define it as:

‘the ability to speak and listen’.

I would define oracy education as:

‘developing the ability to speak and listen effectively in a range of contexts’.

My reasons for this formulation are as follows:

  • the word ‘developing’ allows for both teaching and learning
  • the phrase ‘the ability to speak and listen’ links it to the definition of oracy itself
  • the word ‘effectively’ makes clear that oracy education is about trying to increase or promote oracy
  • and ‘in a range of contexts’ expresses the idea that there are many applications of spoken communication without resorting to listing things

To return to Barbara Bleiman’s tripartite definition, I think ‘learning to talk’ and ‘learning about talk’ are both aspects of oracy education. And ‘learning through talk’ (also known as ‘talk for learning’) is an application of oracy that I would describe as dialogic teaching. This has been described by Robin Alexander as a teaching approach which:

‘harnesses the power of talk to engage interest, stimulate thinking, advance understanding, expand ideas, and build and evaluate arguments, empowering students for lifelong learning and democratic engagement’

But this is a description rather than a definition. A more concise definition would be that dialogic teaching is ‘a pedagogical approach which uses spoken language as a medium for learning’.

To return to Alex Quigley’s ‘questions about oracy’ then:

Q: Is it speaking and listening?

A: Kind of – it’s the ability to speak and listen.

Q: Is it dialogic talk?

A: No. Personally I find the phrase ‘dialogic talk’ a bit tautological. I think it’s better to describe it as ‘dialogic teaching and learning’, as defined above.

Q: Is it exploratory talk?

A: No. Rupert Wegerif defines exploratory talk as a dialogue ‘in which partners engage critically but constructively with each other’s ideas’. I think exploratory talk is a crossover concept in that it spans ‘both sides of the oracy coin’. It’s an aspect of oracy education, as it’s a thing you can learn about and get better at doing. And it’s also a feature of dialogic teaching and learning, as it’s a vehicle through which you can learn really effectively.

Q: Is it ‘accountable talk’?

A: No. This is another term for exploratory talk, developed by researchers in the US.

In short, there are a number of concepts related to oracy that we can define in various ways, and perhaps a glossary of such terms would be a useful focus for a future blog. But at the heart of it all, we should define oracy simply as ‘the ability to speak and listen’.

That’s what I think anyway. I hope this helps clarify things for people, but as I say, I’m still thinking my way through this and I’m open to persuasion if anyone can point out where I’m going wrong.

What do you think?

 

REFERENCES

[1] Wilkinson, A. (1965) The Concept of Oracy. Educational Review, 17 (4), p13.

 

With thanks to Lyn Dawes and Neil Mercer for their characteristically generous and insightful comments.

 

Leave a Reply