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Exploring oracy in early years and its links to literacy

What do we mean by oracy and why is it important? 

Oracy, a term coined by British researcher Andrew Wilkinson in 1965, characterises oral language ability.  

Voice 21 - UK’s oracy education charity defines oracy as our ability to communicate effectively using spoken language. It is the ability to speak eloquently, articulate ideas and thoughts, influence their views confidently and appropriately.”

Oracy is the literacy of the spoken word and using speech to construct knowledge and make meaning. It is so much more than just being grammatically correct.  It is how we speak and express ourselves by structuring our thoughts and knowledge, so they make sense. It is having a voice and knowing how to use it. 

It is a life skill and pivotal in improving educational outcomes, economic viability, literacy, and emotional skills as well as developing personal development (well-being, self-esteem, confidence, citizenship). The ability to communicate effectively is a fundamental ingredient to success in both early years and beyond.


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How are oracy and literacy linked?  

‘Reading and writing float on a sea of talk.’ James Britton, 1970  

The links between oracy and literacy are clear. They are like two sides of a coin and intertwined. Whilst oracy is the ability to speak, literacy is the ability to read and write. Oral language is a prerequisite to the development of literacy skills.  

Before we can read and write, we need to be able to speak and articulate our understanding.  An effective communicator has specific speaking and listening behaviours in place. To be a good speaker, we must be able to effectively express ourselves and our views, using language which stretches from the basic to complex. To be a good listener, we need to understand what is being said, process and organise our thoughts before we respond. Both aspects are active engagements, and necessary for children to fully access reading and writing.

Thinking skills and oracy are also interconnected. Children’s ability to think carefully about the language they are using and tailoring it to their purpose and audience is a key part of oracy. Explaining their thinking and learning supports the development of critical thinking and cognitive skills. Researchers Neil Mercer and Lyn Dawes state “They learn to use language as a tool for thinking, collectively and alone.” (Dawes & Mercer, 2015). 

So, oracy is important for language development and language is central to children’s development and learning. A level of language is required to be literate, and we know that children from disadvantaged families enter early years with much lower levels of communication and language skills than those from more affluent and language enriched homes. Children with a large vocabulary bank at the start of school also have better outcomes than those with language deprivation.  Limited vocabulary restricts ways of communication and impacts directly on children’s development and learning, and in general life.  

The rise in children entering early years with growing language and communication gaps over the years has been a significant concern within the sector. The recently published Speak For Change report (April 2021) by the Oracy All-Party Parliament Group highlights “the impact of the pandemic on an already marked ‘language gap’ between disadvantaged children and their peers.”  The Covid 19 pandemic has widened that impact across society. Many young children have missed out on vital social interactions and key early language development, which is crucial to later learning. Now more than ever, there is a need to raise the profile of oracy in the early years and close that language gap.

In the early years, oracy can be easily linked to the Prime Area of Communication and Language. The Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage March 2021 (page 8) states “The development of children’s spoken language underpins all seven areas of learning and development. Children’s back-and-forth interactions from an early age form the foundations for language and cognitive development.” However, the communication and language area has no greater status than all the others and lies alongside all the other Early Learning Goals of the Early Years Profile. Oracy education is not prioritised.

Learning across all the areas of learning and development is highly dependent on language development. Young children are required to learn to read, to form strong relationships, to express their feelings, to articulate ideas and structure them in speech. Good communication skills are essential be able to talk and listen, feel confident and make friends. Poor language puts children at risk of not being school ready - developmentally, emotionally, or academically. 

I CAN, the children’s communication charity’s enquiry into oracy (September 2019) highlights the need to place more value on the spoken language and recognises that development of language and communication skills do not just happen. Children need adults around them who understand how to support the development of the language skills needed for oracy education which provides a communication supportive environment. This is particularly important for children with speech, language, and communication needs (SLCN). It is also important for children with English as an Additional Language (EAL).




So, what can we do to support oracy in the early years?

An oracy aware and enriched environment has direct positive impact on children’s outcomes. It gives children a voice and helps them to communicate confidently to those around them; develop strong and positive relationships with adults and children; communicate their ideas; express their emotions and their needs; access everyday life; understand and engage with the world around them and that early language underpins later learning. It cultivates the acquisition of vocabulary necessary to better communicate and access the learning.

I would recommend some strategies for developing oracy:

·         Make oracy a priority. Give children the best opportunities to develop their oracy skills.

·         Create a holistic and consistent approach. Raise the status of oracy through policy and practice - developing a collective responsibility.

·         Empower staff confidence. Provide training in oracy and language development to develop knowledge, skills, and confidence. Build capacity by supporting any language planning and delivery.

·         Talk! Talk! Talk! Close the vocabulary gap! Identify the vocabulary hindering access to the communication and learning. Plan to introduce and model new vocabulary within context. Explore meaning and clarify any misconceptions.

·         Support sentence building. Model and recast different sentence forms clearly. You want to leave the children with a good, modelled sentence. Unless they hear a variety of ways of constructing sentences, they will be orally limited.

·         Develop receptive language alongside expressive language. Have a clear language focus for all activities to avoid missed opportunities.  Explore key and peripheral language. Plan for numerous opportunities for structured and purposeful talk so you can support children to understand what is being said to them and how they need to respond.

·         Think quality before quantity. Beware of the amount of language used during interactions with the children. Consider the excess language children must negotiate to understand what they are being asked. Pace the language, so it is clear and coherent. Do not make assumptions that children will understand colloquialism or nuances but equally do not dumb down the language. They need exposure to copious amounts of rich language.

·         Embed rhymes, songs, and storytelling within provision. They are very effective tools due to the repetitive nature of the language and refrains. When supported by props and actions, they create the hanging pegs for recalling and re-using.

·         Play language games such as ‘Guess Who’ and what I call ‘car games’, where there is repetition with building up of language, all providing great opportunities for ample oral rehearsal through fun activities.

·         Determine the home language of your children with EAL. They may be code switching without realising and if this skill is not used, it will be lost.

·         Ensure all the staff have a clear understanding of SLCN - how language develops and can identify the difference between SLCN/SEND/EAL.

·         Implement interventions - for example, talkingpartners @primary (Education Works), Helicopter stories and Pie Corbett Talk for Writing are some proven effective tools for language development in the early years.

·         Provide home language books for children with EAL. Use dual language books for prior learning and to involve the parents in supporting oracy through home language. If children are skilled in one language, they can build on another language.

·         Use culturally relevant books and resources.  Children are more likely to engage if they connect with points of interest. They will be motivated, be the ‘experts’ and are likely to have some language in place already.


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Finally, by building on the good practice of early years pedagogy, we can truly enhance the role of oracy and make a considerable difference to the lives of our young children.  I leave you with this quote which captures the essence of oracy and the crucial role it plays in the development of our young children.

"‘The limits of my language are the limits of my mind.

All I know is what I have words for.’

Lugwig Wittgenstein (Austrian philosopher)


If you would like to hear Sejal discussing oracy, including how to support children who use predominantly non-verbal forms of communication, you can listen to our podcast here. We also have a forum post with further reading supplied by Sejal here.

Sejal Payne
Sejal Payne is a specialist bespoke education consultant with many years of skills and expertise in supporting school improvement. Sejal is a dedicated, knowledgeable and highly experienced consultant with over 15 years of working in schools and within local authority, supporting the provision of Black and Minority Ethnic Pupils, including pupils with English as an Additional Language and working collaboratively with the schools to identify areas of development and address the gaps. Her experience ranges from Early Years to secondary school.

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