Classrooms in the U.S. often focus most attention on literacy and math, largely because those skills are considered foundational and are tested. However most people will also need to communicate their thoughts and ideas to other people through oral language, and yet effective communication strategies are often not taught with the same precision and structure as other parts of the curriculum.

School 21, a public school in London has made “oracy” a primary focus of everything they do. From the earliest grades on up teachers support students to find their voice, express differing opinions politely, and challenge one another’s thinking. These are skills called for in the Common Core, but can be hard to find in many classrooms because students haven’t been taught how to make “turn and talks” truly effective.

The Edutopia team visited School 21 and captured some amazing videos of students practicing their communication skills with support from teachers.


Another key element of the School 21 program is “well-being,” a social emotional learning curriculum that is once again embedded throughout students’ experience of school. In the following video, the communication skills teachers have helped foster become supremely important as even young students grapple with difficult topics like race, difference, diversity and kindness.


Because oral communication is a core tenet of School 21, students continue to build on their skills throughout school until arguing an opinion and defending with research are almost second nature to them. The school also tries to help students see the progress they’ve made by offering culminating moments when they can show off their public speaking skills in front of real audiences.


Speaking is a part of almost every classroom, but it can be easy to assume that students already know how to do things like challenge an idea or back up an argument with evidence. In reality, those oral communication skills must be explicitly taught like other core skills in school. And a well-spoken, confident young person will have occasion to use those communication skills throughout his or her life. Peter Hyman, School 21 cofounder and executive head teacher, says, “We need to elevate speaking to the same level as reading and writing.”

 

  • Bryan Betz

    I don’t just want to teach my students to have conversations in another language, I want to create interesting conversationalists because as the article says, “in the very moments where a conversation would enhance an encounter, we often fall short. We can’t think of a thing to say.”

    This is the entire idea behind my speed dating English class. The first round gets stock answers out of the way. In the second, students become more comfortable and start to break out of their dialogue patterns. By the third, they are ready to move into an actual conversation that might teach the something “real” about the other person.

    I learned a long time ago that the best way to get students talking was to talk about what they are thinking about.

    Conversation-based learning only works if you can get students talking, sharing, exchanging vocab/grammar/sentence structure. The easiest way to do that is by keeping topics relevant to students’ live and talk about what is already on their minds.

    I meet them where they are at with the content and in exchange, they meet me where I am with function.

    • Mark Treadwell

      Speed dating with oral language – brilliant! Oral language surpasses every other communication form in life, other than the time we spend in school! Most adults intelligence is judged via their ability to speak not their ability to present cursive writing, or their reading or typing ability! Increasingly we are seeing a sea-change in the primacy of the literacies with video (watching & creating) increasingly taking the lead from text (reading and writing) as the preferred learning platform for most learners. The long term implications of this are considerable. (this post courtesy of voice to text)

      • Bryan Betz

        In just about every walk of life you are benefited from the ability to express yourself well through speaking. Presentation, discussion, debate, conversation, storytelling, are all extremely valuable skills (that can be improved). However, there was little to no focus on public speaking in my schooling or professional training. Even as a teacher, very little time is given to helping teachers actually present their materials in an effective way, the time is spent reading and writing about how you want to present it with next to no time given to perfecting its presentation.

  • Bryan Betz
  • Yes! Focusing on the #1 language art, speaking! Adults spend more time speaking than reading and writing combined. I note that many adults fear speaking and wish they were better speakers. Most of that fear comes from never being specifically taught how to speak well. You are correct that American schools have seriously shortchanged oral communication. Another perspective on that is here: https://goo.gl/AatgBD Thanks for this article.

  • Dafne Ria Alban

    I agree! Language and/or communication literacy serve as bridge in learning other content areas. One will not be proficient with other literacy skills without mastering the first language. thanks for this article!

  • QualityKG

    Extra classes to improve communication skills should be a part of every school. There is a huge number of people in the world who find difficult to grab the opportunity only because they find difficult to communicate, therefore communication skill is the need of today’s world.

  • MickVV

    This was compelling, especially the videos showing very young children speaking respectfully and articulately to one another. Our students would certainly benefit from more such training, as would our society.

  • Tommy

    This program is brilliant. Communication skills are such an integral part of life whether it’s giving a presentation on a project, speaking up at a meeting, or simply trying to teach someone how to do a job. It’s so, so crucial that we teach this in our schools. You can have all the brilliant ideas in the world, but if you can’t communicate them succinctly and in a way people can understand, your message can get lost. Not only that, but to learn how to have a civil discussion about differing ideals is another crucial skill that I think is lacking. A polite debate about important and divisive issues is possible and, if we can do that as a society and raise the level of discourse we have among one another, I think we’d be in a much better position than we’re in now. Thank you school 21 for what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. I’m so glad you’ve put this out as a lesson plan for others to hopefully follow in your footsteps. http://www.edutopia.org/practice/wellbeing-developing-empathy-emotional-awareness-and-agency

  • I have been in the workforce for over 20 years. Ninety percent of what I do day in and day out is written communication, not oral. I don’t give presentations or argue to persuade people. I am given a task and I perform the task as expected, or if not as expected, I re-do it to the customer’s liking. I don’t see the pressing need for these programs in oral communication unless you are going to be in sales or politics.

    • fearcutsdeeper

      Education, Medicine, and the law are other fields that require strong oral communication.

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  • Chris

    Oral communication is so important, and listening carefully is crucial to all aspects of learning. Yet the marks for speaking and listening have been stripped out of GCSE English now!

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  • Hillary Clintub

    Toastmasters Intl. Try it. You’ll like it.

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  • Cheryl Lynne Salmon

    Well, that’s great but in the school I ran we were doing this 10 years ago..

  • Cheryl Lynne Salmon

    And the children had exams through the English Speaking Board. Great to see some kids who couldn’t write very well giving passionate well-informed presentations about things they were passionate about…

  • Augusta

    My son’s current teacher (3rd grade) has made a difference in his life, forever, by teaching him these skills and emboldening him. I hadn’t taught him enough myself about the power, art and magic of spoken language. She is more appreciated by this home than she will ever know.

  • Carol Topalian

    I’ve been teaching oracy to adults working in a second or third language, for almost 20 years. It’s extremely satisfying.

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