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Big Changer: Oracy Interview with Will Millard

27 April 2017: posted by BigChange

 This year Big Change have chosen Oracy as one of our outcome areas, to back projects and support advocacy to help the next generation find their voice. But what is Oracy, and why is it important? We sat down with Will Millard, an Associate with LKMco  who has been working with Big Change to research the Oracy space to find out more about why we should all have communication skills at the top of our agenda.

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What is Oracy?

It’s important to be clear what we mean by ‘oracy’. It is about two processes: learning to speak well, to communicate clearly, appropriately and confidently. It is also about learning through talk, by interacting with other people including peers and teachers. Oracy can be subject-specific, helping develop and demonstrate the language associated with a particular topic. But it can also be more ‘generic’ – there are characteristics of good oracy that exist across contexts and subject areas. It goes without saying, but oracy is something not only pupils do, but that we all do – teachers, and all the adults that feature in a young person’s life.

Is being good at Oracy, just about speaking?

Being good at oracy is about talking with clarity, confidence and sensitivity, although it’s not about confidently saying rubbish! It’s more than that. It is about talking with confidence and substance. You need to think and listen, as well as speak. I certainly would not want to give the impression that oracy is just this one-way process of speaking: thinking and listening are critical to it, too.

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So, why does Oracy matter? 

Oracy underpins pupils’ learning, in part because it is the dominant medium we use for teaching. It supports children and young people’s development linguistically, cognitively, socially and emotionally. Therefore, it matters, for schooling, it matters for relationships, it matters for society, and it matters for the economy.

I think it is important to add, too, that there can be a sense that oracy is “caught not taught”. This means that if you are born into the right circumstances, you will develop strong communication skills; if you are not born into those circumstances – well, you won’t, and there is not too much we can do about that. Well, I disagree with that belief. The research indicates oracy is indeed something that can be taught. Therefore oracy is also a matter of social justice and mobility. In seeing oracy as something that is “taught rather than caught” we can help pupils from all backgrounds develop strong spoken communication skills.

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How do you think Oracy can help young people thrive in life not just exams? 

Oracy is important for schooling, and research indicates that high quality classroom talk can have an impact on pupils’ academic outcomes. However, the ability to communicate is also critical for employment prospects. It has social and emotional benefits, which will spill over and help maintain positive relationships, and there are also economic benefits. Importantly, it also has democratic and citizenship benefits – being able to communicate well orally is really critical for being an engaged and critical citizen.

When undertaking LKMco’s research into oracy last year, I had the pleasure of visiting Limpsfield Grange School, which is a Special School in Surrey for girls aged 11 to 16 with autism. The students tend to arrive at the school with high levels of decoding skills, but relatively low levels of emotional comprehension. The work that goes on at the school to support these pupils develop really exceptional levels of oral communication is really staggering. Something really specific that their headteacher Sarah Wild does is to take students to present at conferences with her. Sarah takes small groups of 2 to 4 girls to present at conferences with her, where the pupils talk about their experiences of being female, having autism, and moving through the education system. Sarah talks really passionately about this helping the girls not only develop those spoken communication skills, but also a real sense of civic empowerment, highlighting to them the importance and value of their own voices.

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How do you think good communication skills can have a Big Change on a life of a young person?

Oracy is fundamentally important for giving us an opportunity to attack some of the negative cycles that we see within education. For example, pupils in the mainstream and alternative or special systems with speech, language and communication needs are less likely to fulfill their potential academically at school and, in conjunction, at a higher risk of permanent exclusion and even incarceration later in life.

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Are there any hidden challenges that you think the sector will have to overcome? 

Our research showed that teachers in independent schools tend to place a higher emphasis on the role oracy plays in pupils’ linguistic development than their colleagues in the public sector. My colleagues and I did not find this totally surprising, though we struggled to explain why this would be. Having explored this as part of our research, I think there are two reasons for this: the first is that teachers at independent schools think the curriculum they are imparting to their pupils necessitates a high level of spoken language. Oracy is therefore seen as something that underpins academic success across the board. The second reason is the influence of parents. Teachers told us that parents of children attending independent schools explicitly demand that their children leave school being really confident oral communicators.

I think this is an important dimension for ongoing work in this area. Oracy is something we can teach, and is not purely caught as a happy by-product of circumstance. We want to build on the fantastic work taking place in some state schools across the country, and ensure pupils across the board can develop great oracy.

Will Millard is an Associate at LKMco  where he undertakes research into education and youth policy, and works with a range of organisations to help them develop new projects, and assess and enhance their social impact. To find our more about Oracy and our research, why not check out our Emerging Narrative.