Oracy: children’s skills are skewed by deprivation and privilege. How can schools bridge the gap?

Julie Dockrell.

An All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) has been set up to make Parliament and the public aware of how important the ability to communicate is as a life skill and the impact communication difficulties have on people’s lives. The APPG, which aims to press for increased provision of speech and language therapy, is to gather evidence this month.

Here is some of the research evidence that will be informing their discussions and their final report, due next year.

We know that developing strong oracy skills – the ability to speak fluently and listen well – is the key to effective communication throughout life, through both the spoken and written word. For many children who have difficulty with oral language, behaviour, mental health and academic attainment are affected. In addition, language difficulties are the most common special need in the early years, with their frequency skewed toward the most deprived children and those whose first language is not English.

Oracy is not prioritised in the curriculum. This is particularly unfortunate because research shows that language skills are the most consistent predictor of future academic and social skill levels. The lack of focus on oral language skills means that school staff are not well prepared to meet children’s needs or to judge their language levels. A further problem is that no national gold standard has been developed for identifying language benchmarks or language difficulties.

Evidence from projects such as the government-funded Better Communication Research Programme (BCRP) shows what is needed. Children acquire strong oracy skills through frequent, effective and high-quality conversations with adults and other children. Those who do not arrive at school with such an advantage need to have such opportunities systematically embedded within the school curriculum. It is talking with children in specific ways that matters. Early years teachers have a key role by supporting children’s engagement in conversations, using a slow pace and open-ended questions.

We need much more professional development for teachers in oracy, especially since there is often little about it in initial teacher education. Teachers themselves have highlighted the need for bespoke resources, especially for upper primary and secondary schools. In recent years, a Communication supporting Classroom Tool has been developed in the wake of the BCRP to help staff profile their school’s language learning environment.

In addition, the Supporting Spoken Language in Classrooms programme developed by the IOE’s Centre for Inclusive Education helps staff develop whole-school practice.

Without system wide reform, such tools can only go so far. It is to be hoped the APPG will bring a strong message to government that oracy is far more than the poor relation of reading and writing.

Posted in Childhood & early education, Language and literacy, Special educational needs and psychology
4 comments on “Oracy: children’s skills are skewed by deprivation and privilege. How can schools bridge the gap?
  1. John Hodgson says:

    The National Association for the Teaching of English has made this argument via numerous studies, large and small scale, for the last half century. Some of the earlier studies were conducted with the support of consultative bodies such as the Schools Council. However, since the closure of such consultations, government has reduced the importance of speaking and listening in the English curriculum and its assessment at GCSE. I hope this initiative has some success, but I’m not holding my breath. .

  2. This is all good stuff – I would only add that oracy is also vital for metacognition – if you lack the ability to communicate effectively with others then you also lack the ability to have a debate with yourself, which is just as important.

    I sometimes wonder if ‘rhetorical’ skills should be explicitly taught. They can certainly be rehearsed through metacognition.

  3. Professor Emeritus Rosemary Davis CBE says:

    One strategy which has been shown to have extremely positive outcomes in both short and long term benefits has been evidenced through the Ypsilanti Weikert approach of Plan, Do, Review. In this, young children at the EYPS stage talk in group/circle time, about their intentions for play based activity ( freely chosen). They then carry out their intentions and afterwards, verbally review their activities.

    This approach not only assists oral language, but also children’s thought processes and planning abilities (executive function) with support, therefore, for their overall cognitive development and with relevance for higher order language skills.

  4. Yes, I can see how this would work.

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