MPs call for oracy education to be post-Covid priority

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The speaking skills of some pupils have been affected by national lockdowns, especially among our Pupil Premium cohort. Campaigners are urging government and schools to put oracy at the heart of recovery. Pete Henshaw reports

The Covid-19 pandemic has hindered oracy and language development, with the impact being felt most by students living in poverty. A cross-party group of MPs is now calling for action to prioritise oracy skills as part of Covid recovery.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Oracy (APPG) has published the final report of its two-year “Speak for Change” inquiry into oracy education. The work began in 2019, but the inquiry was expanded last year to focus on the impact of the pandemic.

Covid-19 and oracy

The report confirms that Covid-19 has widened the language gap for some students.

Research conducted for the inquiry by the Centre for Education and Youth (Millard et al, 2021) found that 44 per cent of secondary teachers and 66 per cent of primary teachers report that the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on the spoken language development of their Pupil Premium students. This is compared to around 20 per cent of teachers who say that the oracy skills of their most advantaged pupils have been hit.

English teachers were most likely to report problems. One teacher told the inquiry: “Many of our children will not have had a full conversation in the whole lockdown period. They may not have been asked a question higher than a comprehension level. They will have missed out on hundreds of hours of exploratory, story and formal language.”

The report adds that 92 per cent of teachers believe that the “word gap” – which refers to when children have a vocabulary below age-related expectations – has widened further following lockdowns; seven in 10 teachers say that teaching online has also had a negative impact on oracy.

The Millard et al study concludes: “Responses to our poll paint a devastating picture regarding the pandemic’s impact on pupils’ oracy development. Teachers believe school closures will have a far more negative impact on Pupil Premium pupils than the most affluent. Many teachers feel teaching online negatively impacted upon opportunities to develop pupils’ oracy, with English and languages teachers feeling this most acutely.”

It adds: “Teachers are calling out for additional training and age-related guidance in oracy.”

Students already struggling with speech and language skills have been hit hard too. The report quotes March 2021 research from the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists showing that 81 per cent of children and young people received less speech and language therapy during lockdown, and 62 per cent did not receive any therapy at all. Referrals were down by around 50 per cent in April and May 2020 alone.

Also affected are pupils using English as an additional language. Ofsted has noted that “literacy-related learning losses had affected some pupils who speak EAL the most because they had not been speaking English during the first national lockdown” (see SecEd, 2021).

View from the chalkface

Schools SecEd has spoken to have echoed concerns about an impact on spoken language, including students being less willing to contribute during lessons, one-word answers, and a loss of vocabulary for some.

Josephine Smith, head of school at Kesteven and Sleaford High School in Lincolnshire, told us that some students had been “reticent to speak online”. She added: “Students have missed out on classroom and breaktime interaction. This means they haven’t had opportunities for so much purposeful talk for months. Students have missed the oracy-focused targeted questioning and discussion of the classroom and group work was tricky remotely.

“We are already planning CPD sessions ... and getting students to speak with purpose is definitely high on the list, as is managing effective group work.”

Helen Blachford, head of humanities and PSHE curriculum leader at Priory School in Hampshire, said that their work on developing students’ ability to “talk like an expert” – using subject-specific vocabulary and talking through responses before putting pens to paper – is now being ramped up: “It is something we are making a priority even more in lessons, as in the virtual lessons students were much less willing to contribute verbally and this has led to a lack of confidence and loss of vocabulary for some.”

Matt Perry, head at The Halifax Academy in Yorkshire, told SecEd: “We had done a huge amount of work on oracy before lockdown, encouraging longer answers, dialogic approaches and debates. This has been massively impacted. Students are more reticent in answers, use one-word answers and need a lot more scaffolding.”

And Emily Hazell, director of English at Shenley Brook End School in Milton Keynes, said that pupils in years 7 and 8 are showing evidence of a “spoken language gap”. She explained: “I don’t think this gap is necessarily one of vocabulary or ability to express ideas verbally, (it) is more in terms of the protocols of talk. The ‘teach from the front’ environment necessitated by the pandemic has meant that group work has been limited, meaning that we haven’t been able to practise the skills of group discussion in the way we would want to. Year 7 and 8 students also seem to struggle with the listening aspect of discussion and how to respond appropriately to each other’s contributions.”

The bigger picture

More widely, the APPG inquiry concludes that there is a “concerning variation” in the time and attention given to oracy across schools. It says that oracy is “undervalued in our education system”.

The report defines oracy as “the ability to articulate ideas, develop understanding and engage with others through social language”. The report states: “Research shows how the development of spoken language skills requires purposeful and intentional teaching. While some schools give oracy a high priority, many are not meeting the statutory requirements for spoken language.”

Only 23 per cent of secondary and 46 per cent of primary teachers are confident that they understand the “spoken language” requirements within the national curriculum, which set out expectations for oracy teaching and learning, including a learning progression for students.

The benefits of oracy

The APPG report sets out what it calls “compelling evidence” about the benefits of oracy, including improved academic outcomes, its role in underpinning literacy and vocabulary acquisition, its links to future careers, and also to good wellbeing and pupil confidence.

The Education Endowment Foundation’s trials of oral language interventions in schools have shown, the report says, that they can lead to five months additional progress over a year (six months for Pupil Premium students). The report adds: “Contributors to the inquiry have stressed the specific role of oracy in relation to language development, vocabulary acquisition and literacy.

“The ability to communicate effectively is an essential ingredient to both success in school and beyond.”


The APPG’s report calls for schools and the Department for Education (DfE) to raise the status and priority of oracy education, including by increasing teacher confidence and capability to teach it.

It states: “Oracy is seen as optional and without shared expectations and understanding, provision too often depends on an individual teacher’s perceptions of the value of oracy, their subject area, and the particular challenges their school faces.”

In particular, the report calls for non-statutory guidance from the DfE to help schools embed the statutory spoken language requirements of the national curriculum. It wants to see oracy included as part of the Covid recovery programme, too.

The report also calls on exams watchdog Ofqual to “review the best means of assessing spoken language at GCSE to ensure assessment at this vital stage is fit-for-purpose”.


Charity Voice 21, which provides the secretariat for the APPG, works with schools to promote effective oracy education. CEO Beccy Earnshaw is hopeful the report could be a “turning point” for oracy education.

She said: “The stark evidence presented on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on spoken language serves to strengthen the need to act now.

“As with our own research, the report finds that teachers recognise the importance of oracy but often face barriers in giving it the attention it deserves. We therefore welcome the APPG’s calls for greater investment in teacher development for oracy and new non-statutory guidance from the DfE.”

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