Upgrading oracy: placing ‘spoken delivery and response’ at the heart of the curriculum

by Alan Howe

Image: Glossophobia, by Alyssa Carruba (Flickr: sirenstaff)


“I’m boring.”

“I sound terrible.”

These are two responses from adults when watching themselves speaking on video. I suspect they are fairly typical reactions.

Depending which surveys you read (and believe), somewhere between 25%-60% of adults say that they have a fear of speaking in public, more than are afraid to go to the dentist [1] or, in one survey from 1973, even of death! [2] There’s a name for the severe form of this: Glossophobia.  Some psychologists argue that the fear is deep-seated, and is linked to an instinctive fear of ostracism from the safety of the group: step outside and you are isolated, exposed to danger, and risk being hunted down by a wealth of larger predators. But even if we don’t suffer from the phobia, many of us are familiar with the feeling of heightened anxiety associated with speaking in front of an audience, especially when the stakes are high, for example: when talking about a topic for the first time; to a large, unknown audience; or to an audience of known peers.  We may worry about being judged (both on what we say but also because of how we sound).  The knowledge that everyone is watching, waiting on your next words, can be debilitating. Or simple lack of experience may make the demands of the context seem overwhelming.  It’s this last reason that I’m interested in exploring here, and how it might be directly related to the way that experience of  ‘public speech’ is limited earlier in our lives by what happens in classrooms.

In a recent piece for the daily online magazine of academic articles The Conversation, [3] Martin Goodman, Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Hull, wrote about attending a reading by the authors who were shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. He made one interesting observation which got me reflecting on something that’s troubled me, on and off, for a while:

‘In Britain, you can coax the occasional creative writing student into a soft-voiced reading, but most hate the prospect. On the other hand, writing classes in the US have spoken delivery and response at their core.’

According to Goodman, the shortlisted Americans delivered readings that were lively, characterful and expertly ‘voiced’, as did the eventual winner, the Irish writer Anna Burns. By contrast, the English writers were less assured in their spoken delivery.

Recently I’ve been present at several semi-formal public occasions when, although ‘spoken delivery and response’ was important, participants appeared to ‘hate the prospect’, or at least appeared indifferent to the need to speak well. Here are two examples:

  • An event at a local Art Gallery. Four artists  (three British and one Canadian) were interviewed about their travelling exhibition. Their responses were characterised by painful silences, comments and eye contact directed at the interviewer rather than the audience. It was almost as if the artists saw no value in preparing what they were going to say in advance; or in recognising that most of those attending were eager to learn about processes, techniques and stories associated with the artworks. (The Canadian artist was an exception to this).
  • A Fairtrade event to thank a local group for funding they’d raised, and to introduce a coffee grower from Tanzania who had benefitted, along with his extended family and village, from being part of the scheme. The local mayor who introduced the event, and the UK Fairtrade ambassador who used slides to present the ‘story’ of Fairtrade were both too softly-spoken and seemingly unaware of the need to organise or structure what they said for those attending. In contrast, the Tanzanian farmer, speaking in his second language, was a delight: forthright, interesting and above all audible!

As suggested by Professor Goodman, a possible reason for the difference between the successful novelists at the Booker Prize event may be due to the explicit profile given to ‘spoken delivery and response’ as a part of creative writing classes in the US – or, the lack of such attention in the UK. I suspect, however, that the real reasons may lie more deeply and widely within the culture, and especially the culture of school classrooms. This has made me wonder:

  • If I’m just being hypercritical – not everybody is confident enough to submit themselves to talking in public, and why should that be an issue?
  • Is there an element in English culture that leads to such reticence to embrace what’s needed to talk and respond well in public? I have discussed this with a number of friends and colleagues and several told me how, when they were at school, they regarded displaying confidence and skill in speaking publicly as ‘showing off’. Others commented on their unwillingness to reveal their voice in such semi-formal, public situations: “I prefer to avoid having to talk in these kinds of situations if I possibly can.”
  • Maybe part of the problem is that there aren’t enough good role models – people who are adept at the skills needed to talk well to unfamiliar audiences? Or perhaps the role models that do exist convey the wrong impression, with displays of glib fluency, or shallow verbosity (“You sound like you’ve swallowed a dictionary!”). Perhaps verbal dexterity is regarded with suspicion as a consequence?
  • I also wonder whether some don’t value, or haven’t worked sufficiently on the skills necessary to talk and respond effectively in public contexts, instead thinking: “Oh, I’ll get by…” Maybe too much reliance is placed on ‘natural talent’, rather than the need to work on one’s skills. After all, if you can talk, then you can give a talk, surely? There isn’t the same discipline and rigour applied to conveying ideas in speech as there would be to writing them down.
  • Perhaps there is also the fear of not being able to find the right words; of stumbling and risking embarrassment? Storyteller Ben Haggarty taught me a most valuable lesson when I was starting out as a storyteller myself, learning how to handle a complex, long oral narrative: “You don’t need to remember the words – focus on images, on ‘seeing’ the story as it unfolds and the words will find themselves.” He has been a great role model because of the way he demonstrates how, as long as you ‘know’ and can ‘see’ the story, can ‘live’ inside it, then you will be able to adapt, embellish, respond, or play with pause and pace so that your listeners are also drawn inside the verbal world you are creating. The words look after themselves.
  • Perhaps what’s happening in the examples above is that the speakers have not sufficiently recognised that they need to prepare, or ‘pre-set’ themselves, not by scripting what they are going to say, but by asking themselves: “What do my listeners/audience need to know? What focus do I need to give to what I say?”

Well… maybe there is a grain of truth in all of the above… as well as more than a grain of my own prejudices and grumpiness about what I consider to be a too-casual approach to conveying ideas and engaging others through using your voice, your physical self, and the resources of the language in an effective way.  But above all, I wonder whether, despite the rising tide of interest in oracy as a set of skills to be explicitly taught in schools, (not forgetting significant previous attempts to raise the status of oracy since the word was invented in 1965), the biggest problem lies in what happens to talking and listening in classrooms?

I’d be really interested to know:

  • What proportion of time, between the ages of 5-18, do children typically spend taking ‘long turns’ in talk (e.g. giving explanations or elaborating on ideas; justifying a view; presenting some findings; telling a complete narrative; reading something they have written aloud; preparing, rehearsing and delivering a public reading from a book they are studying; reading aloud from a text book – and so on)? In other words, how much time do children spend being required to use the spoken word in extended ways, in semi-public situations, to engage, interest and respond to others?
  • How much attention do teachers give to explicitly teaching the skills needed to do so effectively?

Is there something about English culture that downgrades and possibly devalues ‘public speaking’?  (I’m not certain that there is, although it’s a question worth facing a bit more openly). If there is, then it probably requires a more direct effort in schools to counter the ‘natural’ reticence, shyness or acceptance of mediocre delivery that seems to be prevalent. Specifically, is there something within English classroom culture that places too little emphasis and value on speaking clearly, audibly, cogently, confidently, at some length: about ideas, experiences and learning that students are engaged in? There are exceptions, of course: students who flower into great eloquence when they are given the opportunity and the right kind of ‘press’ on their language so that it rises to the occasion. But how can the exception become the rule?

In considering this I decided to look again at Robin Alexander’s mammoth comparative study of five different cultures in his book ‘Culture and Pedagogy’. [4] I recommend the complete book, although at 600 pages it’s a long read. Part V: ‘Reflections’ contains Alexander’s conclusions about the effect of differences in teaching in India, Russia, France, Michigan USA and England on the nature of classroom discourse. I will restrict myself to a few key extracts:

In Russia:

“…we saw how teachers ‘ collective pedagogical theorising emphasised the scaffolding function of interrogatory classroom discourse, and how in practice,  teachers implemented this by working publicly on the understandings of individual children” (italics added).

In England:

“…we saw no examples of initiation into expertise…except at the lowest level of imitation without engagement, skill or independent judgement such as can be all too often observed in ill taught music or art lessons.”

“We saw… pedagogic interaction and discourse in English classrooms, across all subjects, (which) has a very different dynamic from that which we observed in France and Russia. It is relatively informal, conversational, unstructured and above all private. There is little attention to precision and appositeness in the forms of oral expression which children learn to use…”

“Children and teachers talk but do not communicate…”

Alexander highlights what he calls ‘episodic’ lesson structures (which he observed working most effectively in Russia) where children are led through a disciplined structure, based on teacher-student dialogue,  towards knowledge and understanding. In the process, students are taught to explore and develop a shared intellectual vocabulary and linguistic structures. Alexander calls for a much more disciplined approach to spoken language in English classrooms so that children become aware of its possibilities, not just for communication and social expression, but also for empowerment.

How can people be helped to overcome their inability, or unwillingness, to exercise their voices in public, and instead to call on the spoken language skills needed to rise to the demands of the occasion?  The public speaking industry is full of handy guides, coaches, remedies and “5 simple ways” to overcome the fear that so many adults suffer from. However, I suspect that these attempt to address the symptoms of the issue, rather than tackling it at source. The answer, I would suggest, lies in ‘upgrading oracy’ at all levels in education, and especially in changing the patterns of discourse in the classroom – so that from an early age, children engage in fewer random, brief exchanges and experience opportunities for more sustained ‘long turns’. I understand and support the calls for introducing children to more formal debates, and to finding ways of teaching oracy skills in addition to what happens elsewhere in the school curriculum. But simply making oracy an additional subject won’t get to the root of the problem.

Many years ago, Douglas Barnes called for schools to engage in what he called “alternative patterns of communication” in the classroom. [5] I take this to mean not just re-adjusting the proportions of teacher and student talk, but also ensuring that, as far as possible, classroom discourse should mirror the kinds of ways in which people talk and listen in life outside school. That should include plenty of supported opportunities for children and young people to learn how to, for example, convey and defend a complex or contentious idea; provide an extended account of an activity they have been engaged in; or hold a group of listeners spellbound as they unfold a story. These opportunities need to occur as part of the curriculum, rather than as an ‘add on’. This will then be a genuine ‘initiation into expertise’ – through talk, but also in talk. As a result, there’s a chance that, in later life, the opportunity to ‘go public’ will be relished, rather than hated.


[1] Tsaousides, T. (2017) Why Are We Afraid of Speaking in Public? Psychology Today, November.

[2] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271993200_Is_Public_Speaking_Really_More_Feared_Than_Death. The findings of the survey were reported in Spectra (Speech Communication Association, 1973): The rank order of fears reported is as follows: Speaking before a group, 40.6%; Heights, 32.0%; Insects and Bugs, 22.0%; Financial problems, 22.0; Deep water, 21.5%; Sickness, 18.8%; Death, 18.7%; Flying, 18.3%: Loneliness, 13.6%; Dogs, 11.2%; Driving or riding in a car, 8.8%; Darkness, 7.9%; Elevators, 7.6%; Escalators, 4.8%.

[3] theconversation.com is an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public.

[4] Alexander, R. (2000) Culture and Pedagogy, International Comparisons in Primary Education. Blackwell.

[5] Barnes, D. (1976) From Communication to Curriculum. Penguin.

1 thought on “Upgrading oracy: placing ‘spoken delivery and response’ at the heart of the curriculum”

  1. Excellent article.

    There are deep seated cultural reasons that hold us back from putting ourselves forward…

    Part of the problem is the way that ‘public speaking’ is being pushed as an end in itself, which can put people off… when the real secret to success is to forget yourself and focus on the audience’s needs, as in the case of the Tanzanian farmer – great anecdote.

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