Can you explain it verbally? Oracy in all its forms.

Nia, SNS Intern

To take Shakespeare’s approach to language, ‘if music be the sound of love, then play on’ we can already see the significance of our language choices in various contexts. But I'm going to edit that a little – ‘if communication is the sound of survival, then oracy is necessary for communicating’ – see what I did there? Admittedly it’s not a great explanation of today’s topic but we are going to break it down further, so hopefully my dubbed Shakespeare quote won’t seem quite so bad.

So, what is 'oracy'? I'm going to set out three definitions:

  • The Collins Dictionary definition: The capacity to express oneself in and understand speech
  • Voice 21’s definition: Oracy is the ability to articulate ideas, develop understanding and engage with others through spoken language
  • Solutions Not Sides’ definition: The ability to be understood and understand others through language, interactions, gestures, our responses and structure

All three definitions fundamentally encompass that oracy is about being able to ensure you are being understood as you wish to be. To take the example of the work we do here at SNS, it is crucial that we are able to make sure outside organisations understand that we are a balanced middle ground in the Israel-Palestine conflict and wider discussion. We do not have a side, and we do not attempt to present one group as more valid or important than any other group involved. Therefore, our language has to be clear and that requires oracy.

Oracy can be further broken-down into 4 distinct categories which contribute to our overall mastery of oracy:

  • Physical oracy – our voices, how loudly or quietly we speak, if we use a lot of gestures in our discussions or tend to change our tone based on who we speak to
  • Linguistic oracy – the words we use and how they are put together to explain an idea, express an emotion or discuss a topic 
  • Cognitive oracy – the thought behind our speech, how we respond to questions, how we structure our questions and explanations on topics 
  • Social/emotional oracy – our interactions with others, how we engage with others in a large group vs an intimate smaller group, how we engage with those we are speaking to in different scenarios, how we interact with those who we are unfamiliar with 

All 4 of these distinct categories can be seen in our daily lives and across society at various points:

  • Physical oracy – can be seen in schools up and down the country or on a grander scale, can be seen during debates in the House of Commons 
  • Linguistic oracy – this can be seen in the newspapers we read, how academic and sophisticated the language used is, as well as how it is constructed for the article we are reading
  • Cognitive oracy – typically this is more likely to be seen in job interview settings or interviews in general – but how these can differ depending on the person being interviewed/doing the interviewing is in itself a part of oracy
  • Social/emotional oracy – both in real life and on tv shows, the way group dynamics work, who is left out of the conversation, who is dominating the conversation, is someone talking over someone else or does everyone have a chance to speak?

With all this in mind, the significance of oracy can seem straight forward.

It’s about being understood and feeling acknowledged and recognised for being understood.

But it’s about a lot more than that, especially in a school setting – it is about a sense of confidence in expressing and challenging opinions and ideas without it being a personal attack on the person speaking. For students especially, developing confidence – especially in the classroom – can be incredibly difficult because the risk of being embarrassed, humiliated or getting wrong is so much higher and fraught, and therefore part of oracy is about developing a confidence in a student’s own ability to articulate their thoughts and convey it to others. So, let’s do another little example:

Student A: “I hate pineapple on pizza… because it’s like wrong and stuff and it’s just not right”

Student B: “I hate pineapple on pizza because it feels wrong to have fruit on a savoury dish and the texture of it all together on top of a pizza tastes bad to me”

Student C: “I don’t mind pineapple on pizza, and while I can understand student A and B’s perspective, I don’t entirely agree. But I can understand them not liking the mix. Personally, I don’t like meat feast pizza because it is overloaded with toppings, whereas pineapple on pizza is a lot more simplistic”

The development within these three statements is all a part of oracy, it is being able to challenge someone’s opinion without attacking, while articulating a reason for something thoroughly and conveying that to make someone else understand it clearly.

Additionally, oracy is not only about being understood, but being able to understand, to take the example of Solutions Not Sides again – our work is about ensuring students can understand both an Israeli perspective as well as a Palestinian perspective. Students never have to agree with both perspectives, but they need to be able to have the insight to understand and respect both perspectives, which is where oracy comes into play. Oracy ensures that active listening and critical thinking can both be engaged to understand others as well as ourselves – and our own thought process, but this still doesn’t necessarily require full agreement. Instead, oracy has allowed an understanding to be formed and a confidence in expressing adequately ones’ own opinion in order for it to be understood by others but still no forced full agreement. After all, what would our world look like if we all had the exact same perspective and opinion?

With all that said, you may be wondering where this comes into Solutions Not Sides’ work and general schooling; so, let’s get into it.

Oracy plays a big part in classrooms and schools for a number of reasons, even with online schooling during the pandemic, oracy was still incredibly significant. Online school and in person school both form human connections and interactions which we all know to be a vital part of adolescents and adulthood; and as such the ability for social emotional oracy to be used and developed is crucial. Students have to be able to interact and develop their viewpoints for one strand of oracy to be met e.g. social emotional oracy – and therefore have to be given the opportunity to interact, especially with viewpoints that differ from their own. Beyond that, oracy in classrooms enables code switching – wherein we communicate differently depending on who we are with, time for another example:

Student A speaking to teacher / member of staff – "Miss, I don’t get what the question means, can you explain it please?"

Student A speaking to a stranger / unfamiliar person – "no I’m sorry I don’t know where that is or how you would get there, I’m sorry, have a good day"

Student A speaking to a close friend / sibling – nah I really don’t get it but whatever I’ll figure it eventually

Oracy allows for different language choices and communication styles depending on the context, so in a classroom there is a set expectation for a certain type of communication to be used e.g., formal respectful grammatically correct language without swearing and most slang, and this can be enforced in various ways. Whereas in other contexts, there is no set style of communication e.g., formal English with correct grammar, so a different type of language may be used such as slang, swear words, lack of grammatical structure. All of these different code switches are based on context, and an ability to recognise that context e.g., linguistic and cognitive oracy.

As for Solutions Not Sides, oracy is significant for us because of the nature of our work. We run programmes that support the development of oracy skills:

All of these are aimed at developing critical thinking, strong articulation skills, active listening ability, and understanding and challenging the views of others in a respectful manner. All three of the above-mentioned programmes bring together a diverse range of young people and students to discuss difficult topics and develop their ability to discuss these topics respectfully, while still being able to express their personal perspective on it, as well as grow their confidence on their own ability to discuss difficult topics and articulate their viewpoint to avoid hurt or confusion or implied xenophobia.

So maybe having read all of this, my dubbed version of Shakespeare wasn’t so far off after all?