Oracy: Real Talk, Not Rhetoric

Updated: Oct 31, 2020

In many ways it seems obvious - we learn through talking together. We’ve used talk to educate, connect and convey for thousands of years. From prehistoric roots in simple proto-languages, instructional grunts and exchanges - to what linguists refer to as ‘grammar of action’ think of: ‘fire bad’, ‘me hungry’ and ‘Derek is dead’.

... I guess Derek shouldn’t try to make a fire on an empty stomach.

We’ve gathered around campfires telling stories, built senate houses where negotiations and judgements brought words into action, designed methods of dialogue in which rules, regulations and structures of culture and society could be questioned incessantly with the questions ‘but…why?’. In doing so, we are keeping the lines blurred between irritating four year old and bearded intellectual for years to come, ensuring that meaningful dialogue remains alive and kicking.

In other words, the result of all this talk comes social organisation, strategic planning, designing, engineering, problem solving, systems of governance and negotiated intellectual and cultural complexity. This complexity comes from talk- shared - from dialogue.

All this complexity in speaking & listening is captured in the term oracy, which means effective speaking, listening, learning and action, then reflection through further speaking & listening. The distinction between rhetoric and oracy is that oracy is not just active, it’s interactive. We could even consider knowledge itself as a kind of interactive conversation evolving over time. Take literature for example, the ‘best that’s been - thought and said so far’, what do we do with this knowledge? We sit, read, infer, question, compare and contrast. We engage with the text and endeavour to understand what at first looks like a very one sided conversation – but what is actually more akin to the best voice mail message you’ve ever received, in which you gather to talk about with your friends.

So that’s then, what about now?

It’s all too easy for us to fall into the trap of talking at someone, not with them. More than ever it’s easy to choose and select who we listen to, all too easy to get stuck in to what we think to be an online dialogue, but actually becomes a social media echo chamber of opinions and perspectives you already have. There’s comfort in our opinions and viewpoints being reaffirmed back at us, but as we all know - learning does not take place in your comfort zone...and no one likes the sound of their own voice...except me of course, those dulcet tones won’t appreciate themselves.

When we speak we highlight the value of what we are saying – that it should be listened to. But if what you are saying doesn’t allow our students to connect with it, then it is meaningless. The trick is to incorporate what you are saying into their world. Highlight connections between what you are saying and their experience. It’s why rhetorical devices like metaphor and allegory are so useful. What you are saying is ‘this is important to know’ and it’s 'a bit like this thing you know' – the point is as a teacher you must meet your students in the middle, you meet students halfway and allow them to join you at a centre point just outside their comfort zone- this is where learning takes place.

Teaching without interaction is not teaching at all, it is at best a monologue and at worst, a lot of hot air in a world already bursting with empty postulation. Surely, we want those that speak to be informed and speak with us, not at us.

“people do not use talk only to interact, they interthink

Littleton, K. & Mercer, N. (2013) Interthinking and Creativity.


Oracy is not just about rhetoric, it’s about listening, learning from each other, speaking, and then listening again. So the next time you stand-up to speak, you can do it with confidence and competence.

Listen, Learn, Stand-up and Speak.

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