Oracy skills underpin all areas of learning and life – and they certainly shouldn’t be taught only to those who join the school debating club, argues Natasha Goodfellow of the English-Speaking Union. Build oracy into every lesson with these five simple activities – suitable for all learners, phases and subjects.

Think about what you’ve done today. How much time have you spent talking, explaining, listening to deduce meaning or ease conflict? How much time have you spent persuading people to your point of view, or to do something you want doing, versus writing essays or doing maths?

Most communication is verbal, rather than written. And yet oracy receives much less attention in the school curriculum than literacy and numeracy. Even in schools which pride themselves on their oracy results, too often the teaching happens in debate or public speaking clubs as opposed to lesson time.

Why make oracy part of every lesson?

While a lunchtime or after-school club can be a good place to start, participants will generally be self-selecting, precluding many of those who might benefit the most. It’s far better to introduce an oracy element into every lesson.
 
As good teachers know, oracy is about far more than speaking and listening alone. Oracy activities encourage learners to voice and defend their opinions, to think for themselves and to listen critically. And, perhaps most importantly, they build confidence and resilience. However able an individual may be, it’s one thing to argue a point in an essay; it’s quite another to do that in person, in front of an audience, with others picking holes in your arguments, questioning your thought processes or your conclusions. And it’s another leap again to review the feedback and adjust your opinion or calmly concede that you may have been wrong.
 
With regular practice, what might initially seem uncomfortable or impossible is soon recognised as simply another skill to be learnt. Happily, it’s all part of a virtuous circle – the better learners are at speaking, the better their written work will be. The firmer their grip on the facts, the more convincing their arguments. And, ultimately, the more they are challenged and asked to think for themselves, the more rewarding their education will be.
 
Here are five simple oracy activities to incorporate in your daily teaching:

1. Balloon debate 

Display a range of themed prompts on the board. For instance, in chemistry or physics you might choose different inventors; in PSHE you might choose “protein”, “fat” and “sugar”. Ask the class to imagine they are in a balloon which is rapidly sinking and that one person or item must be thrown out of the balloon. Each learner should choose a prompt and prepare a short speech explaining why he/she/it deserves to stay in the balloon. For each of the items listed, choose one learner to take part in the debate. The rest of the class should vote for the winners/losers.

2. Draw a line 

This activity works well for lessons that synthesise knowledge. For example, you may use it to recap a scheme of work. Draw a line on the board. Label it “best to worst”, “most certain to least certain”, or whatever is appropriate. Learners should copy this line so they have their own personal (or small group) version. Introduce items – for example, in geography, different sources of energy; in history, difference sources of evidence. As you discuss each item and recap its main features, learners should place the item on their own personal line. In small groups or as a class, learners can then discuss any disagreements before placing the item on the collective class line on the board.

3. Where do you stand? 

Assign one end of the room “agree” and the other “disagree”. When you give a statement, learners should move to the relevant side of the room depending on whether they agree or disagree. Using quick-fire, true/false questions allows you to swiftly assess understanding of lesson content, while more open questions allow learners to explain and defend their thinking.

4. Talking bursts 

At appropriate points in a lesson, ask individual learners to speak for 30 seconds on a theme connected to the subject in hand. This could be in a colloquial mode – an executioner arguing that hanging should not be banned, for example; or a more formal mode – such as a summary of the history of capital punishment. Begin with your more able learners as a model; soon the whole class will be used to this approach.

5. Praise and feedback 

Finally, make time for praise and feedback – both during oracy activities and as part of general class discussions. Invite comments on how speeches could be improved in future, and recognise and celebrate learners when they make good arguments or use appropriate vocabulary.

Natasha Goodfellow is Consultant Editor at the English-Speaking Union where she oversees the publication of the charity’s magazine, Dialogue, and content on its website. She has worked as an English teacher abroad and is now a writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Sunday Times, The Independent and The Week Junior.

NACE is proud to partner with the English-Speaking Union (ESU), an educational charity working to ensure young people have the speaking and listening skills and cultural understanding they need to thrive. The ESU’s Discover Debating programme, a sustainable programme designed to improve listening and speaking skills and self-confidence in Years 5 and 6, is now open for applications, with large subsidies available for schools with high levels of FSM and EAL. To find out more and get involved, visit www.esu.org/discover-debating

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Date: 
Thursday, February 14, 2019