Speaking with purpose: Douglas Barnes and oracy as ‘acting on the world’

A guest post by Dr Rupert Knight

As the work of the recently formed Oracy Education Commission gets underway, there is certainly a buzz around oracy. With every new post or blog, however, it seems that more questions arise:

  • Is oracy a ‘So what?’ rebranding of what we’ve always done?
  • Is it a ‘What now?’ new fad to add to teachers’ workloads?
  • Or is it simply a ‘What?’, too ill-defined a concept to be of any practical use?

In this blog, I attempt to regain some clarity of purpose by building on some of the rich work that has gone before – in this case, from Douglas Barnes.

Certainly, decades of evidence support the case that an explicit focus on talk in schools is beneficial for:

  • communicative competence, with lifelong implications for academic, economic and emotional wellbeing;
  • cognitive development, as the means to powerful social learning opportunities;
  • voice, agency and citizenship, with the potential for both personal and societal benefits.

In my interviews for a recent book, these issues were reflected in schools’ motivations for a focus on oracy.  Oracy Leads referred to goals that included:

  • ‘preparing students for adult life’
  • getting past a ‘glass ceiling of attainment’
  • ‘confidence, self-worth and mental health’
  • ‘children being agents of change,’ with ’the right to be heard.’

As well as the persuasive case for ‘why’, there is an ever-expanding body of work on ‘how’ to implement oracy strategies, based in part on the school-facing work of organisations like Voice 21 and Oracy Cambridge. Well-researched principles are being mediated for practice with teachers and a shared language is emerging through resources such as the Oracy Framework.

So, against this positive backdrop, why the feeling of unease?

I think it’s because, beyond ‘why’, but before we get to ‘how’, the question of ‘what’ remains somewhat unresolved. As the profile of oracy rises in politicians’ speeches, news columns and social media threads, there is scope for misunderstanding and selective interpretation, at both policy and classroom level.

What exactly is oracy education?

As has been noted over the years, and with increasing volume recently, oracy has a complex identity. For some, it is simply about teaching the skills of speaking, based on a narrow reading of Andrew Wilkinson’s original conception (Wilkinson, 1965).  More broadly, as argued in James Mannion’s blog, a case could be made for expertise in spoken communication also involving knowledge, implied, for example, in choices of vocabulary.

So, can we at least agree that oracy is a matter of curricular content?

Well, yes and no. There is a long tradition, as reflected in the National Oracy Project from the late 1980s and the current work of Voice 21, which also treats oracy as process or pedagogy: learning through talk as well as learning to talk. This wider scope leads us from relative consensus around developing confident, articulate speakers towards more contested territory concerning participation and co-constructed knowledge. Amidst the often-binary debates encountered there, it’s worth remembering that learning through talk can shift between dialogic and authoritative approaches, with varying degrees of interaction (Scott, 2008).

Leaving questions of pedagogy to one side, however, I think learning through talk also involves providing contexts for otherwise decontextualized skills of learning to talk.

And this is where I come back to the work of Douglas Barnes. Barnes provides insights into three questions about the content of oracy education that trouble me and perhaps others. In the spirit of valuing teachers’ professional judgment, I frame these questions in terms of principles and not prescription. What principles might:

  1. avoid an arbitrary school-level approach to oracy as a checklist of generic skills to cover?
  2. help teachers decide on oracy teaching points within individual lessons?
  3. guide decisions about what constitutes effective communication, given the need to avoid deficit views of pupils’ linguistic diversity?

Barnes is widely known as the originator of the concept of ‘exploratory’ talk (Barnes, 1976) and an early advocate for the learning potential of tentative, informal modes of talk. A decade later, however, he also put forward a perspective on oracy that seems particularly pertinent now. Perhaps it resonates because Barnes was writing at a comparable threshold moment (due then to the advent of the National Oracy Project) and was alert to the possibilities and pitfalls ahead.

People and purposes

In ‘The Politics of Oracy’, Barnes (1988) shares his fear that oracy education will be decontextualized through the separation of language skills from ‘acting on the world’ meaningfully through talk. He breaks down oracy content into several ‘levels of choice’ to reflect the decisions made by speakers:

A: Context Awareness of situation and relationships
B: Message Constituents of the message
Role choices
C: Speech act Elicit, command, state, etc.
Organisation of information within the utterance
D: Forms 1 Syntax
Choice of words
E: Forms 2 Sound production


This list is a hierarchy, as speech choices at higher levels determine those at lower levels. Form follows purpose.  For their part, teachers may ‘intervene’ (make teaching points) at any of the levels.

Barnes’ terminology here immediately gives me pause for thought.

Speakers in a given context are exercising choices, which might be at ‘high’ levels, such as the conventions of a social situation or ‘low’ levels such as enunciation and vocabulary, while teachers decide at which level to intervene with their focused teaching. The reference to ‘choice’ is a reminder that proficient spoken communication is a matter of judgment and fitness for purpose, while the talk of ‘intervention’ signals the explicit attention to be paid to these often intuitive talk decisions.

Returning to the hierarchy itself, Barnes argues that the greatest impact of oracy teaching will be felt at the high levels of ‘content, situation and purpose’, since decisions made here dictate those made lower down. Put another way, appropriateness of form (largely the physical and linguistic aspects of talk) is context and value dependent. It can only be determined and taught once the purpose and audience for the communication is well understood. In today’s increasingly diverse classrooms, we might add that the cultural context and assets of the learner also need to be well understood from the outset.

Finally, all of this hinges on locating oracy teaching in ‘occasions’ for talk that provide authentic contexts, rather than in ‘pseudo topics’ for talk, and with a changed pattern of teaching across the curriculum, rather than oracy as a discrete subject.

Barnes, then, is arguing for oracy embedded in the curriculum (and ideally real life), through the creation first and foremost of authentic opportunities for meaningful talk. Learning to talk begins with recognising the needs of a communicative situation and making context-appropriate choices so that ‘when we talk, we are conscious of people and purposes, rather than of words and structures’.

Making sense of oracy practice as levels of intervention

Barnes is known for his analysis of classroom interaction so, in the same close-to-practice spirit, I wondered how this model would relate to my observations in both primary and secondary classrooms. Oracy, when referred to explicitly by teachers, seems to appear in three broad guises:

  1. Brief episodes of spoken language are used as rehearsal for a later written ‘main event’, often based on sentence stems or key vocabulary. For example, in Year 8, pupils in English share views on a text through constructions such as, ‘One impression created is…’ In a Year 4 class, children serve and volley words in a virtual tennis game to develop synonyms and rich vocabulary around the topic of Ancient Egypt. Meanwhile, in Year 1 mathematics, subtraction problems are articulated chorally and then individually with a set spoken format, beginning: ‘The whole is…’ Valuable though this may be, this is often rehearsal or consolidation of understanding, rather than an occasion for talk in its own right.
  2. Other brief episodes of spoken language fulfil more distinct oracy learning goals. A Year 11 PSHE whole-class discussion about alcohol and drugs centres on the teacher’s skilled use of follow-ups to promote elaboration, querying and connection. In Year 6, a discussion of a text in English moves between structured small-group discussion to whole-class sharing of the consensus each group has reached. Of course, the widespread use of talk partners is a good example of this too. Here, there is lots of scope for raising awareness of audience and purpose (perhaps shifting from tentative exploration with a familiar partner to a more considered presentation of a coherent idea for the wider class audience) before intervening at the lower levels of content and delivery.
  3. Finally, there are examples that begin at higher levels of decision-making around meaningful contexts for speech. One primary school puts to the pupils the question of whether a school social media account should be created and a formal, well-researched debate to interrogate the pros and cons ensues. In Year 6 mathematics, children are required to record a demonstration of their problem-solving method for peers from another class who have not been part of the lesson. Meanwhile, a Year 9 mathematics lesson centres on pupils in mixed-attainment groups explaining reasoning to one another in order to establish shared understanding for all. These cases might qualify, in Barnes’ terms, as ‘setting up occasions for students to engage through speech with important aspects of the social and physical world’ and are necessary if oracy is to promote real-world agency and empowerment.

In the third category, there is a sustained opportunity for learning that is firmly grounded in the talk. We see a context, a purpose and an audience for talk and the scope to make informed decisions about oracy-specific teaching points. To see how beginning at this high level then gives rise to authentic choices and interventions at lower levels, one more in-depth example might be helpful.

The setting is a Year 6 classroom. Having previously studied energy sources, pupils are exploring, through the interplay of small-group work and whole-class discussion, the possible links between energy and poverty. This is a real-world issue, embedded also in the school’s curriculum. As a multi-faceted and controversial topic, it merits in-depth collaborative exploration from a number of perspectives.

Kate, the teacher, has set this up as an oracy opportunity and begins with an intervention at the level of context and message by discussing with the pupils the genre of talk that they will encounter. They come to understand that there will be challenge and argument but that this is appropriate, given the purpose of their inquiry and that it will be necessary to support arguments with facts drawn from their background knowledge. Based on this context are further levels of teacher intervention, some corresponding to what Barnes calls ‘interactiveness’. Through her invitations to the class, Kate teaches features of debate such as building on ideas with other perspectives, challenging assumptions, elaborating on general points with reference to evidence and changing one’s mind.  Arising naturally from this are other teaching points at the levels of speech act or forms, as she models and notes precise explanations or the phrasing of polite disagreement.

Here, then, we see skilled intervention at a variety of levels but all stemming from initial clarity about people (peers beyond immediate neighbours) and purposes (a collaborative exploration of a complex, real-world topic).

A new perspective on the Oracy Framework

How might Barnes’ focus on contexts and his hierarchical model of talk relate to and inform use of the familiar Oracy Framework, below?

The framework helpfully breaks down the components of spoken language, but the nuanced teaching of each component depend on the ends to which this talk is to be directed. Here the framework, as a tool designed for multiple contexts, is necessarily silent.

Barnes reminds us that this sort of deconstructed content must always be in service of a meaningful purpose for talk. Adopting the broad definition of oracy outlined above, decisions about learning through talk (or other purposes for talk) precede and guide decisions about learning to talk. We can see how Barnes’ work might now imply a guiding principle for how to approach the framework.

Of course, schools are likely already to focus on aspects of the framework based on their own perceived priorities.  However, between school-level goals and individual facets of speech, there is a leap to be made. Developing confident speakers through the framework’s mention of, say, ‘rhetorical techniques’, means first identifying the authentic and varied contexts in which such techniques might be encountered for a given age phase or subject.

Rather than a bottom-up, skills-led approach, it is the strategic identification of occasions for talk, whether small-scale, such as talk partners, or as the central feature of a lesson, which lead to the judicious selection of points to teach or assess. For example, are pupils tentatively exploring ideas for classroom recycling with a familiar partner at their table, or are they presenting a well-formed, persuasive proposal to the governing body as an end product? Understanding the purposes and audiences in these two conceptually related, but linguistically different, talk scenarios opens up the learning about content, register, vocabulary and posture.

Crucially, the lower-level features are not then policed against arbitrary criteria for ‘correctness’ but are evaluated in context. The cultural capital argument for oracy becomes one of empowerment, voice and agency, rather than skilful adoption and perpetuation of the norms of the powerful.

Moving forward

It is sometimes said that education as a discipline lacks a cumulative knowledge base. This feels like a moment to look back as well as forward as we contribute to current debates about the future of oracy education.

Where do Barnes’ arguments leave the questions raised earlier?

  • Oracy does not need to be a discrete subject, or a generic set of skills. It is embedded throughout the curriculum in the form of occasions for talk. It begins with identifying authentic, sometimes subject-specific contexts and purposes for talk (both exploratory and presentational) and not with decontextualised skills to be covered as a checklist.
  • Teachers’ use of the Oracy Framework and other tools to support explicit teaching i therefore not dictated by abstract notions of progression, but by the way that the facets of spoken language serve, well-chosen planned-for purposes in their lessons.
  • A consistent initial focus on contexts, purposes and audience means that judgments at the level of form, including the place of Standard English and the valuing of diverse dialects and accents, are guided by appropriateness for specific situations rather than arbitrary notions of correctness.

Douglas Barnes contends that ’the context for speech should be the whole curriculum’. As a starting point, we can consider what the authentic occasions for spoken language might be within specific subjects or age phases and how we can help young people make linguistic choices rooted in those contexts to equip them to act on the world.


Barnes, D. (1976) From communication to curriculum, Penguin.

Barnes, D. (1988) The politics of oracy, in MacLure, M., Phillips, T. & Wilkinson, A. (eds.) Oracy Matters, Open University Press.

Scott, P. (2008) Talking a way to understanding in science classrooms in Mercer, N. & Hodkinson, S. (eds.) Exploring talk in school, London: Sage:17-36.

Wilkinson, A. (1965) ‘The concept of oracy’, Educational Review, 17(4), 11-15.

3 thoughts on “Speaking with purpose: Douglas Barnes and oracy as ‘acting on the world’”

  1. I think this is a really important blog. It successfully and eloquently rescues versions or perceptions of oracy from much more limited decontextualised exercises in talk skills or from the provision of embedded but largely hidden ‘opportunities’ for talk within the curriculum. Explicit, direct teaching of oracy, based on the Framework, needs to serve authentic purposes and real audiences; as Rupert shows, these exist within the curriculum. In the current debate on oracy, there are some voices that criticise the concept as requiring students to make small tweaks to their language, to ape the language of power, promoting correctness over versatility and diversity. Barnes’ view of oracy as ‘action on the world’ and on ‘working on your understanding through talk’ gives us a different, important and inclusive perspective. Thanks, therefore, for this timely and thoughtful piece that gets the balance right!

    1. Thank you for these comments, Alan. Codification of key concepts like this in policy, curricular documents or resources can give helpful status and make things happen, but can so easily also become reductive and constraining. Hanging on to ‘high level’ thinking about purpose as a starting point seems so important and opens the door to a more powerful, inclusive form of oracy. I only came across this particular piece by Barnes relatively recently, but it really spoke to me and seemed especially relevant for this moment in time!

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