- North Liverpool Academy serves a diverse and relatively deprived community. 30% of students have English as an additional language, and over 50% are on free school meals.
- Two-thirds of teachers in primaries and nearly a half in secondaries have said that the closures had had a negative effect on the language skills of their most deprived students.
- Eight in ten headteachers say oracy should be a priority now schools have reopened. More than three-quarters of all teachers think oracy is vital for success across the curriculum.
Few people in education would deny that oracy is an essential skill for children to acquire. It allows them to become more effective talkers and listeners and to better understand themselves, each other and the world around them. Indeed, eight in ten headteachers in a recent report from the Oracy All Party Parliamentary Group suggested oracy should be a priority now schools have reopened, while more than three-quarters of all teachers think oracy is vital for success across the curriculum.
But how do teachers embed oracy in a school and what are the consequences for children if it is neglected?
The vocabulary gap
Ian Mooney is an oracy specialist based at the North Liverpool Academy (NLA), a stone’s throw from Everton’s Goodison Park and even closer to Liverpool’s Anfield football ground. The community his school serves is relatively deprived, 50-60% of the NLA’s students are on free school meals, and it’s also culturally diverse with 30% of children having English as an Additional Language.
Yet the students with the biggest oracy problems, says Ian, are native English speakers. And this presents a real problem because children with limited vocabulary will struggle to read and understand what teachers are saying. “We have students who understand Tier 3 words but who don’t understand Tier 1 vocabulary*. As teachers, we should never assume the students in front of us know the meaning of the words we are using.”
Unlocking the curriculum
As children progress through the school, any vocabulary deficiency they may have won’t always be obvious, Ian says, because they often learn to parrot more complex Tier 3 words despite not understanding the context in which they are used. “There will be children at Key Stage 4 or 5 who understand all the specialist vocabulary in a subject area but won’t be able to answer a question about it in an exam because they can’t understand all the words in that sentence.”
Poor oracy limits access to the entire curriculum, he points out. “Our number one priority across the Trust is language and literacy. Oracy is a major element, but it’s often neglected. It’s not just something for the English department; everyone in a school should take every opportunity they can to talk to the students during the course of the day.”
Most research, he says, suggests people need to hear a word at least 17 times in context before they can fully understand it and master its use.
Identifying those who need support
To identify those who will need support, Ian, who is based at the NLA, but is the Strategic Lead on Assessments and Partnerships for the Northern Schools Trust, uses a combination of two assessments – first the Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT4), when prospective students are in their primary schools in Year 6, and then New Group Reading Test (NGRT), when they’ve started at the NLA in Year 7.
“We look closely at the differences between verbal and non-verbal reasoning and the make-up of their verbal score in CAT4, and cross check that with their reading ability in NGRT,” he explains. “If you look at the two assessments combined, you’ll be able to identify a group of students who may need extra support in literacy.”
In a typical intake of 230, Ian says, approximately 70 will usually need literacy support. “I’ll test these children with the British Picture Vocabulary Scale (BPVS), because in my experience some of those with low reading scores will have them because they have poor vocabulary.”
These students he will split into three groups, one of which will consist of those with the weakest vocabulary. “Individuals we’ve given a lot of support to – we have a 20-minute reading session at the beginning of each day, for instance – have really improved because now they find reading fun and listening comfortable.”
Oracy in lockdown
Serial lockdowns curtailed the NLA’s oracy ambitions a little – assessments had to be delayed, numbers had to be limited in the summer school. According to the Oracy APPG report, nationally, two-thirds of teachers in primaries and nearly a half in secondaries have said that the closures had had a negative effect on the language skills of their most deprived students.
Ian agrees that increased screen time has had a detrimental effect on conversational skills generally, though he points out that some children, particularly those who may have been intimidated by the class environment, thrived during lockdown.
The school devised ways to teach oracy despite the restrictions. One of those was a ‘cookalong’, where children followed recipes, gave oral presentations of the recipes and learned to use a whole raft of vocabulary in a meaningful way: “They were learning without knowing it,” he says.
Another task that helped with both oracy and reading was researching family trees. Students were encouraged to talk to older family members, to listen to their stories, to share them with their classmates and research what records were available online. This project proved immensely popular – not surprising given students discovered connections with a professional footballer, Ringo Starr, the Titanic and Catherine Parr. Here’s just one of their stories – watch Year 7 student, Jacob, talk about his discoveries.
Advice for other schools
What advice would he give to schools who want to improve oracy? “It has to be part of a whole-school culture. Every adult in school, regardless of their job, should be encouraged to have conversations with students at every opportunity.”
The NLA works with oracy charity Voice 21 that trains teachers and helps schools develop an oracy plan. “We now have two oracy champions who cascade knowledge learnt at Voice 21 throughout the school. And in each core department we have someone who is tasked with looking at vocabulary in their subjects to see where there might be issues.”
Ian stresses that all departments can play a part: “PE, for instance, offers a great opportunity to learn oracy skills. Children have to carry out an activity under instruction, they have to listen and share information, they have to learn to take turns.”
However, he recognises that obstacles in some schools remain: “People often say they don’t have time, they can’t fit oracy into the curriculum, or they would lose control if they allowed too much talk.”
But he counters that developing good oracy skills also involves verbal discipline: “It’s also about learning to take turns, to listen, to allow different points of view, and about teaching children that the loudest person in the class isn’t the only one who gets to have an opinion.”
Ultimately, he points out, oracy is essential: “Talking is a good thing. It’s an essential skill – you can’t get on in life without it.”
Top oracy tips
- Make oracy a whole school endeavour
- Encourage all staff – teaching and non-teaching – to have meaningful conversations with students
- Model oracy constantly – don’t miss an opportunity to instil it
- Use data – if possible cross check with more than one dataset – to identify which students need support
- Don’t assume that because a student appears to understand a complex word, they therefore know simpler words
*Three tiers of vocabulary
Language specialists divide vocabulary into three tiers:
- Tier 1 consists of basic, every day, high frequency spoken words
- Tier 2 is made up of high frequency words used in a variety of different contexts, such as books and written pieces
- Tier 3 consists of low frequency words used in specific contexts – words and phrases like ‘photosynthesis’ or ‘the divine right of kings’
Most children beginning secondary school are fluent in Tier 1, have a good grasp of Tier 2 vocabulary and are beginning to assimilate Tier 3 words. But not all – don’t assume anything.