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.