Kimberley Silver works as a Commissioning Editor for Cambridge University Press, based in Mexico. In this article, Kimberley explores the importance of teaching oracy and why we should be focusing on it in the ELT Primary classroom.
Many people assume that oracy skills apply mainly to presentations and public speaking; however, these skills are equally important for collaborative work. Another common assumption is that certain people have a natural talent for oracy while others don’t. By consistently working on oracy skill-building in the Primary classroom, students can make significant progress toward becoming more confident and effective communicators.
What is oracy and why should I focus on it?
Oracy refers to the skills surrounding effective communication—it goes beyond the language we use. People with strong oracy skills are good at persuading others; they listen actively and are successful facilitators and collaborators. They are confident public speakers who connect with their audience. Unsurprisingly, people with these strong skills are natural leaders!
Given the day-to-day realities of a typical Primary English language teacher, the goal of strengthening students’ oracy skills may seem unrealistic and unattainable.
- You may be concerned that your students’ speaking skills in English are not strong enough.
- Perhaps given your tight class schedules and established syllabus, you feel you don’t have adequate time to work on it.
- You may not have any training in oracy and/or you don’t feel confident about your own oracy skills. (Hint: Most of us don’t!)
For these reasons and more, you may be inclined to avoid oracy work altogether. And yet, by brushing oracy aside, you lose a golden opportunity to build your students’ core communication skills, a powerful tool for their future success in the classroom and beyond.
Here are the facts on oracy
- Considering the importance of being an effective communicator, oracy should be considered the equivalent to numeracy or literacy in Primary education—an essential skill to be developed.
- Through regular structured practice, students can improve their oracy.
- Many oracy skills are not dependent on language ability. Your students do not need to be fluent English speakers or even particularly strong speakers to benefit from this focus.
- Oracy skills apply to any language your students speak. The skills learned in English class will be equally useful to your students when they speak in their native language.
- While integrating oracy work into your classes requires some planning and set-up, making space for it in your classroom is neither complicated nor overly time consuming. Work can be done in conjunction with your regular speaking activities, discussions and class presentations.
- You do not need to have strong oracy skills or have specialized training to teach it. By focusing on these skills and working on them regularly with your students, you are likely to find that your own skills improve.
How can I integrate oracy into my classroom?
Here are four steps to integrate targeted oracy work into your English classes.
Step 1: Based on the speaking activity you will cover in class, choose a compatible oracy skill to focus on.
Step 2: Isolate the oracy skill and discuss why it is important. (Depending on the grade level and English level, it may be necessary to do this in your students’ native language.)
Step 3: Set up Ground Rules and carry out the speaking activity within the framework of the oracy skill.
Step 4: Follow up the activity with self- and/or peer-assessment.
#1 Focus on an oracy skill compatible with the speaking activity type
Here are examples of skills that have been extracted from the Cambridge Primary Path Oracy Skills Framework*:
Physical skills: appropriate body movements, projecting your voice, making eye contact.
Cognitive skills: agreeing and disagreeing with the opinions of others, asking questions, structuring your talk.
Social-emotional skills: listening actively, respecting the opinions of others, eliciting contributions from others.
Speaking activity types can be categorized as presentations, collaboration or discussions.
Let´s imagine that after reading a text in English, your students are going to work together in groups to complete a graphic organizer. (This speaking activity type is a combination of collaboration and discussion.) You choose the oracy skill of eliciting contributions from others to complement this activity.
#2 Focus on the oracy skill and establish why it is important
Write the target skill—in this case, “eliciting contributions from others”—on the board. As a class, reflect on what happens when one person or a few people dominate a discussion: what the overall impact is and why it feels uncomfortable. In most cases, when you focus on an example of bad oracy, the importance of the skill quickly becomes apparent.
Encourage them to think about why it is useful to elicit contributions from others and how by doing so, the discussion will be richer and more engaging.
Finally, write some phrases on the board that students can use to elicit contributions from their classmates, for example: What do you think? Do you agree? Why or why not?
#3 Set up Ground Rules to create an oracy context for the activity
Ground Rules are a set of rules that students agree on before doing their speaking activity. Elicit Ground Rules and write them on the board. There are no right and wrong answers when it comes to setting up the Ground Rules for an activity. The key is for the students themselves to decide on the Ground Rules so that they are invested in them.
Here are some examples of Ground Rules for a discussion:
- Listen actively.
- Take turns and don´t interrupt.
- Ask questions if you don’t understand.
- Don´t talk too loudly.
- Respect the opinions of others, even if you don´t agree.
Once the class has established the Ground Rules, you can initiate the speaking activity. Remind students to focus on the target oracy skill of eliciting contributions from others and to use the phrases on the board from Step 2 to encourage their participation.
#4 Self- and peer-assessment: Talking about your talk
An important feature of structured oracy work is a rapid self- or peer-assessment immediately following the speaking activity. The idea is to reflect on the activity in the context of the target skill. There are diverse ways to set this up, but the idea is to get students to reflect on the target skill and the Ground Rules with respect to their own performance, the performance of a partner and/or the performance of the group in general.
The following is a combination of self- and peer-assessment questions that could be applied after the activity that focuses on eliciting contributions from others:
- Did everyone in the group contribute to the discussion?
- Did you encourage someone to participate? How?
- Did someone encourage you to participate? How?
- Did everyone in the group follow the Ground Rules? If not, which Ground Rules were broken?
With a little effort, structured oracy skill-building work can be integrated into the regular speaking activities in your Primary classes. Students will come to understand what it means to be a good communicator and can regularly practice these crucial skills.
*The Cambridge Primary Path Oracy Framework was developed in conjunction with Professor Neil Mercer of the Cambridge University Department of Education.
Look out for Kimberley’s next article in the series coming soon! And in the meantime, why not head over to Neil Mercer and Lyn Dawes’ post on Why putting children in groups doesn’t always work.