The Knowledge

Are the theoretical underpinnings of oracy sound?

Ian Cushing reveals new research into the uncomfortable origins of oracy and how they persist in today’s political discourse

Ian Cushing reveals new research into the uncomfortable origins of oracy and how they persist in today’s political discourse

12 Feb 2024, 5:00

Oracy is a hot topic. It is the core agenda of academic research groups like Oracy Cambridge and  educational charities like Voice 21 and the English-Speaking Union.  It is prominent within Labour’s education manifesto. And it is increasingly framed as a tool to tackle social injustice.

But where did the concept of oracy come from? And on whose language practices is ‘high-quality’ oracy based? In new research published in the Oxford Review of Education, I set out to find out.

Deficit foundations

Oracy was coined by the academic Andrew Wilkinson in the 1960s. This was a time when deficit thinking was rife in educational research. Concepts such as ‘restricted codes’, ‘verbal deprivation’, and ‘semilingualism’ framed marginalised families as having faults in their language that needed fixing.

The original notion of oracy was at least in part rooted in this deficit thinking. Take, for example, Wilkinson’s binary between ‘good language homes’ and ‘working homes’.  According to him, working-class parents ‘offer very little as language models’, ‘have not the words in which to explain or persuade’ and ‘have difficulty in verbalising’. Of working-class children, he claims they are ‘deficient in words’ and insists that ‘the wrong language experience may result in a culturally induced backwardness’. He described Deaf children as ‘isolated’, ‘frustrated’, and ‘retarded compared with children with normal hearing’.

Wilkinson argued for ‘oracy’ as a remedial tool to fix and develop these supposed deficiencies. Exposure to the language of the middle-classes, he thought, would lead disadvantaged children to experience success. Sixty years later, oracy has never quite shaken its deficit foundations, nor the logics that language alone is a tool for social equality.

Linguistic deprivation

Even leading oracy academics such as Professor Neil Mercer, whose work on exploratory talk is of huge significance, said this of marginalised children: “You are the only second chance for some children to have a rich language experience. If these children are not getting it at school, they are not getting it”.

With his colleague James Mannion, he reproduces the same class-based binaries that characterised Wilkinson’s work, using labels such as ‘limited talk repertoire’ and ‘rich talk experience’ to describe working- and middle-class children respectively.

Recent deficit framings about oracy also often co-occur with reference to the ‘word gap’, a concept which has its own foundations in anti-Black academic research and can legitimise language policing under the purportedly progressive aims of oracy. For example, as Will Millard and Loic Menzies write in a report for Voice 21: “[…] asking pupils to speak in full sentences and avoid using words such as ‘like’, are important in developing the quality of pupils’ oracy”.

The same authors co-drafted the recent Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry report, part of which includes marginalised children as producing ‘poor oral language’ and ‘low language levels’. Evidence to the APPG was wide-ranging, but it drew in part on ideas from Jean Gross who suggested that working-class teaching assistants are to blame for poor spoken language skills. It was good to see Voice 21 recently challenging notions of ‘high quality’ language.

I applaud initiatives designed to harness the power of spoken interaction, but this developing sector must engage with and unpick the underlying narrative of linguistic deficit.

Social justice

Oracy is increasingly part of a narrative which assumes that tweaks to marginalised children’s language will enable them to experience social justice and equality. This theory of change underpins Keir Starmer’s suggestion that ‘the inability to speak fluently is one of the biggest barriers to opportunity’. It underpins the Oracy APPG report, where oracy is seen as the means to ‘tackling entrenched social immobility and dismantling barriers for children and young people from less advantaged backgrounds’.

This theory of change is flawed. It fails to account for the richness of working-class language, and it locates language as the reason that social injustice persists, obscuring the broader structures of inequality that shape society. Language plays a key part in social justice efforts, but it is not a silver bullet.

All teachers should endeavour to get children talking in class, but we should all be wary of saying social justice is a matter of modifying how marginalised children talk.

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  1. Even by common standards of poor educational journalism, this is extremely poor.

    It is beyond debate that quality of language, especially in early years, is linked to the majority of learning skills/needs, including emotional health.

    That it’s roots were misused by many is also beyond debate, but the research since then is exceptionally robust and far more so than the majority of educational research which is little better than small case studies.

    I will not be voting labour, but anyone suggesting that Keir Starmer is lazily repeating a trope about working class deficits is either stupid or being willfully ignorant for the sake of a bad article.

    If you want to write opinion pieces on such foundational topics as language development and it’s impact on education and health outcomes, write a good one.

  2. It may be the author should see the teaching of Oracy in action. As it is, I’m not sure what the argument adds to education.
    No effective teacher who uses Oracy as part of teaching and learning is marginalising working class language. Quite the opposite. Most importantly, good Oracy teaching helps to scaffold and support more complex thinking and that is the driver for social mobility.
    It seems we have already moved on from the outdated, original research. Oracy is about taking a place in the room, participating and thinking deeply. It promotes high expectations and helps teachers develop. Teaching is a complex business and we should be constantly questioning and evaluating. It’s more complex than getting children talking in class and I can’t see how this article helps us.

  3. David Russell

    I assume this article is a heavily edited travesty of what the author actually writes in his academic work. I hope so anyway.

    Two big problems with the article:

    (1) it makes the basic error (or oratorical trick) of confusing *necessary* with *sufficient*. (i.e. “Some people say oracy is necessary for social justice; but I say it’s not sufficient, as social injustice is about much more than poor oracy” – good rhetoric, terrible logic).

    (2) it seems to be saying that poor vocabulary was *wrongly* seen as a deficit in the past, and implies that earlier academics were engaging in snobbish classism by defining households where a smaller number of words were used as being linguistically poorer or ‘in deficit’. It implies that the ‘deficit-model roots’ of the oracy concept are inherently problematic. But even setting aside aspects of oracy such as fluency, simply having a smaller vocabulary than others literally is a deficit. It’s a deficit of word choice for personal expression [active vocab] and for comprehension [passive vocab].

    You might argue of course that it’s not actually a *relevant* deficit, and that having an expansive vocabulary is not really very important at all, and is just used as an artificial class barrier; but if you wanted to argue that you’d probably not want to do it in an article that uses words like “marginalised”, “characterised”, “purportedly” and “entrenched social immobility”. Words and concepts, in other words, that are well out of reach of a child who has only been exposed to a deficient linguistic environment.

    Or is it a case of “lots of big words are necessary for me, but not for them” ?…..