By Tom F. Wright, University of Sussex
If you’ve spent any time around teachers over the last 10 years or so you will know that the word they use for the ESU’s mission of promoting speaking and listening is ‘oracy’.
Since being coined in the 1960s as a synonym for speaking and listening, the word ‘oracy’ has become a major buzzword in educational circles. But there are a lot of things we still don’t know about the word and there are lots of teachers who want to know more about how to bring it into their practice. And there are lots of people who might have something to say about it that haven’t been brought into the conversation.
For two years I have been running a research project called ‘Speaking Citizens’ that is trying to do something about this. We are a team of university researchers from across the social sciences, history, linguistics and Classics, who are all intrigued by the political ideas that lie behind oracy. Since 2020 we have been having fascinating conversations with a wide range of people who are doing some of the best thinking about the kinds of ideas that lie at the heart of the ESU’s work.
A few months ago, working together with the ESU we brought a lot of these people together for a special event called The Uses of Oracy conference. Over three days of specially commissioned roundtables we assembled a fascinating range of perspectives to allow people to gain fresh insights into oracy. These invited experts ranged from Black Lives Matter activists to school leaders, anthropologists to community organisers, and from students to some of the leading politicians and reformers who have shaped oracy in Britain. Thanks to the editing work of the ESU we are now delighted to announce the publication of the videos from this event live on our website here and on our YouTube channel here.
Why was it called the uses of oracy? The title was a deliberate call back to a seminal book enjoying its 65th anniversary this year: Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy (you can find a free copy online here). That book was two things at once. It was in part a memoir of a Hoggart’s own journey from the tight-knit working class terraces of Bradford into a university teaching career. But it was also a profound analysis of the culture he had left behind, and how traditional ways of communicating and experiencing the world were being challenged by television and radio. The book became a surprising popular success and remains a formative work for all of us researchers who consider ourselves part of ‘cultural studies’. In 2016 The Guardian included it in their list of the Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of All Time. It was one of the first books of its kind to take working class culture seriously and to ask what ‘literacy’ really means.
Our conference asked similar questions about the meanings and functions that people attach to speaking and listening. We asked our invited speakers to think about practical empirical questions such as: how have ordinary people used their speaking skills? How do teachers and educators use a focus on oracy in the classroom? But also, a set of broader questions: How has the idea of speaking skills has been used throughout history? What purposes or what political agendas has the idea served in UK education or modern politics?
As you will see from the videos, the answers were fascinating and wide ranging. We think that ESU members in particular will get a great deal from the series of discussions, which you can either watch in sequence or dip into, depending on what theme or question appeals the most.
One of the key themes that emerged time and time again was the range of different definitions people have for ‘oracy’. It might be useful for people to begin with the first roundtable video in which participants offer their own versions of what oracy is, and what it is not.
Those interested in a historical perspective on the kinds of activities to which the ESU is committed would find it valuable to watch roundtable 2, where historians (including me) and educationalists all offer a long view on what oracy is.
For those curious to know more about the ways in which young people speak, and how oracy can be used to address their needs and cultural identities, take a look at roundtable 3 and roundtable 5, which consider these issues from a range of perspectives.
Our conference was not just about classroom oracy, however. In roundtable 4, we also heard from community organisers and activists across a range of different movements and causes. Of particular interest to ESU members and students will be the inspiring testimony from this session on how oracy skills have been central to the work of social movements, in particular the Black Lives Matter movement in Yorkshire and throughout England.
Last but by no means least, members can view a razor-sharp lecture from the world-leading linguistic Professor Deborah Cameron of Oxford, entitled ‘The Trouble With Oracy?’ One aim of our event was to put pressure on the idea of oracy and to ask what limitations or problems there are with it. Deborah’s lecture did just this, and offered a sympathetic but critical perspective that teachers, school leaders, researchers and ESU members more broadly will all benefit from.
On our site we have put up each video along with full details of the participants and reading and link suggestions so people can dig deeper into the topics discussed. We would love ESU members to let us know what they think by taking a look at the videos and offering Youtube comments. Lots to talk about!
Tom F. Wright teaches at the University of Sussex and is project leader of the Speaking Citizens project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.