Oracy is here to stay. Here’s why…

by Lyn Dawes and Pete Dudley 


Initiative overload plagues our education system. One benefit of this constant turnover of strategies and theories is that a great many educational ideas are tried out and tested; some go on to have a lasting positive impact. For example, research begun in the 80s and 90s into the benefits of listening to the voices of children, their perceptions and views about learning experiences, is now rightly regarded as essential practice not only in schools but across the children’s services sector.

But a long-term effect of initiative overload is that many education professionals understandably view new policy changes with scepticism. A new policy means merely a brief spell of intensive activity that will disappear without trace when the next Minister of Education arrives in office with a different sparkly new plan (sometimes seemingly based only on their own impressions of education during childhood)  – and a five-year race to implement it. Keeping your head down and letting the new policy wash over you sometimes seems a rational position to adopt for teachers. Teachers know what is effective and ineffective and what is of little use to the children they are responsible for; they are unlikely to waste valuable learning time on what might be yet another transient fad.

Oracy is different

You may be interested in the idea of oracy but concerned that, like so many other promising approaches, it will be soon forgotten. But there is something different about oracy; it is not an ‘initiative’ or a new policy; the term itself is shorthand for an educational strategy that is here to stay for profoundly important reasons.

An oracy strategy is the establishment of a framework for teaching the spoken language skills that are demonstrably central to thinking, to communicating, to learning and to succeeding in education – and in life.

Until recently, it has been assumed that children simply develop the skills of oracy naturally as they grow and move through their school years. But many do not, and their life chances are blighted as a result. Indeed, oracy skills are not just important for children’s futures as citizens and independent adults, but for their present, their everyday learning in class that is the basis for their future success.  It is evident that children need the direct teaching of oracy skills, just as they need direct teaching of literacy, technical or mathematical skills. A discussion of the importance of this teaching is analogous to the ‘caught or taught’ debate about spelling that proceeded for some time, and resulted in ‘taught’ as the strategy most likely to help children learn.

What are oracy skills?

Oracy is the effective use of spoken language. For the child, oracy skills enable them to express themselves fluently in speech.  Oracy skills fall into two broad categories; presentational and dialogic.

Presentational oracy skills influence the way we use spoken language for effective communication. We learn and develop skills of spoken language that help us to convey a gripping or heartrending story; to become a convincing character in a play; to be heard and to make our point effectively; to teach or explain things to others; or to ‘hold forth’ on a subject using persuasive rhetoric to build our case. Many schools teach these skills, as well as the skills of debating where we also learn how to manage an audience and our opponents’ attempts to win them over. These skills are well documented (and have been since Aristotle) and largely consciously learned and so are relatively easy to talk about and think about.

Dialogic oracy skills are the skills we employ when we use talk to solve problems, to create joint ideas and negotiate rational solutions when working with others in groups. These involve having the skills to elicit and attend to other points of view; to consider reasons and to weigh up different views; or to come to a joint decision – to negotiate aloud. These skills include respecting the ideas of others, turn-taking, listening or interjecting at just the right moment to elaborate on someone’s point or qualify or extend someone’s idea, the capacity to explain, and even the ability to admit a lack of understanding where necessary. And all of this has to happen in ways that preserve the group members’ collective will to collaborate, compromise and share their ideas.

Over time and with practise, complex dialogic skills like this become unconscious, tacit, and thus enable us consciously to focus more on having ideas than on expressing of them.

Why can’t we assume that oracy skills are naturally acquired?

By definition, ‘tacit’ skills are internalised deep into our second nature. They are invisible and one cannot summon them up through normal processes of recall. The opposite is true: they come to us when needed. If we try to think about them consciously we can even prevent them from working. (Try thinking hard about why your hands know what to do next time you are playing a musical instrument, driving a car or typing on a keyboard, and you’ll see what we mean).


Talk is acquired by babies and young children naturally as they listen to conversations around at home and interact with family members. But we know that children brought up in environments where family talk is drowned out by the TV or where communicative interaction with family members – playing, singing, hearing stories – doesn’t often happen, cannot talk or listen as well as their peers when they arrive in the Reception class. Such youngsters, deprived of a talk-rich experience, know thousands fewer words and ways of saying or thinking about things by the age of five. And because we use the ‘voice in our heads’ to think, we can say that they have fewer language resources for thinking and learning. The converse is also true. Children brought up in households where people talk to one another, read together, and discuss ideas and their understanding of how the world works together, develop a greater ability to speak confidently, using rich, nuanced vocabulary which helps them think deeply and profoundly. Research has borne this out repeatedly. In school, children taught by teachers who regularly ask them and who expect them to ask each other to elaborate on their ideas make significantly more progress in language and mathematics (Alexander, 2017; Howe et al, 2019; Vrikki et al, 2018).

There is a recognition that our brains are wired for spoken language. We have known for decades that reading aloud to children has a profound impact on their wider learning not only in primary school but well into KS3. This is because they hear written text orally and so understand it more readily.

And if you are wondering whether we are advocating teaching oracy only to those children who did not grow up in language-rich homes, we are not. Oracy needs to be used in the teaching of all children. The child who is a confident, articulate speaker may need to learn how to negotiate the views of others, and to listen actively. Some children who have good oracy skills will not use them in class because they are not listened to. Talk for learning needs the whole group of children to understand its nature and purpose if it is to have value.

If you look at the curricula of our most prestigious and elite public schools, oracy is integrated into both the curriculum and the extra-curricular activities. And if you look at the percentages of cabinet ministers over the years who attended these schools – it is evident can see that the direct teaching of oracy pays off. People who can, in effect, ‘compose’ effective oral communication in the course of conversations can go on to compose more effectively in writing, because they have oral models upon which to draw that come to them tacitly as they write, demanding less of their conscious working memory.

Hundreds of schools up and down the country are taking advantage of this ‘year of the curriculum’ to radically rethink the role of talk and oracy in the way they teach, and in the opportunities for developing oracy skills in parallel with curriculum understanding. These oracy-focused teachers and leaders are not doing this because of any government policy. In fact were it not for lobbying when the current curriculum was being devised, by researchers able to demonstrate the potential for harm if oracy is neglected, it is quite likely that speaking and listening could have been omitted entirely.

The direct teaching of oracy skills is not government policy at the moment. It is a movement driven by individual teachers and schools. Teachers linked to the popular and highly effective Voice 21 (the development arm of School 21 in East London) and to other bodies promoting oracy are creating curricula and pedagogical approaches based around the four strands of the University of Cambridge / Voice 21 ‘Oracy Skills Framework’.


Why the teaching of oracy is here to stay

We believe that there are solid reasons why we can be certain that the current interest in oracy is not simply another glitzy ‘initiative’:

  • The interest in oracy is teacher-led, not top-down; teachers continue to be encouraged by the ready development of essential and impressive skills once they begin the direct teaching oracy skills;
  • The impetus to integrate oracy teaching into the curriculum is based on extensive classroom research and a well-established theoretical perspective, available to all who are interested (not least in the blogs on this website);
  • There is a need for oracy in the way we currently live and work compared to previous generations, who arguably needed written and mathematical skills more. In addition, technology now offers excellent ways to capture and share spoken language in a way that enables both teachers and children to see progression and development;
  • There is a recognition that the child has a right to be taught the skills which will enable them to access the curriculum learning they are offered in classrooms – that oracy skills are needed for the child’s present, not just their future.

Teachers are developing oracy programmes because the evidence for its importance is compelling. The concept of oracy teaching resonates profoundly with their experience as teachers and learners. And, significantly, because when they start teaching oracy systematically – both the conscious presentational skills and the collaborative group-work skills – they almost instantly see the results transforming the confidence, enjoyment and self-expectations of their pupils and their ability and will to engage in learning with increasing independence. Children taught oracy can see the point of the education they are offered, can negotiate and think aloud with others, and can readily check their developing understanding. They have the mental resources to draw on when asked to write or solve problems. And as children’s oracy skills increase, their ability to learn independently, collaboratively and joyously across the curriculum accelerates with them.

Progression and proficiency in a child’s oracy skills lead to their increasing competence and confidence. Ensuring all children and young people are proficient users of their oracy skills is a matter of social justice. It has the potential to help eradicate gaps in education outcomes and life chances that blight so many lives, cost society so dear and that have defeated our education system for 150 years. The direct teaching of oracy skills can profoundly influence outcomes for learning and social development, meaning that success is no longer pre-determined by home background, income, or simply the amount of words a young child hears in a day.

That’s what gets teachers and school leaders out of bed each and every morning.

And that’s why oracy is here to stay.


Alexander, R.J., Hardman, F. and Hardman, J. with Rajab, T. and Longmore, M. (2017), ‘Changing Talk, Changing Thinking: interim report from the in-house evaluation of the CPRT/UoY Dialogic Teaching Project’, http://www.robinalexander.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Alexander-et-al-EEF-in-house-interim-report-final- 170714.pdf

Howe, C., Hennessy, S., Mercer, N. Vrikki, M. & Wheatley, L. (2019).  Teacher-student dialogue during classroom teaching:Does it really impact upon student outcomes? Journal for the Learning Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1080/10508406.2019.1573730

Vrikki, M., Wheatley, L., Howe, C., Hennessy, S., & Mercer, N. (2018). Dialogic practices in primary school classrooms. Language and Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500782.2018.1509988

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