2 February 2024

This column appears in “The World of Education”. If you subscribe to Le Monde, you can subscribe to this weekly letter by following this link.

No one can seriously dispute the value of developing the oral skills of young people. The mastery of language establishes the power of the dominants. Language is a way of naming the world, of consolidating the so-called legitimate culture, the one that contributes to selecting the elites.

For too long, the working classes have been largely excluded from the most prestigious functions, relegated to menial jobs, partly through self-censorship. They didn’t have the codes, their members didn’t know how to speak well in public. Fortunately, the educational world has gradually become aware of this and is making efforts to integrate the spoken word into its training and partially restore the balance between young people from different social backgrounds.

This is an old concern of economics and social sciences (SES). Very early on, this discipline, born in the mid-1960s, developed exercises such as press reviews, role plays, debates; in other words, it encouraged the practice of oral activities.

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She was delighted with the appearance of supervised practical work (TPE) in 2000. After changes and a deletion in terminale, they remained in 1D with a dedicated two-hour schedule. This allowed the students to carry out regularly interesting research and to present productions that were certainly uneven, but often of good quality, even if every teacher had also had to deal with sloppy TPEs. These TPE involved a real work of oral presentation, in front of a jury of two professors who checked, in addition to oral skills, the solidity of the argument; they disappeared with the end of the playoffs in high school.

We are therefore not impressed by the pseudo “grand oral” of the “bac Blanquer” since 2021, much less innovative on this point than he claims. Nevertheless, this assessment makes it possible to continue to concern ourselves with the need to train students in oral communication.

Unsheath sharp words

The evaluation of the great oral is mainly and by definition based on the oral qualities. Among the criteria used are posture (the first phase is five minutes standing facing the jury), audible voice or not, fluency in speech, mastery of silences and of course strength of conviction.

Working on eloquence is often something else. We have seen a proliferation of eloquence competitions, including in schools. As much as I am in favor of activities that make it possible to trivialize public speaking and to improve it, I am reluctant about the desire to increase the number of eloquence contests, even if the tests do not lead to direct aggressive exchanges. Nevertheless, developing techniques to win oratorical contests means developing the logic of competition, encouraging destabilization, even defeating the adversary interlocutor.

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