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.
LITERACY TODAY IS UNDERSTANDING THE WORD AND THE WORLD.
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