Oral language; a moral imperative for our education system

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Oral language; a moral imperative for our education system

By Dr Nina Hood

A couple of years ago, during a visit to an intermediate school, I was struck when talking with a group of students how poor their conversational skills were. Now, it is possible that these students just did not feel like talking with a stranger in their classroom. However, it is an experience that I frequently have thought back to as I have come to know more about the importance of oral language, or as it increasingly is known, oracy.

Our ability to communicate through speech is pivotal to our ability to make meaning, build relationships and engage with the world around us. However, too often, oral language is not something that we think much about. Nor is it often explicitly built into day-to-day teaching across all curriculum areas in our schools. Too frequently, we think that children will just ‘pick it up’. The coining of the term oracy in the 1960s was an attempt to change this by ascribing oral language the same level of importance as literacy and numeracy in schools.

There is growing attention in New Zealand to the importance of oracy. For example, Talking Matters was launched in 2017 as “a campaign to put early talk at the top of the agenda for child wellbeing and education”. The organisation recognises the crucial role of talk in the formation of children’s brains over the first 1000 days, and that early language is an equity issue. Over 75% of children who persistently experience poverty arrive at school with below average language development (many with language and communication skills more typical of a three-year-old). This language deficit at age five has a myriad of long-lasting implications.

A growing body of research demonstrates the importance of oral language for: building positive relationships; cognitive development and academic achievement; learning to read; and confidence and self-esteem. Furthermore, communication skills regularly place at or near the top of employers’ lists of skills they want in their employees. However, currently, without an explicit focus on oracy, schools run the risk of not adequately equipping their students with interpersonal, communication and presentation skills they need to succeed in the workplace.

However, critically, the importance of oracy extends beyond future employment prospects. Oracy is a social and moral imperative. Our democracy is grounded in the ability to literally and figuratively “have one’s say” and to contribute to national conversations about the direction of our country. If we consider that a key function of our education system is the creation of thoughtful and aware citizens, committed to engaging in and contributing actively to a strong, just and equitable civil society, then oracy must be given a central position. Schools must play a leading role in creating a space where students can express ideas, and know that these ideas will be valued and listened to.

The Education Hub is thrilled to be supporting through our Bright Spots Awards* an initiative led by Trudi Browne and Nic Rickard at Burnside Primary School, to develop an oracy framework for New Zealand primary schools. Drawing on the work undertaken by Voice21 in the United Kingdom, Trudi and Nic are conceptualising oracy as both a skill and a pedagogy that should be developed and implemented across the curriculum. This means that not only are teachers explicitly developing students’ oral language skills, say through holding debates or presentations, but that activities that encourage students to develop their knowledge and understanding through talk are infused across all curriculum areas. Trudi and Nic, together with a group of teachers at their school known as oracy champs, have developed detailed curriculum progressions that map onto the New Zealand Curriculum and a series of tools and resources to support teachers to embed oracy across the curriculum. They also are in the process of developing an assessment rubric to enable them to monitor students’ oracy development.

We hope that that the work being undertaken by Talking Matters and the teachers at Burnside Primary will provide inspiration, insight and practical tools and strategies that place oracy at the centre of ECE and school-level education. But more than this, we hope that all young people in New Zealand are encouraged and supported to find and develop their voice, and are empowered with the knowledge, skills and confidence to use this voice to advance democracy in New Zealand.

*The Bright Spots Awards support innovation in schools by providing funding and expert support to groups of teachers within a school or early childhood centre to develop, implement and evaluate an innovative practice. For more information, head to our Bright Spots Awards section.


Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.

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