What’s the evidence for a focus on oracy?

Oracy is not a ‘new-fangled fad’, say researchers Arlene Holmes-Henderson and Tom Wright, who share evidence-informed approaches to improving oracy in schools
12th July 2023, 12:06pm
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What’s the evidence for a focus on oracy?


Thanks to Sir Keir Starmer’s recent speech outlining Labour’s plans for education, everyone is suddenly talking about “oracy”. What is it? And what’s the evidence that a focus on it can be a good thing?

In the week since Sir Keir’s speech, we have observed people’s reactions to his raising the importance of oracy with interest.

Some argue that oracy is just a “new-fangled” fad and a betrayal of traditional education. Others take the view that it is a regressive return to the days of “elocution”. Then there are those who complain that speaking skills are all very good - but these can’t be fairly taught or assessed.

Our research into oracy policy leads us to challenge each of these assumptions.

1. Oracy is not new

Rather than being a progressive fad, oracy has been a prominent strand of Western education for centuries. We can point to the rhetoric of Aristotle and the oral teaching methods of Ancient Greece and Rome. But a host of major educational thinkers since then, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Lev Vygotsky, have also arrived at the conclusion that learning through talk opens up potential that the acquisition of knowledge alone does not.

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In fact, oracy had something of a moment when mass education began to grow in 1800s Britain. Progressive teachers, particularly in dissenting academies, workers’ societies and the major public schools, embraced talk-based teaching methods. It was only when the governments made the “three Rs” the key definition of state education policy in the 1870s that this was sidelined. From then on, oracy primarily became the preserve of those who could afford to go private.

2. Oracy is not elitist

However, seeing a focus on oracy as forcing us all to mimic posh, white speaking styles misses the point that, at its best, oracy empowers pupils to discover ways of using their own diverse ways of speaking to the best effect.

Dismissing oracy as elitist also misses the point that oracy has often been a grassroots phenomenon. Time and again in British history, marginalised groups have seen boosting powers of advocacy as central to their emancipation. Ask Chartists fighting for the vote in Victorian Manchester, factory girls pushing for women’s rights in 1900s London or racial justice campaigners today and they would tell you that the community groups they set up to become more effective speakers were essential to the success of their political fights.

3. Oracy is worth teaching

Access to high-quality oracy education is currently patchy in the UK, largely because of two key barriers: a teaching workforce who attended school at a time when oracy was not valued; and an assessment framework that doesn’t prioritise oracy approaches.

So, why should school leaders allocate budget to upskilling staff in oracy, if oracy does not carry the currency of assessment?

Evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) demonstrates that focusing on oracy helps pupils to make academic progress. According to the EEF’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit, oral language interventions have an average impact of six months of additional progress.

What would an effective whole-school oracy policy look like?

Oracy might be worth teaching, but what does a focus on it look like in practice?

One approach is to award a teaching and learning responsibility to a member of staff to become the school’s “oracy lead” or “oracy champion”. This role applies across all phases and subjects. Staff who take it on may undertake training or further study to equip them with the knowledge and skills to support colleagues to embed oracy in their classroom practice.

Several state-maintained schools have already taken this step. Other schools, meanwhile, have worked with our Speaking Citizens project or national charities such as Voice 21 or the English-Speaking Union to ensure that all staff receive training.

But how might this work be scaled up, in the event of a major curriculum review? We think there are three possibilities.

1. Extend English hubs

The Department for Education’s English hubs model could be extended to create oracy hubs. Funded by the government but based in communities, these hubs would share their expertise in teaching oracy to support schools in their surrounding area. Given the success of Voice 21’s hub structure, there is a precedent for this approach.

2. Empower subject associations

Subject associations are well-placed to provide CPD for primary and secondary subject specialists. If funding were made available to subject associations, they could certainly develop training and resources to support teachers to embed oracy meaningfully in their subject teaching.

3. Strengthen links between schools and universities

Better collaboration and knowledge exchange between teachers and university researchers will lead to evidence-based practice and new cross-phase oracy research.

To support oracy teaching in schools, universities might consider offering part-time master’s degrees in oracy education. A National Professional Qualification in oracy would also help teachers to focus on making their (and colleagues’) pedagogy more effective, while raising awareness of current research and international best practice.


Ultimately, there is no “quick fix” here. But with the right support from the government, schools can adopt a bold, yet practical approach to oracy that maximises its emancipatory potential.

Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson is an associate professor of Classics and ancient history at Durham University and Dr Tom Wright is a reader in rhetoric at the University of Sussex

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