The Knowledge

How oracy supports vocabulary development

Voice 21's new impact report establishes oracy as an essential part of vocabulary acquisition, explains Kathleen McBride

Voice 21's new impact report establishes oracy as an essential part of vocabulary acquisition, explains Kathleen McBride

16 Oct 2023, 5:00

Research suggests that the impact of the breadth of a child’s vocabulary is particularly apparent as they move into secondary school where they frequently encounter unfamiliar academic vocabulary. Two years ago, we set out to understand how high-quality oracy education could support vocabulary development at the primary-secondary transition.

Since then, we have worked alongside three secondary schools and their feeder primary schools in Leicester, Pendle and the Black Country to develop an oracy-led, cross-phase approach to vocabulary development which supports students to understand and deploy new academic vocabulary and instils them with an enduring linguistic curiosity.

It was our sense that, while oral language is recognised as the most effective vehicle for learning new words, the value and importance of oracy education as a means to grow students’ vocabularies had been underplayed in the recent focus on vocabulary in schools.

Through our Voicing Vocabulary project, we have empowered over 30 teachers in 12 schools to cultivate language-rich classrooms. Voicing Vocabulary has supported over 1,530 students to interact with a wide-ranging, diverse and complex spread of vocabulary through spoken language and listening.

The impact has been striking, establishing oracy education as an essential part of any discussion on how to improve vocabulary teaching in schools. 

Year 6 and year 7 students in participating schools made accelerated progress in reading. At the start of the project, the proportion of students in Voicing Vocabulary schools with an above-average reading score was 19 per cent – four percentage points below the national average. By the end of the project. we saw an increase of nine percentage points to 28 per cent, meaning that students in Voicing Vocabulary schools are now more likely to have an above-average reading score than their peers nationally.

The impact has been striking, establishing oracy education as an essential

Through a deliberate and explicit approach to developing oracy, students in Voicing Vocabulary schools also gained the confidence to engage in class. At the end of the project, students in participating primary and secondary schools reported feeling more confident to speak in front of an audience and to discuss ideas in small groups. Teachers also noticed that students with speech, language and communication difficulties and those with English as an additional language felt better-supported to participate in classroom talk.

It’s an approach that can be replicated anywhere. Using insights from the project, we have identified five active ingredients of an oracy-centred approach to vocabulary development:

A shared understanding of oracy

In oracy-rich classrooms, talk is at the forefront of teaching and learning. To use talk for vocabulary learning across a school, teachers first need a shared understanding of high-quality oracy practice.

Prioritise vocabulary in planning

Discussion and decision-making around which vocabulary to teach is vital within and across subjects and phases. Voicing Vocabulary teachers became more aware of which words were most useful to teach and why, leading to changes in their practice.

Collaborate across phases

One of the key ways this happened was working with and planning alongside teachers from different key stages. Teachers in the project reported that doing so improved continuity of practice and increased understanding of language expectations across phases.

Contextualise new vocabulary

Carefully planned and scaffolded exploratory talk for learning provides students with multiple, low-stakes opportunities to hear and practise using new vocabulary in context, deepening students’ word knowledge and promoting ‘word ownership’.

Monitor ownership of new vocabulary

Talk is an effective vehicle for assessing students’ mastery of new language. Voicing Vocabulary participants reported that they now have more awareness of the words that their students don’t know and which they might need to teach.

Talk is one of most powerful tools – if not the most powerful tool – at every teacher’s disposal to develop literacy and fluency across the curriculum. The results of the Voicing Vocabulary project demonstrate not only the clear impact of an oracy-centred approach on vocabulary development, but crucially how to implement effective oracy teaching in schools and classrooms everywhere.

We are in no doubt: A planned and holistic approach to purposeful talking in class can be transformative.

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  1. Please make Oracy comfortable for ALL by ensuring that primitive reflexes are integrated so that the child has full and comfortable use of their throat and voice box. For any shy child the Moro reflex in particular should be integrated: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iA7ExcwS-M0&t=36s. For children with selective mutism there may be wider issues with several retained reflexes and the position of the psoas region (hips/spine/thighs can trap a lot of nerves when they come together). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEqSN6ymwK8&t=503s
    If you do not address basic developmental issues Oracy lessons can trigger chronic stress.