How Can Oracy Help Me, A Teacher?

MAY 18, 2023


The bell rings for the last period of the day at our highschool when students enter my class, bringing in loud hallway merriment, weekend stories and schoolyard gossip. Quickly though the chatter softens to whispers as students begin on the bellwork of the day. Based on the novel we are currently reading, the bellwork (work students do as they come into class when the bell rings), helps them remember yesterday’s lesson and becomes the starting point in today’s group discussions. As everyone silently rereads their notes to complete bellwork, my mind travels to a few students who I know will prefer staying quiet during the upcoming group interactions. How do the lively chatterers turn into shy and silent group members? Why is talk so much more challenging within the classroom walls?

Stepping into high school seems akin to stepping through the door to Narnia, where students once confident to share their ideas become weighed down by the evil witch of Peer Pressure. Places and faces they have known for several years have become bigger and louder, and somehow more threatening. In this new context, talking is not just communicating ideas, but a social display of an identity which students are shaping on the go. So an oracy task like expressing points of view to convey possible text meanings, inadvertently plays into developing self-esteem, self-image, and acceptance. This added strain will affect how my students display their oracy skills in class, and I want to know how I can help them overcome this perceived shyness and instead communicate with ease.

Though what is oracy anyway? And how come I never knew about it? For various reasons, new terms in education take their time reaching the classroom, though many teachers like myself never come across the term oracy during our teacher training either. At the same time, professional development can be time-consuming on a teacher’s already charged schedule, and with the best of intentions it can be challenging to keep up with educational terminology.

The year is 1965 in the UK, and the term is coined by Andrew Wilkinson, who laments that only reading and writing are taken seriously when it comes to formal evaluations. It was clear students’ classroom talk was a space of discovery and learning, yet there was no teaching or evaluating framework for “general talking skills.” Nothing was available in educational research at the time either. For the past six decades, oracy has followed a slow trajectory from Wilkinson’s idea of “classroom talk” to encompass skills and processes of talking and listening that help students in and through their learning.

That sounds like a useful term in an English Language Arts class, but what is the relation between oracy and the Talk Competency (QEP, 2001)? The Talk Competency is oracy. Oracy is the Talk Competency. And more. In the vein of Wilkinson’s (1965) vision, oracy elevates the status of talk to that of reading and writing, to equate it with terms like literacy and numeracy. Oracy sees English Language Arts classrooms as dialogic places of exploratory discussions, proposing teachers approach talk differently.

So maybe the biggest difference is in how Talk is seen and evaluated. The Talk Competency (QEP, 2001) details final outcomes and desirable student actions during interaction or production of spoken texts, which could be why traditionally  presentational talk dominates as the type of talk that is valued and evaluated, while exploratory talk takes a back seat. Both types of talk are important and have their place in the curriculum, and the skills showcased in the oracy tools are inherent in all types of talk.

The Talk competency also describes the outcomes a proficient student will achieve by the end of each cycle. Oracy does not stray away from these outcomes, but switches the perspective from final evaluations to formative, organizing the talk skills inherent in all three ELA programs into four categories so that teachers can easily see what students need to become efficient and effective communicators. In the Oracy Skills tool, the four different sets of skills must be explicitly taught and practiced. This shifts the focus away from final outcomes, rubrics and evaluations to more formative ways of seeing talk. Teachers are invited to plan classroom talk tasks keeping in mind that oracy involves physical, linguistic, cognitive and socio-emotional skills which students will need to be taught and coached through in various contexts. Thus oracy offers the formative tools to teach towards the Talk Competency.

Documents like the Oracy Skills Tool and the Oracy Continuum were developed to help teachers visualize that students can use all four strands of skills during a small group discussion. Seeing talk as a series of distinct though connected academic skills that students do not pick up on their own and that do not always develop naturally gives teachers the affordance to scaffold their instruction to progressively teach different aspects of oracy. We might pick up our first language by imitating others, but the thought process of talking to an audience, even that of a small group of colleagues, needs to be shown, modeled and practiced. This approach gives the teachers a more hand-on-the-wheel approach. Once the skills are taught, practiced and acquired, only then can the teacher step back into a facilitating role.

The five minutes of bellwork have passed and it is time for the students to engage in today’s discussion. As they settle into a routine of acknowledging the other members of the group and addressing the discussion topic: Why is our protagonist keeping a journal?, I walk around the room taking mental notes of where on the Oracy Continuum some of my quiet participants are. 

The group discussions begin and I am happy to see that several students are making use of the talk moves and sentence stems we practiced in order to expand their conversational repertoire. In class, it is easy to spot when students access the linguistic aspects of oracy and use their words to engage the audience and provoke a response:

“We’re talking about Steve’s choice to keep a journal…I mean he could have written just the script. I think that means he wants to show…like really show you… how he feels about the accusations made against him.” 

While I’m proud to see this developed introduction, I look to see if students elicit a response or simply move on to the next idea. The fact that in some groups students begin to take turns debating the character’s choice to keep a journal shows me that those students have consolidated social skills of listening and interacting purposefully.

Still some students struggle to make their voices heard, speaking softly, leaning on their chairs or hiding their mouths behind their palms while their group mates stampede from one idea to the other, struggling to pace each other. 

(van der Veen et al., 2017)

The walls are plastered with posters about voice and body language, the physical aspects of oracy, though it takes time to break ingrained habits. It comes easier for peers to be the reminding force: 

“Wait, what? Please repeat louder. I couldn’t hear what you said. I think I agree but …mmm…not sure I heard it right.”

I cannot ignore the fact that much of the intimidating part of any group discussion is that students know school work eventually gets graded by the teacher. And when it comes to evaluation, the cognitive skills will show if the students have really grasped the content.

As the discussions continue, the quieter voices tentatively ask questions and offer examples. Others, more confidently consider different perspectives and try to sift through what they know about the story for pertinent information. Students have already seen me model a think-out loud on why our protagonist might have chosen to write about past memories. In a similar fashion, we practiced together how to explain, defend and support why he might have chosen to write parts of the book as a script. It is important now that they practice expressing and defending their own viewpoints, and that they do so for an audience of peers who might counter with different perspectives.

Seen at the end of the activity, today’s talk task feels like an overload on the students’ working memory, their ability to remember information temporarily. This is why it is important to mention students had practice with the background knowledge needed for this discussion: judicial terms, proceedings in a court of law, clarifying the relationships between characters and even the plot and timeline of the story. Without this preparatory work, especially lots of retrieval practices related to the new vocabulary, today’s discussion would have been too demanding, tempting students to move quickly onto the easier discussion topics of the schoolyard drama.

Up on the wall, the four strands of the Developmental Continuum of Oracy Skills serve as reminders that oracy skills develop on a continuum, and that students will find themselves at different places depending on the task and sometimes depending on the day. As a teacher I need this tool to ground my planning and instruction. It is a bonus that the oracy continuum charts are also a visual for the students, reminding them that their oracy skills are anchored on the task at hand and continuously developing. 

I try to stay away from any reader response questions when I plan an oracy mini-lesson and I make sure students know the task will not be followed by a written assignment. Reader response has become rather formulaic over the years given the way it is often evaluated. The unfortunate side effect is that it has reduced response to four distinct categories that are presented and evaluated through a written production. They are nonetheless categories that teachers would hope a discussion of text would naturally tend towards - discussing the big ideas, the author’s craft or think critically about a text, and making connections that allow them to really dig in. However, students often heavily rely on the written structure and terminology of the reader's response and focus their discussion solely on the subsequent task of writing. They might not perceive their conversation as scripted, though it will be heavily conditioned by the elements of the response task. With blinders on, students will begin the conversation with: What’s the meaning? and will continue with making connections, author’s craft, and judgment. Discussion is how we move from these silos of thought that students cover in their writing.

Without that clear distinction between competencies, we risk imagining that there is a smooth transition between talk, reading and writing. For the novice, the struggle to transition from one to the other is evident in the classroom silences. Often students struggling with what to say and how to express themselves will prefer to be cautious and remain silent. Instead of relegating the silence to shyness and self-esteem issues, I try to keep the instructions simple, building oracy skills up, from where students currently are, and giving them the tools to climb the oracy scaffold. 

Using the oracy continuum and deliberately thinking about explicit ways to teach has not been an easy shift for me. I used to think I needed to be a facilitator and move out of the student's way; discovery learning had become a second skin. It has taken conscious practice to find the balance, one I often catch myself having to relearn. 

And it catches me by surprise at the end of today’s activity as well. It is time to wrap up the lesson and synthesize the various viewpoints. The moment I begin to talk, hands shoot up in anticipation, ready to share, but I have learnt my lesson and steer clear of the hand-up syndrome. The same hands come up, and often the same voices speak first in small group discussions. In a large class, especially when one might have to also address behavior mishaps, it is very easy to call on the same students who enjoy participating. The cold-calling practice can even out this imbalance: the teacher controls who answers and students learn to accept and expect that the question the teacher asks is for all students, and that any student might be called on to answer. 

I used to think this was a cruel way to make students speak in class, but I have been convinced otherwise. All my students have the right to make their voice heard and I make sure I keep track of them having the opportunity because class time is limited. I keep a jar of popsicle sticks with student’s names to ensure no one gets forgotten. In today’s case, all students have taken notes on various viewpoints so no one is caught empathy-handed. The challenge I offer them is to present a viewpoint that is different from theirs, and a quiet whisper from behind a popsicle stick goes: 

“I originally thought Steve wanted to have a safe space to share how scary prison was, I mean especially at night, but …but then you said…[points to team-member]. Maybe not. He was given [soft but clear emphasis on the two words] the notebook. So maybe the defense lawyer…she gave him the notebook…she wanted to have a way to communicate with him. He could write things that he could not tell [the emphasis is in gestures this time] her. It’s hard to say things out loud sometimes. His lawyer has a lot of power and he might be intimidated…. Think that could be true too, but we did not finish the book, so…”


Van der Veen, Chiel & Oers, Bert & O'Connor, Catherine & Michaels, Sarah & Chapin, Suzanne & Harbaugh, Allen & Mey, Langha & van Kruistum, Claudia & Kumpulainen, Kristiina & Rajala, Antti & Forman, Ellice & Ramirez-DelToro, Virginia & Brown, Lisa & Passmore, Cynthia & Wegerif, Rupert & Fujita, Tara & Doney, Jonathan & Linares, Julieta & Richards, Andrew & Liberali, Fernanda. (2017). Classroom dialogue and learning outcomes. Learning and Instruction. 48. 1-70.

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

Gianina Milea is a Ph.D student and secondary Cycle 1 English Language Arts teacher in Québec. She spends most of her time wandering with her dog and getting lost in books. Professional wonderings include: How do we read? What makes us good readers? How do we teach others to be good readers? And, what do we do when our students have not learned to read? 


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