Keir Starmer’s announcement of Labour’s ambition for speaking lessons to be a central part of school curricula, and as a social mobility strategy, signals a return to prominence for oracy following the 2021 Speak for Change parliamentary inquiry. Focusing on learning to talk and learning through talk is undeniably important, as demonstrated by the work of Voice 21 (Mercer et al., 2019). Looking to the UK from Australia, we are energised by the elevation of oracy on the international stage, and hope for similar commitments Down Under.
We question, however, whether the focus on oracy should be restricted to schooling – why not include oracy as a key part of higher education (HE) curricula too? While university students are expected to interact in class, engage in group work and take part in oral presentations, the ways that academic speaking and listening (or ‘academic oracy’) aids students to access and capitalise on their learning have seemingly been forgotten (Heron et al., 2022). Academic achievement depends on students’ oral communication, despite their written literacies getting the most attention. While universities clamour to claim excellence in developing students’ ‘communication skills’ as graduate attributes, we know little about how students develop academic oracy (Heron, 2019).
The spotlight shone by Keir Starmer on oracy could then offer a chance for universities to follow suit and focus more holistically on developing understandings and teaching and learning practices that harness the power of learning to talk (academically) and learning through talk.
Although scarce, oracy research provides HE educators with some key findings. The underlying principle is that academic oracy is not solely a product, but has three components: process, competence and oracy for learning. Oracy as product is synonymous with ‘study skills’ approaches, such as for ‘group work in support of a final assessment with no recognition of the role of oracy in completing the assignment’ (Heron et al., 2022, p. 72). In contrast, oracy as process, competence and for learning highlights the need for oracy to be taught explicitly and with appropriate resources (class time, materials, and so on), stressing the necessary focus on context, activities and genres (MacLure, 1988; Heron, 2019; Heron et al., 2022). Oracy as product continues to prevail because applying more holistic understandings requires significant investments of class time, explicit rubrics and formative feedback.
‘Oracy as product continues to prevail because applying more holistic understandings requires significant investments of class time, explicit rubrics and formative feedback.’
For higher education, the question remains of what oracy as process, competence and for learning would look like before we can address the challenges of implementing in university curricula. The Oracy Cambridge’s Oracy Skills Framework (OSF) offers a planning tool for schooling (see Mercer et al., 2017). But does it apply similarly to higher education? While it has been tentatively transferred to university settings (Heron, 2019), key challenges remain, such as limited research, still-developing understandings of oracy, and the fact that speaking does not hold the same status as writing. Moreover, making arguments about the importance and centrality of holistic approaches to language and literacy development is enduringly difficult in academia. Developing nuanced understandings of students’ and educators’ literacies has rarely translated into nuanced and holistic supports; the ‘skills fetish’ persists because it is easier (and cheaper) to operationalise (Wheelahan et al., 2022).
Although the outcomes of oracy research in school settings are compelling, particularly in relation to equity and academic attainment, we need more research in university settings to make a case for academic oracy. Oracy in higher education should not be taken for granted and, most of all, not be forgotten.
Heron, M. (2019). Making the case for oracy skills in higher education: Practices and opportunities. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, 16(2), 1–16. https://ro.uow.edu.au/jutlp/vol16/iss2/9/
Heron, M., Baker, S., Gravett, K., & Irwin, E. (2022). Scoping academic oracy in higher education: knotting together forgotten connections to equity and academic literacies. Higher Education Research & Development. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2022.2048635
MacLure, M. (1988). Introduction: Oracy: Current trends in context. In M. MacLure, T. Phillips, & A. Wilkinson (Eds.) Oracy matters: The development of talking and listening in education (pp. 1–9). Open University Press.
Mercer, N., Warwick, P., & Ahmed, A. (2017). An oracy assessment toolkit: Linking research and development in the assessment of students’ spoken language skills at age 11–12. Learning and Instruction, 48, 51–60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2016.10.005
Mercer, N., Mannion, J., & Warwick, P. (2019). Oracy education: The development of young people’s spoken language skills. In N. Mercer, R. Wegerif, & L. Major (Eds.) The Routledge international handbook of research on dialogic education (pp. 292–305). Routledge.
Wheelahan, L., Moodie, G., & Doughney, J. (2022). Challenging the skills fetish. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 43(2), 475–494. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2022.2045186