Case study: Teaching oracy skills

Written by: Lucy Cherry | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Oracy has been identified as a key post-lockdown priority. One school is working closely with Shakespearean actors to boost children’s speaking skills. Lucy Cherry explains

“Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 3.

This year the English department at Kings College in Guildford has been working hard to ensure that we have a strong focus on oracy. We believe that it is imperative that students learn not only to express themselves through writing but through speech too.

As English teachers it is our job to ensure that students leave Kings at the age of 16 with the confidence and vocabulary to express themselves no matter what the situation. We need to make sure that they leave school versed in how to communicate, not just in a casual and conversational way – as they may chat with their friends – but in a professional manner, with an understanding on how to use language that is appropriate according to the setting.

I often remind my classes – when they complain about reading aloud – that it is good preparation for the inevitable point in the future when they will have to give a speech, make a point in a presentation, or speak up well at interview.

We need to recognise that glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, is something which affects many people. We need to help students with this “performance anxiety” as early as possible if we do not want them to be put off forever.

We are lucky at Kings College to have a close relationship with the Guildford Shakespeare Company (GSC) and we have worked together to create and run oracy workshops with our students.

Studying and hearing Shakespeare’s words is a fantastic way for children to begin to understand great oratory. Working with the GSC means students can access Shakespeare through drama – the way we are all meant to enjoy it – which makes his language less daunting.

In class, we asked students to write their own speeches in the style of some of Shakespeare’s best-known ones, such as Hamlet’s To be or not to be? The children based their speech on a topic they felt passionate about – one focused on the dilemma of whether to finish their homework or play a video game – and the GSC actors helped to bring their writing to life.

The GSC actors performed the speeches the students had written to illustrate to them the importance of delivery. First, they performed the words poorly, in quiet voices with uncomfortable pauses and fidgeting. Though the children found this comical, it was an effective way to demonstrate how not to make a great speech. After this, we worked with the students on how they could present their speeches effectively, focusing particularly on confidence in delivery.

By asking the children to choose their own topics, we ensured they were invested in building a creative and persuasive argument. One of the key capabilities we are trying to instil is how to influence others by making them care about what you care about. After all, if the speaker does not care, why should anyone else?

Of course, not every school is fortunate enough to have a fabulous band of community-minded thespians on their doorstep, but action can still be taken to help children develop their oracy skills.

The Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) recently published a report after its Speak for Change inquiry outlining some steps that schools can take to improve oracy skills in their students (2021; see also SecEd, 2021).

The report recommended that schools consider appointing an oracy lead who is responsible for implementing and monitoring provision. However, it is not just the job of the teachers who teach the traditional “wordy” subjects to improve oracy, it must be a whole-school drive.

We recently moved to an all-school approach of teaching new vocabulary to classes. Now, in every class there is a new-word slide where students are taught a definition, given an example sentence and are taught how to pronounce the word. The consistency of this method ensures students are not just learning new vocabulary effectively in each subject but are also learning how to use these words out of the classroom.

It is vital that the teaching of oracy skills is done intentionally and purposefully. Businesses often report that young people leaving school are not equipped with the skills they need for the world of work – and a key skill is speaking. It is not enough to be able to put your thoughts down on paper, you need to be able to make arguments verbally and in a persuasive manner.

It is clear that children have lost a lot during the pandemic, not just in terms of academic advancement but also in confidence. Encouraging children to communicate their thoughts and feelings effectively will be key in bringing their oracy development back on track.

I hope in the years to come children who have benefited from the focus on oracy at Kings are able to speak-up on behalf of themselves, others and the causes they believe in. 

  • Lucy Cherry is an English and drama teacher at Kings College in Guildford, which is part of GEP Academies.

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