Oracy in The Learning Skills Curriculum: Rationale

By Dr James Mannion

Ten years ago, I received an email from my head teacher at Sea View asking for volunteers to design and teach a Learning Skills curriculum. The aim was to help our students develop the knowledge, skills, habits and dispositions they need to become more confident, effective, self-regulated learners. We would have the whole of year 7 for five lessons a week, and we could do with them whatever we wanted. This was an incredible opportunity to do something really bold and different, and I was keen to capture it in the most robust way possible. I signed up to do a PhD, which turned out to be an 8-year study where we followed four cohorts of children from year 7 through to year 11 – one control cohort, and three Learning Skills cohorts.

That evaluation found that those Learning Skills cohorts went on to achieve the best results that school had ever seen by some margin, and it was particularly beneficial for children from disadvantaged backgrounds – the disadvantage gap closed from the bottom up, almost completely. We are now fortunate to work with teachers all over the world to help implement the Learning Skills approach in new and diverse contexts. If you want to find out more, visit rethinking-ed.org, where you can also explore the research that underpins our work.

I’ve spent the last three years writing a book about the Learning Skills curriculum, which I co-authored with my amazing colleague Kate McAllister. It’s called Fear is the Mind Killer: Why Learning to Learn deserves lesson time – and how to make it work for your pupils, and it should hit the shelves by the end of this month (October 2020). The feedback we have received on the book so far has been extremely encouraging – you can read all the very kind things people have said about it here. And you can buy it here (John Catt) or here (Amazon).

Here are all the posts in this series:

This post is the first in a series of six extracts from Fear is the Mind Killer – the bit of the book that’s about oracy. This first post outlines a rationale for teaching oracy through dedicated Learning to Learn lessons. If you’d like to watch a video version of these six extracts, you can do so below – something I recorded for Voice 21’s #OracyOctober – but the blogs contain more detail.


The rationale for oracy

In case you aren’t familiar, the word oracy was coined in 1965 by the British educational researcher Andrew Wilkinson, who defined it simply as ‘the ability to use the oral skills of speaking and listening’. [1] That same year, Wilkinson wrote a book that began with the line ‘The spoken language in England has been shamefully neglected’. [2] It is therefore clear that Wilkinson’s invention of the word was a deliberate attempt to raise the profile of spoken language, and to recognise it as being of equal importance to reading and writing.

Oracy is such an important topic – so supercharged with the ability to unleash untold human potential, and so laden with a sense of burning injustice that its status has been diminished for so long – that it is difficult to know where to begin. So we should probably start at the beginning.

Spoken language is perhaps the defining characteristic of our species. Some animals have a rudimentary spoken language of course, and some are even quite sophisticated – capuchin monkeys have been known to lie to one another, for example, raising the ‘snake’ alarm in order to steal their neighbours’ food. [3] But, by and large, animals make for poor dinner party guests. The ability to speak and listen is the main reason our species has been able to invent so much cool stuff, like medicine and technology and crumpets. We might of course have achieved these things had spoken language never evolved, but it does seem less likely.

Spoken communication is the key to much of our success, and for much of recorded history, the importance of spoken language was reflected in our education systems. Throughout the middle ages, rhetoric was one third of the Trivium (alongside logic and grammar), a core curriculum first established in ancient Greece. And the high status of spoken language persisted until relatively recently. As the speechwriter and author Simon Lancaster recently pointed out, ‘In London, right the way through to the 19th century, it was possible to get a free education in rhetoric, but not in mathematics, reflecting the importance that was placed on the topic’. [4]

Since Wilkinson’s coining of the word ‘oracy’ more than 50 years ago, the perceived importance of speaking and listening has ebbed and flowed throughout our education system. In the 1970s, there was a wave of interest in the nature of classroom interactions and the potential value of spoken language as a driver or mediator of learning. [5], [6], [7] And in the late 1980s, speaking and listening were briefly recognised as having equal status with reading and writing in the National Curriculum for England and Wales. A ‘National Oracy Project’, designed to support teachers in developing students’ talk in the classroom, ran from 1987-1992. [8] An oracy revival seemed to be on the way.

But then something happened. For various reasons, by the turn of the century, speaking and listening had slipped off the educational agenda. Although many teachers continued to see the value in encouraging students to talk as part of their learning, oracy as an explicit policy aim largely disappeared from view. This has been compounded by more recent developments, such as the government’s bonfire of thousands of vocational qualifications in 2012, [9] and the decision in 2013 to remove speaking and listening from the English GCSE assessment. [10] A 2016 report entitled Oracy: The state of speaking in our schools revealed that although teachers ‘feel oracy is critically important… support for oracy across different lessons, classrooms and schools is currently patchy’. [11]

To be clear, we do not single out oracy as being any more important than reading or writing in helping children become effective, self-regulated learners. However, schools are already pretty good at developing reading and writing. In the history of Learning to Learn – and in the recent history of education more broadly – oracy education has often been overlooked, and undervalued.

The short version of the rationale for placing oracy at the heart of the Learning Skills curriculum, then, is simply to restore it to its former glory and to recognise spoken language as being at least of equal importance to the so-called ‘3 Rs’ of ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’. At the most basic level, we spend a far greater proportion of our waking lives speaking and listening than we do reading and writing. According to one estimate, humans typically ‘spend 70 to 80 percent of our waking hours in some form of communication. Of that time, we spend about 9 percent writing, 16 percent reading, 30 percent speaking, and 45 percent listening.’ [12] Perhaps, then, we should really speak of the ‘4 Rs’, recognising oracy as a worthy fourth member of that elite band of educational priorities.

But the rationale for taking oracy education seriously goes much deeper than this. In recent decades, researchers in fields such as developmental psychology and linguistics as well as education have developed a detailed understanding of the vital role of spoken language in children’s social and cognitive development. [13], [14]  Famously, this idea was first expressed by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who recognised the importance of social interactions in the cognitive development of individuals. [15], [16] Vygostsky’s central insight was expressed succinctly by Vass and Littleton (2010): ‘it is through speech and action with others that we learn to reason and gain individual consciousness’. [17]

We have known for years now that the quality and quantity of spoken communication children experience in early childhood is a powerful predictor of educational attainment in later life. [18], [19] We also know that educational outcomes can be significantly boosted by teaching children how to use talk to communicate more effectively with their peers. [20], [21] A recent study carried out at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that conversational turn-taking in early childhood leads to increased activation in the left inferior frontal lobe of the brain (known as Broca’s area), which ‘significantly explain(s) the relation between children’s language exposure and verbal skill’. [22] Explaining the importance of this study, the lead investigator said ‘it provides the first evidence that family conversation at home is associated with brain development in children. It’s almost magical how parental conversation appears to influence the biological growth of the brain’. [23]

There is now an extensive body of research literature detailing the ways in which oracy in the home and school predicts educational and life outcomes. Recently, James co-authored a report for the Welsh government with Professor Neil Mercer, entitled Oracy across the Welsh Curriculum. [24] This involved carrying out an extensive review of the literature on oracy education, which revealed three broad areas of impact: cognitive outcomes, social and emotional outcomes and life outcomes. These are summarised in Table 1, below.

Table 1. The impact of oracy education: a summary of research findings.

Category Area of impact
Cognitive outcomes Improved attainment in subject learning [25], [26], [27]
Improved literacy skills [28], [29], [30]
Improved verbal, non-verbal, quantitative reasoning [31], [32], [33]
Enhanced communication for pupils with SEND [34], [35], [36]
Enhanced communication/cognition among bilingual students  [37], [38], [39]
Transfer of comprehension, reasoning skills to other subjects [40], [41]
Social and emotional outcomes Self-esteem / self-confidence [42], [43]
Engagement and on-task focus [44], [45], [46]
Social development / peer interactions [47]
Emotional intelligence [48], [49], [50]
Historical empathy [51]
Ability to handle stress [52]
Life outcomes Overcoming social disadvantage [53], [54], [55], [56], [57]
Fewer exclusions, less juvenile offending [58], [59]
Improved future earnings [60], [61]

Of course, much of a young person’s life trajectory is determined by socioeconomic factors that lie beyond the school gates. However, it is clear from the research that schools have an important role to play. Oracy education – or the lack of it – can be a significant determinant of a child’s future life outcomes. Teachers cannot eradicate poverty, and nor can we go into every home and change the way families interact. However, we are uniquely placed to alter those future trajectories by ensuring that all young people are given every possible opportunity to expand their vocabulary and their interpersonal skills, and to gain the confidence that comes with the territory.

Taking oracy education seriously is perhaps the most powerful thing a teacher can do to positively impact the future life chances of their pupils. The good news is that while the consequences of oracy education are deadly serious, teaching children how to speak and listen effectively is absolutely fascinating, and loads of fun. All we need to do is make our classrooms talk-rich environments where every child is encouraged, expected and supported to develop a range of effective speaking and listening skills in a range of contexts. The Oracy Skills Framework provides us with a useful map of this territory – see here for a version with a glossary, to explain what all the key terms mean.

Ever since the dawning of the Learning to Learn movement in the 1970s, there has been a debate about whether we can teach things like oracy through a standalone course, or whether it should be embedded throughout the curriculum. Most people seem to think that it should really be embedded, and in an ideal world, we would agree. But the world is not ideal, and decades of research and experience tell us that an embedded-only approach doesn’t work. With the best will in the world, in the context of a packed curriculum it can be incredibly difficult to find the time to teach children about the technicalities of debate, or how to use rhetorical flourishes to liven up your presentations to the class. It’s easier to do this in primary schools, but far harder at secondary. An embedded approach is also incredible inefficient at secondary. Why would you choose to have ten different teachers in ten different subjects teaching children about rhetoric and talk rules and debating skills – let alone finding the time to practice and refine these skills – when you can develop these skills far more effectively and consistently in dedicated lessons?

We aren’t saying these things shouldn’t be embedded across the curriculum. As far as possible, they should. We’re saying that it isn’t sufficient. You really need three elements to be in place:

  1. Timetabled lessons
  2. Embedded practices across the curriculum
  3. Strategies in place to promote the transfer of knowledge, skills, habits and dispositions – out of the Learning Skills classroom, and into subject learning across the curriculum.

What does it look like in practice?

Broadly speaking, there are two aspects to oracy, each equally important: learning to talk (oracy education) and learning through talk (dialogic approaches to teaching and learning). At Sea View, we pretty much threw the kitchen sink at both; you name it, we taught them how to do it and then got them talking about it. In the remaining posts in this series, I will outline five key ways in which we developed our pupils’ speaking and listening skills through the Learning Skills curriculum:

  1. Talk rules – a simple, powerful approach to helping students learn how to interact in productively in paired, group and whole-class discussions
  2. Collaboration and complexity – a systematic approach to nudging pupils out of their comfort zones, to the point where they are able to interact productively with anyone, in any group size
  3. Structured debates – to help students sharpen their wits, argumentation skills and rhetorical flair – and to put rocket boosters under their confidence
  4. Presentational talk – to ensure that all students are able to achieve success in public speaking – another huge boon to their self-confidence
  5. Philosophical inquiries – a weekly forum for discussing big ideas in a more curious exploratory, collaborative way than is possible in structured debates.

For each of these elements, I will present a brief rationale for its inclusion in the Learning Skills curriculum, before considering what it looks like in practice. Please do share your thoughts in the comments below as the series progresses. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


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

[2] Wilkinson, A. (1965) Spoken English. Birmingham, University of Birmingham Press.

[3] Walker, M. (2017). Monkeys lie to one another. BBC Earth, February 18. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170210-monkeys-lie-to-one-another.

[4] Lancaster, S. (2016) Speak like a leader. Presentation at TEDx Verona. Available at: youtube.com/watch?v=bGBamfWasNQ.

[5] Barnes, D., Britton, J. & Rosen, H. (1971). Language, the learner and the school: a research report. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

[6] Barnes, D. (1976). From Communication to Curriculum. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

[7] Bullock, A. (1975) A Language for Life: Report of the Committee of Inquiry appointed by the Secretary of State for Education and Science. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

[8] Johnson, J. (1994). The National Oracy Project. In S. Brindley (Ed) Teaching English. London: Routledge, p33-42.

[9] Vasagar, J. (2012). Thousands of vocational qualifications to be stripped out of GCSE league tables. The Guardian, January 31. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2012/jan/31/vocational-qualifications-stripped-league-tables.

[10] Stacey, G. (2013) Our announcement on speaking and listening assessments. The Ofqual blog. Available at: https://ofqual.blog.gov.uk/2013/09/04/our-announcement-on-speaking-and-listening-assessments.

[11] Millard, W., Menzies, L. (2016) Oracy: The State of Speaking in Our Schools. London: Voice 21.

[12] Lee, D. & Hatesohi, D. (1993) Listening: Our most used communications skill. University of Missouri. Available at: https://extension2.missouri.edu/cm150.

[13] van Oers, B., Elbers, E., Wardekker, W., & van der Veer, R. (Eds.). (2008). The transformation of learning: Advances in cultural-historical activity theory. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

[14] Whitebread, D., Mercer, N., Howe, C. & Tolmie, A. (Eds.) (2013). Self-regulation and dialogue in primary classrooms. British Journal of Educational Psychology Monograph Series II: Psychological Aspects of Education – Current Trends, No. 10. Leicester: BPS.

[15] Vygotsky, L. (1962) Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[16] Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

[17] Vass, E., & Littleton, K (2010). Peer collaboration and learning in the classroom. In: K. Littleton, Karen; C. Wood & J. Kleine Staarman, eds. International Handbook of Psychology in Education, 105–136. Leeds: Emerald, p107.

[18] Hart, B. & Risley, T. (1995) Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of young American Children. Baltimore: Paul Brookes.

[19] Goswami, U. & Bryant, P. (2007) Children’s Cognitive Development and Learning (Primary Review Research Survey). Cambridge: University of Cambridge Faculty of Education.

[20] Dawes, L. (2008) The Essential Speaking and Listening: Talk for learning at KS2. London: Routledge.

[21] Mercer, N. & Littleton, K. (2007). Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking. London: Routledge.

[22] Romeo, R., Leonard, J.A., Robinson, S.T., West, M.R., Mackey, A.P., Rowe, M.L., Gabrieli, J.D.E. (2018) Beyond the ‘30 million word gap:’ children’s conversational exposure is associated with language-related brain function. Psychological Science 29:700–710.

[23] Trafton, A. (2018). Back-and-forth exchanges boost children’s brain response to language. MIT News Office. Available at: http://news.mit.edu/2018/conversation-boost-childrens-brain-response-language-0214.

[24] Mercer, N. & Mannion, J. (2018) Oracy across the Welsh curriculum: A research-based review: key principles  and recommendations for teachers. Oracy Cambridge report for the Welsh Government. Available at https://oracycambridge.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Oracy-across-the-Welsh-curriculum-July-2018.pdf. Happily, the Welsh government has since acted on many of the recommendations in this report; we look forward to seeing how this plays out across the Welsh education system in the years to come.

[25] Adey, P., & Shayer, M. (1994). Really Raising Standards: cognitive intervention and academic achievement. London: Routledge.

[26] O’Connor, C., Michaels, S. & Chaplin, S. (2015). ‘‘Scaling Down’ to Explore the Role of Talk in Learning: From District Intervention to Controlled Classroom Study’, in L. B. Resnick, C. S. C. Asterhan and S. N. Clarke (eds.). Socializing Intelligence Through Academic Talk and Dialogue, Washington D.C.: American Educational Research Association.

[27] Wilkinson, I. A. G., Murphy, P. K., & Binici, S. (2015). ‘Dialogue-Intensive Pedagogies for Promoting Reading Comprehension: What We Know, What We Need to Know’, in L. B. Resnick, C. S. C. Asterhan and S. N. Clarke (eds.). Socializing Intelligence Through Academic Talk and Dialogue, Washington D.C.: American Educational Research Association.

[28] Dunsmuir, S. & Blatchford, P. (2004). Predictors of Writing Competence in 4- to 7-Year Old Children, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 74 (3), 461-483.

[29] Dockrell, J. E. & Connelly, V. (2009). The impact of oral language skills on the production of written text, BJEP Monograph Series ll, Number 6 – Teaching and Learning Writing, 1(1), 45-62.

[30] Maxwell, B., Burnett, C., Reidy, J., Willis, B. & Demack, S. (2015). Oracy Curriculum, Culture and Assessment Toolkit: Evaluation Report and Executive Summary, London: Education Endowment Foundation.

[31] Alexander, R. (2008). Towards Dialogic Teaching: Rethinking Classroom Talk, Fourth Edition, York: Dialogos UK.

[32] Goswami, U. (2015). Children’s Cognitive Development and Learning. York: Cambridge Primary Review Trust.

[33] Mercer, N., Wegerif, R. & Dawes, L. (1999). Children’s talk and the development of reasoning in the classroom, British Educational Research Journal, 25, 95-111.

[34] Sheehy, K., Rix, J. with Collins, J., Hall, K., Nind, M., Wearmouth, J. (2009). A systematic review of whole class, subject-based pedagogies with reported outcomes for the academic and social inclusion of pupils with special educational needs. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

[35] The Communication Trust (2013) A Generation Adrift. London: The Communication Trust.

[36] Maxwell, B., Burnett, C., Reidy, J., Willis, B. & Demack, S. (2015). Oracy Curriculum, Culture and Assessment Toolkit: Evaluation Report and Executive Summary, London: Education Endowment Foundation.

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[38] Sorge, G. B., Toplak, M. E., & Bialystok, E. (2017). Interactions between levels of attention ability and levels of bilingualism in children’s executive functioning. Developmental Science, 20(1), 1-16.

[39] Grundy, J., Timmer, K. (2017). Bilingualism and working memory capacity: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Second Language Research 33(3): 325–340.

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[49] Ofsted (2003) The Education of Six Year Olds in England, Denmark and Finland: An International Comparative Study. London: Ofsted.

[50] Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) (2008) Curriculum Evidence Probe 2 Report: Dialogue and Curriculum Development. Available at: curee.co.uk/files/publication/1234197541/FINAL_Building_the_Evidence_ Base_Probe_2_full_report1.pdf.

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