The UK needs to provide explicit teaching of speaking skills in schools to raise the profile of “oracy” to the same level as numeracy and literacy.
“If we are to break down the barriers that stop many young people succeeding, then we need an education system that teaches our children to be articulate and confident”. Harvard educator Eric Mazur vocalised one of the greatest flaws in our current assessment-driven education model; that we are preparing our students to pass tests only for them to “fail at life”. Outside of education, in what other context do students find themselves sat alone in a large hall, separated by equal spaces from those around them, prohibited from communicating with others or voicing their ideas?
We need to start equipping students with the skills necessary for success outside of the educational sphere, speaking skills being arguably amongst the most important across multiple contexts: Employment Communication, interpersonal skills and teamwork are consistently ranked in the top five skills most valued by employers.
Schools have perhaps afforded less importance to speaking skills because they are not deemed to directly contribute to a student’s attainment of the all-important A*-C grades. However, good communication skills have benefits across all subject areas, with students able to use their oracy skills to meaningfully peer critique, debate and present their work to others.
Not only do good language and communication skills have universal value for employment and act as a mechanism for improving metacognition, oracy skills are the vital components in forming friendship networks and negotiating social experiences.
However, despite the evident importance of communication skills, research conducted by the charity ICAN has found that many young people lack the language and communication skills needed for adulthood.
There is more to this skills gap than meets the eye. It is a profound socioeconomic problem, with an overwhelming 50% of young people from areas of disadvantage suffering from language delay. This has “implications for the potential long-term outcomes for these children and their ability to exploit the curriculum and to flourish as individuals”.
Speaking in Schools
Unfortunately for many students, home does not always provide a supportive environment for promoting talk and therefore schools are the medium through which this socioeconomic divide should be addressed. After all, young people spend the majority of their waking hours at school, and it is therefore important that schools act as facilitators for talk, with the positive influence of staff and peers as well as an engaging curriculum providing an opportunity for students to learn how to express themselves and communicate with others appropriately.
However, schools are currently doing very little to promote speaking skills. On average, teachers do 90% of the talking with individual students saying approximately four words per lesson; the idea that if students are talking they are not learning is unfortunately still prevalent. The removal of the speaking and listening element from the English GCSE has further compounded this issue; teachers have increasing pressure to ensure achievement in written exams and there is currently little incentive for schools to prioritise speaking skills.
Fortunately, there is an increasing awareness of the need for intervention in this area. However, current provision is inadequate and far from universal, tending to focus on targeted interventions for students suffering with Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN). Interventions are most common at primary school level yet many children slip through the net and therefore suffer throughout their secondary school education. All students should benefit from a focus on improving oracy, not just the most vulnerable.
Private school domination
On the other side of the educational spectrum are independent schools, renowned for embedding oracy skills into the school culture, building their students’ confidence and equipping them with the communication skills necessary for future success.
In response to the consistent domination of independent schools in national public speaking competitions, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan recently stated that “it simply cannot be the case that the only young people able to stand up and argue their corner are the 7% of pupils educated in private school”.
Private schools shouldn’t lower their standards. Conversely, to bridge the socioeconomic divide, measures should be put in place to provide structured support enabling state schools to teach a broad spectrum of speaking skills to all students.
Organisations such as the English Speaking Union, and initiatives such as Debate Mate are doing excellent work to support an increasing focus on public speaking skills in the state sector. However, if we are to truly address the deficiency of speaking skills they should not merely be an addendum to an existing PSHE curriculum or an optional after school club.
Complemented by its implementation across school culture, oracy can be used as a tool to unlock learning across all subjects. Students need discrete oracy lessons, providing them with a supportive environment in which they can learn and hone the skills necessary for successful communication across a variety of contexts.
This should be a call to action. It is our responsibility as teachers to ensure that all students leave school with the confidence and communication skills to compete and thrive, not merely survive in the increasingly international world in which we live.
The nation needs young people who have the confidence to use their voice, who are eloquent and can communicate their ideas; young people need teachers who are prepared to support them to improve their speaking skills and in order to achieve this, teachers will need oracy to become an educational priority.
It is a positive sign that we are starting to see speaking skills creeping up the educational agenda. However, the irony of the matter is that we need politicians to spend less time talking about talk and more time transforming words into actions.
Having qualified as a modern languages teacher and became frustrated with the results driven nature of education, Holly now works at the 21 Trust, working in close partnership with School 21 in Stratford, East London. You can contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow the Trust’s work on Twitter: @21trustedu