Have you heard of oracy? Are you ... orate?
On International Literacy Day, we look at an underrated skill that may be as important, if not more, than learning to read and count.
Research shows that children who are taught speaking skills perform better in maths, science and reasoning tests.
They're also more likely to get a good job and find themselves in leadership roles, often leading their countries.
So why is it that public speaking frightens so many children and adults?
Fear of the unknown
According to the Chapman University Survey of American Fears, public speaking comes second only to reptiles as the personal fear Americans are most likely to have.
Such anxiety over speaking aloud can have a damaging effect not only on individuals’ personal growth, but on the very makeup of a country’s democratic institutions.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge have linked the dominance of British politics and the judiciary by privately educated individuals to the fact their schools have a long history of debating.
Privately educated politicians and judges developed their public speaking skills at school debating societies, discussion groups and engaging in dialogues with their teachers.
However, this tradition of encouraging public speaking is absent from Britain’s state-funded schools.
According to a survey by UK education think-tank LKMco, only one in four teachers (27%) take into account pupils’ verbal contributions during lesson observations, and 57% say they have not received training in oracy in the past three years.
The University of Cambridge academics argue that for the sake of social equality, “all schools should teach children the spoken language skills that they need for educational progress, for work and for full participation in democracy”.
Economic and education benefits
The University of Cambridge research into oracy, led by Professor Neil Mercer, points out that employers commonly say they want staff with well-developed skills in communication and collaborative problem-solving.
Yet oracy currently does not have the same status among educators as literacy and numeracy: the LMKco survey found teachers tended to prioritize other tasks, such as writing, which are deemed more important for exams.
However, Prof. Mercer and his team at the University of Cambridge are beginning to show that encouraging oracy can boost children’s performance in literacy and numeracy as well.
Mercer says the research shows that when students learn how to use talk to reason together in groups, they become better at reasoning on their own.
They also significantly improve their attainment on SATs tasks in maths and science, compared with children in control schools who were not taught oracy skills.
Part of the University of Cambridge research was carried out at the state-funded School 21 in East London – which educates children aged 4-18 – to see what impact a focus on oracy could have.
From the earliest grades teachers support students to find their voice.
The children continue to build on their skills throughout school, until arguing an opinion and defending with research are almost second nature to them.
Activities were combined with tools to help teachers assess pupils’ progress throughout the school year. The research has resulted in an oracy toolkit to help teachers promote and assess oracy skills in the classroom.
Oracy’s status was further boosted in the UK last year, first by a team of English students beating Canada to win the World Schools Debating Championships, followed by the launch at the Houses of Parliament in late 2016 of the Oracy Network.
The network aims to promote oracy throughout the UK education system.
With the ability to speak fluently and coherently so clearly linked to improvements in reading and writing ability, this International Literacy Day offers an ideal opportunity for more nations to embrace the skill.