Good literacy skills are vital for children to access learning and to navigate work and life as adults. It is easy to see why the development of literacy skills is given so much emphasis within the national curriculum. Educational policy, however, puts very little emphasis on development of oral language skills after Year R/P1, which sadly sends a message that it should not be a priority for schools. This is despite the strong evidence base showing that oral language skills underpin the development of literacy skills, and, if you think about it, we need to use our listening and talking skills so much more in our everyday lives than our literacy skills.

Children starting school with poor speech and language skills will struggle to develop literacy, because reading and writing are language skills; they must apply random shapes (letters) to the sounds in words. In the same way, children with literacy difficulties, may struggle to develop their language skills, particularly their vocabulary and world knowledge, because so much of our language learning happens through reading.

For all children, completing more tasks focused on oral language skills and less tasks focused on reading and writing, will help them to engage in their learning and boost both literacy and language skills. It is not essential, or effective for many children, to only use tasks that rely on reading and writing for learning.

Put down the pens and paper

Include activities that do not rely on only reading and writing, but focus on developing listening skills, understanding of spoken language and talking. Consider the aim of your lesson and whether this can be achieved by a task focusing on oral language.

You could organise a debate to develop pupils’ abilities to structure an argument, or read part of a story as a class and ask the pupils to role play what the characters might do next. Use photos, videos or voice recordings to collect evidence of the outcome of tasks.

Who’s talking in the classroom?

Often, it’s the adults who do most of the talking, while the pupils are expected to be quiet. To develop spoken language skills, we need to provide more opportunities for the children to do the talking.

Address questions to the class and ask them to discuss their answers in groups, before feeding back to the class. Encourage children to question each other’s ideas by asking “Do you agree with that?” or “What do you think about that?” Asking children ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions supports them to extend their thinking using language and develop their problem-solving skills. They will only be able to explain, debate, analyse and reason in their writing, if they can do this successfully when speaking.


The importance of vocabulary knowledge for learning cannot be overstated, but we can tend to focus on the number of words that children know (or are able to read) rather than building children’s systems for learning and storing words. Children need to build up strong links between words to successfully understand and retrieve them for talking, reading and writing.

Talk about the features of words, describing key points about its meaning, sound structure and spelling. Using new words, lots of times in your talking in context and providing children with opportunities to use the words in their spoken language, will consolidate their knowledge and support them to transfer this to their written work.

Making inferences

Being able to understand spoken or written language, is often not just about understanding the words, but about understanding how their meaning can change according to the context that they are in. When talking (and writing) we don’t always explicitly say what we mean, so it’s really important to be able to read between the lines to work out the implied meaning. Children often struggle with this, when reading, so it is important to develop children’s abilities to make inferences and deductions from visual and spoken information before they are required to do this from text.

Try watching video clips, pausing them and asking what might happen next and why. During science lessons, make predictions about the outcomes of different hypotheses. Present the class with a picture and ask them questions to deduce what they are looking at, e.g. “When do you think this picture was taken? Why do you think that?” Children who are can make inferences from pictures and videos have been found to be better at comprehending texts.

Metacognitive Strategies

Sometimes we realise that we have not understood a word or sentence that we are reading or we have become distracted and need to go back and reread that part again. This skill: identifying when we don’t understand and knowing what to do about it, is crucial for independent learning, and children need to be taught how to do this. Many new readers focus on the decoding and not on understanding what they are reading.

Support children to identify when they don’t understand something that has been said in the classroom and to ask for help to clarify their understanding. This can then transfer to their reading and encourage them to develop problem solving skills that they can use, such as using the context around a word to work out what it might mean.

So, try putting down the pens and paper to focus on oral language and see the impact on engagement and learning for yourself!

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