Promising developments in speaking are starting in schools

There are some exciting advances right now, promoting learning though the use of speech and discussion in some forward-thinking schools in the UK. At the forefront, not only in emphasising speaking skills, but in developing a whole philosophy of learning through talk and discussion, is School 21 in East London.

School 21 describes itself as “a state-funded, non-selective 4-18 school in Stratford, East London. It is an innovative school, committed to doing things differently for the twenty-first century. The school supports its students to become articulate children who can take on the world, through dedicated oracy lessons and a culture of productive talking throughout the school.”

So what is Oracy? School 21 has teamed up with Cambridge University’s Education department for the further development of Oracy. They divide Oracy skills into 4 categories:-

Cognitive – the deliberate application of thought to what you are saying

Linguistic – knowing which words and phrases to use, and using them

Physical – making yourself heard, using your voice and body as an instrument

Social – engaging with the people around you; knowing you have the right to speak

“Oracy” really represents the set of talk skills that children, that people, should develop, in the same way that we would expect people to develop reading and writing skills. [It] sums up that teachable set of competencies to do with spoken language” Professor Neil Mercer Cambridge University Department of Education

The School is supported by the 21 Trust and Voice21.

“The 21 Trust creates education institutions and programmes designed to help children succeed in the 21st century.” Voice 21 is a campaign to raise the status of oracy in schools across the UK and get more talking into class. Voice 21 is working with schools across the UK to help develop the tools and resources to ensure every student is taught to communicate effectively. It believes that oracy, the ability to communicate effectively using spoken language, should have the same status as numeracy and literacy. Voice 21 is launching an inquiry, led by an independent Commission, to consider and make recommendations on the future of speaking within our education system.

Next time I’ll describe the inspiring day that my colleague Lisa Field and I spent at School 21.


Learning to speak with confidence is at the heart of effective communication

I was asked recently – whilst teaching interpersonal skills during a visit to China – where did my interest in promoting speaking skills start? I had to think for a moment, as this has been a passion for many years now and I had almost forgotten how it all began.

In 2004, after around 12 years teaching Speech and Drama at Benenden, one of England’s top girls’ boarding schools, I decided it was time to expand my activities and I started to also teach speaking skills to the wider business community, under the name Speak Up.

I was having lunch with Benenden’s director of studies when he made a connection between the two sides of my business. “Graham, with you and your Speak Up programme, do you think you can get the Chinese girls to speak up. They are so quiet in class and we want them speak up and join in more!”

Here’s a challenge, I thought. I didn’t want the girls to think they were being singled out for a lack of skills, so I described the classes as fun sessions designed to increase confidence in Spoken English and I booked a comedian actor friend. We did lots of drama games and role play, and showed the girls how they could join in conversations between loud and talkative English girls and how they could use body language to gain more confidence. The girls described our lessons as ‘confidence fun time’ and they all made great progress as well as enjoying themselves. This was when I first realised that with a carefully selected combination of lively and fun drama exercises, all students, (not just those who already like drama) could benefit greatly. A very successful recipe for boosting confidence and encouraging more fluent English.

Following the success of these sessions I was asked to take the programme to Hong Kong.

Benenden school’s much loved benefactor, Hong Kong businessman Mr Michael Leung, is governor of a number of schools there and he promoted our summer holiday course in HK under the name ‘Speaking with Confidence’. I ran these courses for four years and for the last two I was assisted by whole of the Lee family!

This was the beginning of my fasciation in and love for Hong Kong and mainland China. We took advantage of those four years to travel widely in China and since then we have kept up contacts and interests there. Recently we have visited Guangzhou, Shanghai and Hong Kong to run courses, as well as collaborating on a book for the Chinese market about applying to English Boarding schools.

I still firmly believe that a key to success in life is learning how to develop personal confidence, so that you can speak confidently. Look at the successful people around you or in the media. Those who have made it to the top in business, politics and the media show this personal confidence and an ability to use their communication skills to connect with everyone they meet.

I have been disappointed with the recent lack of emphasis on speaking skills in many schools in the UK state sector. This is typified by the down-grading of the speaking and listening section of the English Language GCSE.

In my next piece I shall write about an innovative initiative to develop speaking skills in schools. An initiative that absolutely aligns with my many years of working in this area in the UK and China.

Teaching English teachers in Guangzhou some confidence building tips

Young People: We need your voice  

“What would you say is your greatest strength?”  I asked the audience.

The bright faces before me glanced uneasily at one another. I was speaking at a schools’ conference in India on choosing universities and future careers.  At Prep4 our aim is to help young people find their “voice” and we always stress how important it is to “follow your passion” when making life choices, rather than simply being led by school or family expectations. Knowing yourself and thinking about your best (and worst!) qualities can be very helpful when making decisions.  I nodded encouragingly as a girl stood up near the back,

“Ma’am” she said, her voice ringing clearly across the hall, “I’m strong”.

Later I reflected that she would need that strength to find her own “voice” as she and her classmates prepared to face the challenges of India: a wonderful, varied country, with the fastest growing economy in the world, but also some of the greatest inequalities.  Her walk to class in the morning took her past the city’s largest slum, where girls her age were forced to beg or work as prostitutes for criminal gangs. Basic living standards which her UK counterparts take for granted, seem like a distant dream for many Indians, with almost a quarter living below the official poverty line.

Over this last year my colleague Graham and I have had the privilege of working with talented students not only in the UK, but in Hong Kong, China, as well as India.  Despite huge differences in their economic, social and political circumstances, we find most of these young people share similar concerns. They work hard, but worry excessively about university and employment prospects.  Of course academic qualifications are important, but employers are not just looking for a bunch of “A grades”, they need well rounded people, who can work independently and as part of a team, taking the initiative and making good decisions. To learn these skills it helps young people enormously if they engage in the world around them. At Prep4 we encourage our students to be well-informed about local and national issues, so that they can be ready to take an active and positive role in their communities.

As a journalist and former BBC reporter, students often ask me “how can I get a job in the media?” I suggest they start writing, broadcasting and blogging etc as soon as possible. Most schools and colleges have plenty of opportunities to get involved in campus newspapers and radio, but people often seem surprised when I tell them to aim high and approach national newspapers with their articles and ideas too. The “young voice” tends to be ignored by many of the world’s leading media agencies. Adult contributors have plenty to say about the issues affecting young people, such as education, but their own views are rarely heard. A number of editors I know however would leap at the chance to publish well-written, coherent work from younger students, but they are not approached and the material is not available to them.

Back at the conference we talked of how important it is to get out of your “comfort zone” and try new things. You may fail, but no one has ever achieved anything by staying still. The would-be journalist should not be afraid to knock on door of the news editor, people in general should not be afraid to voice their thoughts or follow their ideals.

My young friend had something more to say, “I am strong” she repeated, “but I am also patient.”

A perfect combination of qualities to deal with the challenges she will face.  We need her voice and

I hope and believe it will be heard.

Graham’s visit to Guangzhou

Graham’s visit to Guangzhou

I enjoyed an excellent visit to Guangzhou to deliver a pilot programme of interpersonal skills training for teachers at the ZWIE group of school schools. The visit was organised Betsy Ng of Prep4 Hong Kong in conjunction with ZWIE principal Dr Wei. Betsy was ably assisted by Anson Lo and supported by Lily Zhang.

The trial workshops were attended by teachers from Guangzhou Foreign Language Primary School attached to Sun Yat-Sen University, ZWIE’s Guangzhou Huangpu Modern Olympic Training Centre, ZWIE’s Guangzhou Foreign Language Secondary School attached to Sun Yat-Sen University, and ZWIE’s Huangpu Experimental Primary School attached to Sun Yat-Sen University.

The workshop training consisted of a programme of confidence building and interpersonal skills activities ranging from classroom games and learning styles to Ppt presentations, by way of poetry, drama and mask work, voice work and body language. It was a busy and productive week for all concerned and feedback from the teachers has been excellent.

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Prep4 Play in a Day Workshop

Title Prep4 Play in a Day Workshop


Prep4 organised a fantastic day full of drama and fun for our Play in a Day workshop during the Easter holidays. Our team of budding actors created a brilliant 20 minute play, packed with action, laughter and music, which they performed to impressed parents and friends at the end of a very busy day. Congratulations to them all!

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Anson Lo’s Action Packed Visit to England

Anson Lo’s Action Packed Visit to England


We had a visit from Anson Lo from Prep4Hong Kong. Anson spent a week visiting UK schools with Victoria Davies Jones, Xiaomoa Lily Zhang and Betsy Ng from Prep4 Hong Kong and David Boddy from ASIS.

After his school visits Anson spent two weeks with the Lee family in the heart of the Sussex Countryside, working with us on a special programme to build up confidence and interpersonal communication skills in English. We also devised a special extension programme for Anson to experience a wide selection of British and European life.  He joined a Mandarin lesson at Benenden School and delivered a presentation about China to the reception class at Broad Oak School in Heathfield.

Our programme of extension visits varied from “The Seagulls” (Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club) to Cheltenham races, Oxford University as well as London plus a taste of Europe with a trip on the Le Shuttle to the ancient city of Bruges in Belgium.  We were sad to see Anson leave at the end of the two weeks but we were delighted with his increased confidence and very good command of English.

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It has been a busy couple of months with lots of activities interspersed with a couple of bouts of illness so that’s my excuse for the blog getting rather behind. So now my late New Year resolution to catch up with reports on all activities.

At the end of January I accompanied the Benenden Youth Speaks teams to the Kent county round of Youth Speaks, the Rotary International Public Speaking Competition. Both Junior and Senior teams performed with enthusiasm and proficiency in front of a large audience at the competition which was held at the Newline Academy Maidstone. Benenden competed against seven strong teams from schools across Kent and Sussex. Sadly, no prizes this year but a great experience for the girls. They all agreed it was very useful and enjoyable and they would definitely want the school to enter again.

Prep 4

Prep 4

Prep 4

Youth Speaks by Graham Lee

Youth Speaks by Graham Lee


Over the last 6 weeks I had the pleasure of working with the Benenden School public speaking team, helping them with their preparations for the Rotary ‘Youth Speaks’ Competition. The competition is organised and promoted by Rotary International in Great Britain & Ireland and sponsored by Gandys (Orphans for Orphans). Benenden was asked if we’d like to host the competition and we were delighted to do so, welcoming visiting teams from Sutton Valence School and The Tower School, Ashford.

Youth Speaks is a four stage competition designed to support and encourage development of effective communication skills. The competition is open to teams of three students in full time education in two age groups: Intermediate 11 to 13 years and Senior 14 to 17 years. Each team member takes one of three roles: chairperson, speaker or vote of thanks, and is allocated a specific time to perform their role. With no intermediate team in our competition in this round, Tenterden Rotary decided that each team could include a younger speaker who would deliver a 4 minute speech and this would be judged separately from the senior team.

The evening was great success and the competition was a great opportunity for young people to practice their speaking skills in a structured and supportive environment.

Congratulations to Sutton Valence for winning the team event and at Benenden we were delighted that our Senior Speaker won the individual speaker cup with a talk on “Improving the Education System” and our Junior speaker won with a talk on “Does Religion Hinder Social Progress?”.

Our Senior speaker was Caitlin Powell and I asked her to write me a paragraph on how her experience was useful to her.

“When we present ourselves, or our projects or apply for jobs, the way we speak is incredibly important. Articulation and projection when talking before others, specially large groups of people is essential. Speaking confidently fills an audience with conviction. We are more likely to be persuaded by someone when they speak well and sound like they know what they are talking about. Public speaking is a key skill everyone should learn from a young age. Whether for business, competitions or jobs this skill is one I would recommend everyone to develop.”