Oracy: The urgent need for change and the role of schools as change agents

A guest post by Dr Elaine Allen OBE

 

The uphill struggle

The need to develop children’s spoken language capabilities in early years and primary education is nothing new. It has been part of the National Curriculum since its origins and indeed, in the Early Years and Foundation Stage (EYFS), it is rigorously prioritised and assessed through the prime area of communication and language.

Given such a heavy focus in the early years, and in my view rightly so, it will come as no surprise that professional development for EYFS practitioners has also been prioritised. Blackpool, an area with high levels of social and educational disadvantage, is just one area where professional development and training in how best to develop children’s early language has been provided for many years now, supported most recently through ‘Better Start’ funding.

We know that those settings serving areas with substantial economic and social disadvantage have an uphill struggle from the outset and must work hard in developing spoken language through children’s back-and-forth interactions at every opportunity. Given the fact that the ‘number and quality of the conversations they have with adults and peers throughout the day in a language-rich environment is crucial’ (EYFS FW, 2024; p.9), it seems self-evident that increasing the staffing ratio is one way to ensure these interactions are quickly developed. However, with limited budgets and difficulties in staff recruitment and retention, this has not always been possible.

“It’s not about dismissing regional accents”

Fortunately, the most skilled practitioners know how to maximise these interactions and use the reading of stories, non-fiction, rhymes, poems and songs to ensure no opportunities are missed in exposing children to a range of language interactions, constantly modelling a rich range of vocabulary and language structures appropriate to different contexts. Such work is not about dismissing the myriad ways in which children talk or denigrating regional accents, but rather giving children access to language that helps their learning, helping them to communicate in a variety of contexts, and giving them the confidence to do so.

What happens as these children transition into Year 1 and beyond?

In my experience, this is where a deeper issue emerges. Whilst many teachers know some very effective ways to develop spoken language skills, these skills are not always explicitly taught – and where they are being taught, it is not always done in a systematic way that allows for appropriate progression of these skills as children move through school.

We know that ‘speech and communication lie at the heart of classroom practice. It is the predominant way in which teachers provide instruction and support to their students and is central to how most students engage with the curriculum’ (Millard & Gaunt, 2018). This is not, as far as I am aware, in dispute. The issue is, how are we developing this practice and ensuring all our children are developing their spoken language sufficiently through the teaching and learning process?

“Understanding that spoken language needs to be systematically taught – and assessed – is where a problem lies”

Whilst we all know that spoken language development is formally part of the National Curriculum, really understanding that it needs to be systematically taught – and indeed assessed – throughout the entire school journey, is where a problem lies. My view is that the teaching and learning of oracy in England is simply not being sufficiently prioritised.

Ofsted need to do more

In my own Hub school’s latest Ofsted inspection in November 2023, after three years of dedicated and explicit oracy implementation across the whole school, there was not one mention of this practice (or as Ofsted would refer to it, spoken language teaching and learning) within the report. It is interesting to note that reading became a priority in schools when Ofsted changed its inspection framework in 2019 with a dedicated focus and ‘deep dive’ into reading; so change and adaptation to the inspection framework is possible. Clearly the inspection framework’s focus will need to change if oracy is to be given the priority it deserves.

We know that there are many language interventions being used in schools, but the success of these can also depend upon the quality of the universal spoken language offer, which is how language is developed in everyday teaching and learning across the curriculum. With the Education Endowment Foundation highlighting how important it is that, in any interventions, ‘spoken language activities are matched to learners’ current stage of development, so that it extends their learning and connects with the curriculum’ (EEF, 2021), assessment is importantly connected to subsequent learning.

If we are not assessing our learners’ spoken language, how will we be able to appropriately match spoken language activities to their current preparedness? And how do we know how sufficient our learners’ language skills are if we are not assessing what they can and cannot do year on year, and against an agreed framework?

Not a quick fix

With these questions in mind, four years ago I decided to prioritise oracy at the school where I was Headteacher, and implement its practice in a way that was as systematic and rigorous as our reading journey had been. As with the successful implementation of any whole school initiative, having a proven research-evidenced framework is a necessary starting place, supplemented with quality training for both leaders and practitioners, ongoing training, support and external challenge.

This is not a quick fix. These initiatives take time to implement and embed and leadership need to ensure momentum is maintained to counter the ongoing issues which can, and constantly do, arise in all educational settings; staffing changes, budget constraints, Ofsted priorities and incoming DfE initiatives, to name but a few. As there are no prescribed timelines for implementing an educational change strategy well – with it not being unusual to spend between 2 and 4 years on the implementation process for a complex, whole-school initiative – a clear implication is that schools should treat implementation as a major commitment and prioritise effectively (EEF, 2021).

The Oracy Benchmarks

Voice 21, a UK-based oracy education charity, was launched in 2015, informed by innovative practice as well as research conducted with Cambridge University and the Education Endowment Foundation. The mission of Voice 21 is to ‘transform the learning and life chances of young people through talk so that all children can use their voice for success in school and in life’; they do this in a similar way to Oracy Cambridge, by working in partnership with teachers and schools who are involved in the Voice 21 schools’ membership.

Helpful in whole-school focused development are Voice 21’s Oracy Benchmarks, which outline what ‘constitutes a high-quality oracy education providing a robust and realistic framework for teachers and school leaders looking to develop oracy in their contexts’ (Voice 21 website). This framework for the development of whole school oracy practices, informed by academic literature about best practice for oracy and drawing upon the research evidence into oracy and its impact on students (Voice 21, 2019; p.9), provided the ‘template’ for my staff and I to work with.

In September 2020, we made the decision to join forces with Voice 21, utilising the whole school Oracy Benchmarks and the self-evaluation audit tool, identifying targets for improvement and in turn identifying a way forward with the necessary professional development. Two oracy champions, with a passion for improving practice, were chosen to lead the work internally with a supporting external coach provided and training began.

Unexpected improvements in self-regulation

We are now in our fourth year of working with Voice 21, continuing to embed the practice necessary to address each of the Oracy benchmarks. In every classroom within the school, we can now evidence how a focus on quality talk in the learning process has not only impacted positively on the children’s learning outcomes but has also enabled our children to utilise these communication skills in situations outside of the learning context, for example when involved in social interactions on the playground.

Being able to better articulate their needs and frustrations through the appropriate choice of language practised in the classroom, as well as to utilise other aspects of oracy – such as active listening and the ability to ‘interthink’ (use talk as a tool for thinking together, Littleton & Mercer 2013) – has in turn meant improvements overall in self-regulation, something we did not actively set out to achieve.

Giving children dedicated time and support to talk within the teaching and learning process not only improved behaviour for learning, with less learning disruption, but also enabled children to communicate their needs in a more appropriate manner when they needed to. Interestingly, one of the barriers identified as standing in the way of quality and consistent oracy in all lessons was as teachers’ anxiety that pupils’ behaviour could get worse (Voice 21, 2019; p. 5). In my school we have established the opposite.

Scaling up

Following the success of focused oracy practice within my own school, and using dedicated PEIA funding, we were able to support half of the Blackpool schools to participate in a town-wide oracy project starting in September 2023. These schools include primary, special and secondary schools. Over the next 18 months this network of schools is on a journey to explore, and share, best practices in implementing a whole school culture of oracy with key external support. During this time, the schools are also taking part in a research project to look in more detail at the relationship between improved oracy and self-regulation. Having such a large sample of schools in a similar context, it was too good an opportunity to miss. I look forward to seeing what the research will tell us about the explicit teaching of spoken language and its relationship with behaviour, a current priority in many schools across the UK.

An urgent question of social justice

To conclude, to really embed successful oracy practice in our schools, school leaders must firstly acknowledge that prioritising the development of children’s oracy skills is an urgent matter of social justice and must therefore be prioritised alongside other elements of literacy. This means it needs to be planned for and consistently taught like any other curriculum priority, which in turn requires an oracy framework and dedicated teacher professional development.

Without proficient skills in oracy, children will never be able to engage fully in their learning or develop successful relationships. In addition, as with reading, the process of successful implementation will need to be triangulated with a prioritisation in the Ofsted inspection framework. Interestingly, I note that these recommendations were also advised by Professor Neil Mercer to the Oracy APPG (All-Party Parliamentary Group) Inquiry, in April 2020. What is rather concerning however, is that four years later, there has not been a significant move made towards their implementation. It is vital, therefore, that we continue to advocate for change that will make a difference to our children’s lives.

* About the author

Dr Elaine Allen is currently chair of the English Hub Council, Blackpool Literacy Lead and Strategic lead at the St John Vianney English Hub.

References

DfE (2023) Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) Statutory Framework. London: Crown.

EEF (2021) Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation. London: Percipio.

Littleton, K., & Mercer, N. (2013). Interthinking: Putting talk to work. Abingdon: Routledge.

Mercer, N. (2020). Prof Neil Mercer’s evidence to the Oracy APPG – ORACY CAMBRIDGE): Oracy Cambridge Website

Miller, W., & Gaunt, A. (2013). Speaking up: The importance of oracy in teaching and learning. Impact 3: 12–15

Millard, W., & Menzies, L., (2019) The State of Speaking in our Schools. Voice 21 publications.

 

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