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Context - Specific Oracy: Unveiling the True Nature of Effective Communication

Chris Quigley
Posted by Chris Quigley
April 10, 2024

Oracy – proficient speaking and attentive listening – has traditionally been perceived as a universal skill, equally applicable across diverse disciplines. However, this viewpoint overlooks the crucial complexities and nuances of effective communication. This blog delves into the multifaceted nature of oracy, arguing against the conception of it as a universally transferable skill, and highlights the importance of acknowledging its subject-specific attributes.

The Facade of Transferable Oracy

It's a common misconception that once students master the art of speaking and listening, they can seamlessly apply these abilities across all subjects and contexts. However, akin to a master painter who specialises in watercolours but struggles with oil paints, proficiency in oracy within one domain does not guarantee the same level of proficiency in another (Alexander, 2008). This is primarily because oracy is deeply embedded in content-specific knowledge and the unique discourse of each academic discipline (Wellington and Osborne, 2001).

Unveiling the Complexity of Oracy

Content-Specific Communication:

Proficiency in oracy is inherently tied to one's mastery over the subject matter. Communicating effectively in Mathematics, with its precise terminology and logical structure, requires a different set of oracy skills compared to articulating oneself in History, where narrative ability and chronological understanding are key (O'Connor and Michaels, 1993).

Cultural and Contextual Sensitivities:

Oracy is not merely about linguistic competence; it's also about understanding and adapting to the cultural and contextual underpinnings of communication. Students need to navigate not only the language but also the cultural nuances and expectations of different discourse communities (Gee, 2015).

Empirical Evidence Against the Universality of Oracy:

Research in educational settings, particularly studies focusing on Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) and disciplinary literacy, has consistently shown that oracy cannot be divorced from content knowledge and cultural context. These studies emphasise the significance of integrating language development with subject-specific learning to foster genuine comprehension and effective communication (Dalton-Puffer, 2007).

Implications for Teaching and Learning

Recognising oracy as a context-specific rather than a universally transferable set of skills has profound implications for teaching and learning. Educators are encouraged to:

  • Integrate Oracy with Content: Develop oracy skills in conjunction with subject-specific teaching, ensuring that students not only learn the content but also how to communicate effectively within that domain (Gibbons, 2006).
  • Foster Cultural Awareness: Encourage students to understand and respect the cultural nuances of different discourse communities, enhancing their communicative competence and empathy (Cummins, 1984).
  • Adopt a Holistic Approach: Move beyond viewing oracy as a mere linguistic skill, and recognise its cognitive, social, and emotional dimensions, promoting a comprehensive approach to communication (Mercer and Littleton, 2007).

In conclusion, dismantling the myth of universally transferable oracy skills and embracing its context-specific nature offers a more realistic and effective approach to nurturing communication skills. By acknowledging the rich tapestry of content knowledge, cultural context, and cognitive engagement that true oracy entails, educators can better equip students with the tools they need to navigate the diverse and complex landscapes of communication.



  • Alexander, R.J. (2008). Towards Dialogic Teaching: Rethinking Classroom Talk. York: Dialogos. This book emphasises the importance of dialogic teaching in developing students' thinking and learning through talk, challenging the notion of oracy as a universally applicable skill.
  • Wellington, J., and Osborne, J. (2001). 'Language and Literacy in Science Education.' Buckingham: Open University Press. This book explores the specific language demands of science education, highlighting the content-specific nature of oracy in scientific discourse.
  • O'Connor, M.C., and Michaels, S. (1993). 'Aligning Academic Task and Participation Status Through Revoicing: Analysis of a Classroom Discourse Strategy.' Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 24(4), pp.318–335. This study examines how teachers can enhance students' oracy skills by aligning academic tasks with participatory structures, emphasising the context-specific nature of effective communication.
  • Gee, J.P. (2015). Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses. 5th ed. London: Routledge. Gee discusses the role of language in social practices and identity formation, stressing the importance of cultural and contextual understanding in developing oracy.
  • Dalton-Puffer, C. (2007). Discourse in Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) Classrooms. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. This book provides insights into CLIL, illustrating how integrating language learning with content teaching enhances oracy in a content-specific manner.
  • Gibbons, P. (2006). Bridging Discourses in the ESL Classroom: Students, Teachers and Researchers. London: Continuum. Gibbons advocates for an approach to ESL teaching that bridges everyday language with the academic discourse, underscoring the importance of context in developing oracy.
  • Cummins, J. (1984). Bilingual Education and Special Education: Issues in Assessment and Pedagogy. San Diego, CA: College-Hill. Cummins introduces the distinction between BICS and CALP, highlighting the context-bound nature of academic language proficiency.
  • Mercer, N., and Littleton, K. (2007). Dialogue and the Development of Children's Thinking: A Sociocultural Approach. London: Routledge. This book presents a comprehensive view of how dialogue influences children's thinking and learning, arguing against the idea of oracy as a simple, transferable skill.



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