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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Talking 'bout 'oracy'

Teaching students to speak well would "break the class ceiling," said Sir Keir Starmer, the British Labour leader and would-be prime minister, this week. "Oracy," as they call it there, is as important as literacy and numeracy, he argued.

Lucy Kellaway, co-founder of Now Teach and a Financial Times contributing editor, agrees. While private schools teach public speaking and debate, government schools assume talking is a skill kids "will pick up as they go along." Many do not.

She recalls a bright student from a lower-income family who answered every question with one word: “Dunno.” He had good grades in her business class, but who was going to hire him? "Dunno."

Greg Ashman, an Australian teacher and blogger, wrote about a visit to London's Michaela Community School, a very successful school with many lower-income minority students, on his Filling the Pail column. Students are confident, articulate and "sparky," he reports.

Critics claim Michaela "is all about cramming students with disconnected facts," writes Ashman. They're very wrong.

While the lessons are fast-paced and knowledge rich, students are constantly being asked to explain concepts to their partner or the teacher. They are repeatedly asked why and are expected to give a decent response.
. . . It is no surprise then that my guides were articulate and that my lunch companions were great company. They talk about ideas constantly.

Schools targeting "oracy" should visit Michaela, Ashman writes. There is no trade off between learning knowledge and learning to speak. "Knowledge is what we think with. When we know something, we have something to say. The more we know, the more we can add to the discussion."

Some U.S. teachers explicitly teach students how to have a classroom conversation, agreeing, disagreeing, questioning or adding to the previous speaker's comments. Students often do oral presentations. Do students spend enough time improving their speaking skills?

By the way, I see that Vice President Kamala Harris is being mocked for her rambling response to a question at the Essence Festival of Culture in New Orleans last week. Harris said, “Culture is, it is a reflection of our moment in our time, right? And, and, and present culture is the way we express our feeling about the moment. And, and we should always find times to express how we feel about that moment that is a reflection of joy. 'Cause you know ... it comes in the morning.”

Sen. John Kennedy, the Louisiana Republican, noted that Harris "doesn't appear to be prepared." He had some advice: "Always be yourself, unless you suck. If you suck, have enough self-awareness to know you suck, and try to do better. And I just don’t get the impression that the vice president is – she’s not being herself. She’s trying to sound smart instead of just saying what she believes and saying it in a clear articulate manner that the average American who’s busy can understand.”

In my newspaper days, I met many politicians who had little to say, but they were prepared with meaningless sound bites for any occasion. If you asked a question, they didn't want to answer, they'd say. "I'm glad you asked that," and then give a packaged answer that had little or nothing to do with the question.

I don't know how Harris made it this far without being able to fake it.

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