A voice for success: inherent trait or developed skill?

Flash-back to my first week at university, with no expectations of what to expect being the first in my family to go. We were in the last five minutes of my first ever seminar: “Megan, would you take a couple of minutes to share your interpretation of the text with the group? We’ll then share our responding agreements and disagreements”. Cue panic. Cue increase in rate of heartbeat. Cue shaky hands and thoughts of self-doubt. I kept my eyes firmly on the table, I massively fumbled on my words and I didn’t represent myself well at all. Thank goodness for my folks’ mantras of ‘keep your head up, move on, believe in yourself and do it better next time’. I did just that, but it took time and it took practice. Yet these presentations, discussions and debates seemed to come so easy to some of my other coursemates. Was this something I should just be good at? Should I have been taught it at school? At home?

Flash-forward to September 2017. The first week into a new job and these are just a handful of the questions I had already been asked: “What will you bring to the role?”, “How was your weekend?”, “What did you think of the event?”, “Can you call the headteacher to ask?”, “What does your organisation do?”, “Why can’t you give me a discount?”, “How was maternity leave?”

It was the same story. Nothing needed to be said, ironically, about the inevitability of the high levels of verbal communication needed. Nothing needed to be said about the well-ingrained expectations of employees to switch fluently between different styles, stakeholders and situations. Or about the range of modes and manners I’d need to navigate: giving feedback, negotiating, expressing thoughts and feelings, building rapport, disagreeing, pitching and presenting, influencing, discussing, networking. Whether it be in-person, over the phone or on a computer screen, I needed a voice – an often crafted, confident voice – to settle in, not to mention succeed.

What was noticeably different in this job though, was that it actually was said. We talked every day about the importance of oracy, a term coined in the 1960s which wonderfully encompassed all of the above skills. We talked about it because it was at the heart of the organisation’s mission: Voice 21, a charity with a commitment to elevate oracy to the same status as numeracy and literacy.

Because yes, oracy is essential in post-school pathways and employability (the top four most important workforce attributes listed in Deloitte’s recent Power Up report were all oracy-related) but the pattern continues in so many other parts of life. Whether it be wellbeing, academic attainment, community participation, family engagement, self-esteem or social mobility, speaking is one of the biggest indicators of success, or failure. It’s not only about the words you choose, but when you say them and the way you say them; it’s about the gestures you use to accompany them and the reason you give for using them. And it’s also about when you don’t use them at all and instead decide to pause or nod or smile or listen.

It’s well-known, understood and evidenced about the importance of oracy and spoken language provision. And with the years in education being such a huge part of every child’s life, the presence or absence of it at school can, quite frankly, be life-changing. Yet Voice 21’s research found that this provision of – and support for – oracy in schools is patchy at best, diminishes significantly as students move through school and is heavily concentrated in the independent sector and more affluent areas. A minority of teachers have received specific training, professional development or resources and schools do not consistently provide meaningful, integrated opportunities for pupils to develop oracy.

And that’s where we’re doing everything we can to help. We don’t provide one-day insets or prepackaged lesson plans and we don’t arrange student workshops or extra-curricular clubs. We don’t single out students who are excelling or those who are falling behind. Instead, we work in partnership with teachers and schools to build their understanding, confidence and expertise in oracy to make a sustainable change in practice every day, for every single student. Our flagship programmes support teachers to become both oracy experts within the classroom and oracy leaders within the school and beyond and we also develop partnerships – with tailored, specialist support – at both a school and area level.

A noisy classroom doesn’t have to signify one that’s out of control or off topic. Student talk can be carefully structured, scaffolded and subject-focused to make both teaching and learning more effective. As Voice 21’s Charter reminds us in our work every day: oracy is the responsibility of every teacher and the entitlement of every child. So let’s talk.

About the Author

Megan Marsden is Director of Strategic Development at voice21 (www.voice21.org). Find voice12 on Twitter @voice21oracy.