How might you answer this question? Some may say “that’s the focus of the English department”, or “we are building maths concepts here”.

What about the question ‘Who is responsible for spoken language in schools?’ Do you answer ‘Me!’? Many might look to someone to be responsible for developing spoken language skills in school.

The truth is that, unless we take responsibility for enabling good spoken communication skills, other skills and knowledge that we try to impart may well fall at the first hurdle. Consider everything from understanding what is said in class, developing good vocabulary, sentence structures and knowing how to use these appropriately in different contexts, including when writing.

Spoken language is the medium of education. Children or young people who can’t understand information given verbally, will be limited in their abilities to discuss, debate and describe concepts or issues. They may struggle to write information coherently and will find exams difficult.

Movement though the Key Stages appears to increasingly separate out skills for spoken language, however looking more closely we see this is not true.

The early years foundation stage (EYFS) curriculum includes a strong recognition that communication and language are central to learning. The EYFS refers to the crucial role of the ‘serve and return’ exchanges between an infant and adult, where communication connections are first formed and relationships built1. An even greater emphasis on supporting communication skills is highlighted in the programme summary and in the ‘Early Learning Goals for Communication and Language’.

Across the whole primary and secondary curriculum for England (key stages 1-4)2, there is a statement which identifies “Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based, and which:

  • promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and
  • prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.”
    Without appropriate spoken language skills, access to opportunities responsibilities and experiences of later life are restricted. This includes relationships, employment and mental wellbeing3.

The English curriculum across Key Stages 1 to 4 also states “Teachers should develop pupils’ spoken language, reading, writing and vocabulary as integral aspects of the teaching of every subject. English is both a subject in its own right and the medium for teaching; for pupils, understanding the language provides access to the whole curriculum.”

Specific reference to spoken language is made across all Key Stages and all subjects: “Pupils should be taught to speak clearly and convey ideas confidently using Standard English. They should learn to justify ideas with reasons; ask questions to check understanding; develop vocabulary and build knowledge; negotiate; evaluate and build on the ideas of others; and select the appropriate register for effective communication. They should be taught to give well-structured descriptions and explanations and develop their understanding through speculating, hypothesising and exploring ideas. This will enable them to clarify their thinking as well as organise their ideas for writing.”

There is specific detail on vocabulary development, i.e. “Pupils’ acquisition and command of vocabulary are key to their learning and progress across the whole curriculum. Teachers should therefore develop vocabulary actively, building systematically on pupils’ current knowledge…”

As well as attainment targets for spoken language in English, secondary maths and science curricula specifically mention “The National Curriculum for [mathematics /science] reflects the importance of spoken language in pupils’ development across the whole curriculum – cognitively, socially and linguistically. The quality and variety of language that pupils hear and speak are key factors in developing their [mathematical/scientific] vocabulary and [presenting a mathematical justification, argument or proof/ articulating scientific concepts clearly and precisely]. They must be assisted in making their thinking clear to themselves as well as others and teachers should ensure that pupils build secure foundations by using discussion to probe and remedy their misconceptions.”

Spoken language skills are required in any attainment target stating a pupil must: ‘ask questions’; ‘discuss’; ‘understand the concept of.’; ‘define’; ‘describe’; ‘sequence’; ‘memorise’; ‘recall’; ‘use and understand the terms.’; ‘label’; ‘interpret’; ‘classify’, ‘report on’; ‘evaluate’ etc. (Key Stage 1 and 2 terms) and in Key Stages 3 and 4: ‘interpret’; ‘express’; ‘solve problems’; ‘derive’; ’analyse’; ‘reason’; ‘develop understanding’; ‘evaluate’; ’pay attention to’; ‘develop a line of enquiry’; ‘make predictions’; ‘record observations’; ‘investigate’; ‘test’; ‘gain perspective’; ‘extend and deepen their knowledge’ etc.

The recent APPG report on oracy states a survey where over 50% of teachers described ‘no consistent approach’ to oracy4 development among pupils in their schools.

Worryingly, the same report highlights 92% of teachers believing school closures during lockdown contributed to a widening of the ‘word gap’. Ofsted also raised concerns of children “regressing in basic skills and learning”, including language, communication and oral fluency5.

Oracy improves children and young people’s cognitive development and academic attainment, their wellbeing, and life chances by enabling them to develop the spoken language skills necessary to thrive in further education, training and employment6.

Our challenge, therefore, is to revisit our curriculum areas and identify where requirements rely on strong spoken language. The next step is to consider strengthening these underpinning skills in schools and with individual pupils.

1 Revised EYFS – In focus… Communication & Language | Nursery World 2


4 Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry (April 2021) Speak for Change; Final report and recommendations

5 Ofsted, September 2020, COVID-19 series: briefing on schools


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