Time to bring back oracy!

Thanks to Ruth Lingard (@YorkClio), Head of History at Millthorpe School in York for this blogpost. Ruth is laying down a challenge to us all to refocus on oracy. Our primary colleagues do this in history. Our colleagues in independent schools do this in history. How might we be short-changing our students if oracy is not at the heart of all historical learning in schools?

Last year my school kindly gave me the role of lead teacher to promote student’s oracy. It has led me to spend quite a lot of time thinking about what oracy ‘looks like’ in other subjects and the results have been quite surprising.

Ok. I know I am going to provoke howls of rage here but history, RE, geography and English seem to be the only subjects who spend any significant time developing their students’ oracy, and even then, it is often nudged aside in favour of the serious business of teacher led talk and knowledge retrieval. I have no problem with knowledge rich curricula, it is of course impossible to debate a historical topic without factual knowledge. However, it cannot be denied that even in history the focus on oracy has dropped off over recent years. 

Why is this?

In 2001 Teaching History had a whole edition devoted to the topic of Talking History. (TH105) If you have the time, it is worth reading. I found Ian Luff’s article ‘Beyond “I speak, you listen boy!” exploring diversity of attitudes and experiences through speaking and listening’ fascinating. Luff’s lesson lesson plan gets students to role play historians, to discuss contemporary attitudes to an event through source analysis and to role play different perspectives from the time. 

As I read I found myself wondering, is this a lesson plan that would be written today? Probably not! Why? Because it is more risky than getting students to do retrieval practice from knowledge organisers?  Because teachers can never be sure what a student might say and thus fear losing control? Because it is not assessed in the same way as writing is and therefore perceived to be less important? Because it leads to historical inaccuracy and misconceptions? 

Luff rightly recognises that poorly planned speaking activities can lead to ‘historical sloppiness’ and reflects that modelling (before it became a ‘thing’) is the best way to get students better at speaking with clarity and making points that are historically valid. So let’s not chuck out Luff’s baby with the bathwater here. The article may be written in a different time, but it has timeless wisdom. At the start of the article Luff sets out why he believes that oracy is so important in the history classroom. I have paraphrased his points below because I challenge you to find one that does not still hold true for teaching in 2022.

We need students to develop speaking and listening because:

  • It provides an exchange for existing ideas and a rapid incubator for new ones.
  • It hardens student’s half formed ideas and is an incentive for thought.
  • It allows the quick absorption of ideas and quick formation of counter arguments.
  • It helps students recognise that there are diverse interpretations of the past.
  • It can build the confidence of all students but especially those who struggle with writing.
  • It provides an opportunity for self expression and independent thought.
  • It’s a great way to revise. 

It seems to me that, as part of our post covid recovery, the role of oracy in the classroom has become even more important. We need to be giving our students opportunities to speak in order to express independent thought. We also need to give them many opportunities to get better at listening and reflecting on other people’s ideas. 

So my respectful plea to all history teachers is to ask yourselves the following questions as you plan next weeks lessons:

  1. Could I  swap out a written task and give my students the opportunity to speak instead? E.g knowledge retrieval doesn’t have to be written.
  2. Could I use think, pair, share techniques before starting a written task?
  3. How might I explicitly teach the speaking and listening I want to see in my history lesson in just the same way I model writing an essay? 
  4. How might I make oracy the star of some lessons rather than the written word?
  5. How might I get my students to listen, reflect and perhaps change their mind? (I always tell my students to speak as if they are convinced they are right but listen like they are convinced they might be wrong) 

And think about beyond the classroom…

Could you run a debate club?

Could your school enter the Great Debate run by the HA or could you bring an audience to a local heat?

Good luck and please do let me know if you take up my challenge!

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