Like, yeah, oracy well needs more emphasis

17th February 2012 at 00:00

You know how it's, like, so annoying when you're there, right, and there are, like, these two teenagers and he's all "Well, like, yeah ." so she goes "What are you saying?" and he's, like, "Yeah, but, y'know", you know?

It is easy to mock young people for being inarticulate. Concern about school leavers' speaking skills dates back centuries - long before the word "like" had become a linguistic virus and well before Henry Higgins wondered "Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?"

In AD95, the rhetorician Quintilian called on schools in Rome to ensure that, above all else, they helped pupils to become good orators. Yet nearly two millennia later, schools in England teach a curriculum that gives little weight to speaking.

Thankfully, the national curriculum review group has revealed that this is one of the biggest problems it plans to target, so we can expect to see a greater focus on oracy in schools from 2014 (see pages 4-7).

At first, this will appeal to traditionalists. Boris Johnson dressed up in a toga when he pressed the case for Classics teaching and it is easy to imagine him donning the same costume to champion the ars rhetorica. Projects such as the Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge, which helps young people learn to be public speakers and compete with each other, certainly deserve all the support schools can give.

However, oracy is a bigger matter than being persuasive in speeches and debates. It is a crucial life skill. It is fundamental to employment, relationships, social mobility and how we structure thought.

So why have past attempts to promote it in schools failed? One reason is that it can mean letting pupils talk more and teachers less. This is where the traditionalists sit up, alarmed. Much more reassuring to return to the comfort zone of the 3 Rs. So reading, writing and `rithmetic still dominate primary school tests and league tables today, giving teachers little incentive to focus on spoken English.

The curriculum review provides an unmissable opportunity to give oracy the emphasis it deserves. It needs to happen, like, now - y'know?

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw

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