A guide to oral history for schools and youth groups


What is oral history?

Oral history is the recording of people’s memories and opinions. It is variously described as ‘memories’, ‘personal testimony’, ‘reminiscence’, ‘true stories’ , ‘retelling’, ‘history within living memory’ or simply ‘remembering the past’. The Oral History Society’s Home page describes it as ‘A living history of everyone’s unique life experiences’, and as such it is relevant to many subjects apart from history, in fact most subjects in the national curriculum. It is also an ideal activity for youth groups, where young people may think they have no interest in the past, but want to learn to use recording equipment or to become interviewers and are then gripped by the stories told by their interviewees about childhood experiences or changes in the locality. We have provided some brief Audio Examples.

What young people gain from recording memories of older people


Skills for life

  • Speaking and listening.
  • Understanding the need for preparation.
  • Ability to react to the unexpected.
  • A sense of the past – similarities and differences.
  • An understanding of chronology – one thing following another…
  • …and sometimes causing another.
  • An ability to structure a narrative (beginning, middle and end) – at the heart of oral history training.
  • An ability to give full attention to another person – essential for oral history and for many relationships!

Increased interest in the curriculum at all ages

  • Recording memories increases interest in local and national history, world history and geography, sport, politics, citizenship and religious education.
  • Students enjoy direct experience of comparing and interpreting different sources.
  • Life-stories provide inspiration for works of art, performances, and writing of all kinds, from journalism to poetry and fiction.
  • Students of maths, science, modern languages, design and technology, computing or PE benefit from hearing the memories of people whose whole lives were influenced by these subjects, in their choice of career or leisure activity.
  • Students of many subjects learn valuable information about public records, copyright and the need to obtain consent.

Improved community relations

  • In inter-generational projects, young people find older people more interesting than expected; older people are surprised and touched by the interest of the young; experience is passed on from one generation to another; enduring relationships are formed which benefit institutions and individuals.
  • Multicultural projects increase mutual understanding and respect. Young people are interested in stories about life in other countries, journeys to this country and memories of adapting to life in the UK. Differences are explained and common ground is discovered e.g. in food memories – of growing food, festive meals, and adjusting to British supermarkets.

Increased confidence

  • Pupils who struggle with written English can be good interviewers. Oral history interviews use simple prompts rather than long written questions. (“What was the High Street like?”  “Describe your school”; “Tell me about your first job.”) 
  • English learners – even those who’ve only recently come to the UK – can achieve successful interviews, by listening hard and looking interested.
  • Young people are proud of being interviewers – an admired role in adult life.
  • Interviewing people is fun!

These pages for schools and youth groups were compiled by Oral History Society Regional Networkers, Julia Letts and Helen Lloyd.  We would  like to thank the following people who contributed ideas: Martin Bisiker, Gosia Brown, Stuart Butler, Rib Davis, Sarah Gudgin, Colin Hyde, Mary Ingoldby, Stephen Kelly, Rosa Kurowska, Sarah Lowry, Kate Melvin, John Ross, Pam Schweitzer, Kath Smith, Leanne Swales and Siobhan Warrington.

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