Oracy is a feminist act – it’s the way we teach our girls to take their place in the world and speak up for themselves and others. How can we structure talk more effectively?

Reading Time: 5 minutes In any list of people’s fears and phobias, public speaking is usually in the top three – and often first..

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In any list of people’s fears and phobias, public speaking is usually in the top three – and often first. Even among teachers, who arguably spend most of their day presenting in one style or other, there’s a common, if rueful, admittance that teaching is one thing but delivering a CPD presentation to our peers is something else entirely.

Speaking has been critically undervalued in the secondary curriculum, especially since the English GCSE presentation was reduced to an NEA. Even before then, it rarely held the prestige of writing and reading. It fares better at primary school, I think, although partly because of the emphasis on talk for writing, which risks seeing speaking as an adjunct or preparation, rather than important in its own right.

Partly I also wonder if there’s a slight fearfulness of prejudice involved too; we’re more willing to critique students’ writing than their speaking, because speaking is more personal – it’s a spontaneous reflection of ourselves. And while it’s absolutely right that we shouldn’t be encouraging the removal of accent or dialect, I think we can also all agree that just as in written language there is a spectrum of register and tone in spoken language. You might use the same accent in a pub, classroom, podcast, or Ofsted meeting, but you’re almost certainly not using the same register.

The ability to speak confidently is essential. At its most basic, it’s a safeguarding issue – children need to be able to speak for themselves in dangerous or difficult situations. The #metoo movement is evidence that need goes long into adulthood. But more than that, it’s essential for us to be able to speak for others. To have our voices heard, and opinions valued. To be able to discuss, explore, critique and praise those around us and in power. Speech in schools, whether it’s presentations, speeches, or conversation, isn’t just about the words and how we speak: it’s about teaching students that what they have to say is of worth.

History of oratory – a feminine way

Mary Beard’s fabulous lecture Women and Power explores classical stories and the way women are silenced in them, both metaphorically and literally. Even the smartest, most intelligent women in Greek and Roman myth are most highly praised when they fall silent.

More than that, she looks at the way that silencing women continues, because women don’t speak in the way that is often considered to be most valued, intellectual, persuasive. She argues that oratory, and speechmaking particularly, has always been a masculine form. Everything about it is masculine; the focus on the single individual, it’s a monologue rather than a dialogue, and it comes with very strict structures – pathos, logos, ethos are perhaps the most frequently taught in schools at the moment. She argues, though, that pushing this masculine style of speech does a disservice to women because of that lack of collaboration and community. Speeches are to convey ideas rather than to share and develop them: it’s a very patriarchal and didactic method of communication.

Her conclusions interest me most: by teaching women to speak in this masculine way, we’re doing them a disservice because it inherently devalues feminine qualities as well as traditionally feminine forms like oral storytelling or overlapping conversations.

Scaffolding speech

Talking in schools takes a lot of different forms, and I think it’s worth thinking about them just as much as we might think about teaching different forms of writing. Thinking about the purpose of talk is critical; are we talking to explore? To challenge? To support? To convey an idea for comment, or because we’ve decided this is what to do?

For all types of talk
  • Scaffolding sentences, just as we would in writing. How to begin clearly, how to end clearly and how to acknowledge others’ contributions in a respectful and thoughtful manner.
  • Thinking about purpose and outcomes of talk. Even phatic (small) talk has purpose, whether it’s to emotionally connect, support, or even just fill some time before waiting for the bus! When we make a choice to speak, there’s a reason behind it and that affects our choices.
  • Register, tone, pitch and pace
  • How to – positively – interrupt and make yourself heard
  • When it’s appropriate to interrupt and when to wait for someone to finish
  • How to genuinely respond to others
  • How to respectfully disagree
Speeches / presentations
  • What is the imperative of the speech? Is it to deliver an already-agreed message – like a politician’s election campaign – to reach out and connect to others, to explore ideas like a TED talk? Those subtle differences make all the difference when it comes to deciding things like structure and tone.
  • When, and how, do rhetorical features like pathos, logos, ethos, and the myriad being taught in schools, come into play? At their heart, many are – to be brutally honest – about manipulating (or persuading, to be gentle) others into believing what you want them to. When is a genuine honesty and speaking from your gut more appropriate
Exploratory talk in the classroom:
  • If this will lead to writing, how to capture this in a meaning way – whether that’s note-taking, recording, or some other method
  • Asking open, probing questions that develop – or, sometimes, challenge – others’ thinking.
  • How to wait for someone to give them thinking time (pauses in conversation are just as important as responses)
  • How to return to a previous idea and not lose the thread of argument


This article was written by Charlotte

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