Oracy: Improving your pupils talking skills

Written by: HTU | Published:

Jonothan Wright offers advice on a range of approaches schools can take to develop pupils’ language, speech and communication skills

Recently established from the merging of three pre-existing schools, Northwood Primary School in Kirkby has focused on developing pupils’ language and communication skills. 

Sarah Murphy, deputy headteacher, describes some of the effects of this focus as resulting in:

  • Improvements in children’s interaction and communication with each other.
  • Improvements in children’s vocabulary and use of language.
  • Improvements in children’s end of year speech and language assessments.
  • Children being more confident answering questions in class.
  • Reduced anxiety in children with communication difficulties leading to improved behaviour.
  • Improved identification of children’s speech, language and communication needs (SLCN).

Northwood Primary recognised the need to prioritise its pupils’ language and communication skills. The school is two-form entry with a designated special provision catering for children with a wide variety of SEN, including SLCN. 

Nearly a fifth of the pupils have severe SEN, which is very high compared to the national average. With the knowledge that children from the poorest fifth of homes are on average 19 months behind children from the richest homes in their use of vocabulary by the age of five (1), the high number of pupils attracting Pupil Premium funding makes children’s poor language levels even more of an issue in the school.

Free school meal percentages are very high, as is the school deprivation indicator. In addition to this, a high proportion of pupils come from a White British background and very few children have English as an additional language (EAL).

The school participated in the A Chance to Talk (ACTT) project from April 2011 to July 2012 – a programme with a focus on developing children’s communication skills across three levels/waves (see box, opposite). As a result, a number of strategies and approaches were developed across the school to support the development of all children’s language and communication skills at “wave” 1. These included the following.

Carpet time 

Communication games were introduced through “carpet time” in years 1 and 2. The teachers and ACTT speech and language therapist did some team-teaching to implement communication games in special “carpet time” sessions. These activities worked on developing various aspects of children’s speaking, listening and understanding skills. As a result, staff noticed that children were interacting and communicating better with each other. In year 2, the children are now able to self-assess in terms of language and communication.

Visual resources

The more effective use of visual resources meant better support for independence and communication and a reduction in anxiety. All classrooms use visual prompts, such as labels on drawers. Most classrooms across the school now have visual timetables for the pupils to access regardless of their language abilities. This has been really good for the children, especially those with poor communication skills. They have individual timetables in front of them and can see what activities they have completed and what activity is coming next. It has had an impact on behaviour as children who have poor communication skills understand what they are doing next and so their anxiety has been lessened.

Talk objects/communication-friendly areas

Teachers use visual props – talk objects – with children to lead and model discussions about what it is, what it is for, where you might find it, etc. This has improved children’s confidence in speaking, with improved vocabulary and better use of language.

They have set up designated communication-friendly areas in most classrooms where there are objects to talk about. Children are free to enter into these areas and speak to each other about the objects they find. This was initially modelled by the staff to support the children but after a short space of time the children were able to access it independently.

Staff self-monitoring their use of language

The adults in the classroom are a key resource in the development of speech, language and communication skills. Staff now give very short and precise instructions to children, not to confuse them with lots of instructions at once and to give pupils time to process the information. There has been a real impact on the pupils as they are more confident answering questions.

Whole-staff training in SLCN

This was to support more accurate identification of needs and appropriate referrals. Before A Chance to Talk and the school’s focus on speech, language and communication, most teachers would only refer pupils to their SEN provision if they had expressive language difficulties. 

However, since whole-school training, staff are now more skilled and able to identify other types of difficulties – referrals now include receptive language and social difficulties as well: often referred to as “hidden communication difficulties”.

Clear focus

As demonstrated in the examples above, the focus on speech, language and communication has enabled children to become more confident speakers, improve their vocabulary and interaction, and reduce anxiety and behaviour difficulties. 

Speech, language and communication skills are fundamental to children’s learning, emotional and social development. Schools often respond to other pressures such as raising attainment in writing or maths, without recognising that supporting language and communication helps to give children the skills that underlie development in these other areas. 

Ms Murphy explained: “Thanks to our school focus on speaking, there has been an impact and improvement in children’s writing levels.” This impact mirrors that found on literacy in the whole-project evaluation, which saw on average a 50 per cent increase in all children’s reading. 

A Chance to Talk was a project run by I CAN, the children’s communication charity, with the support of the Communication Trust and Every Child a Chance Trust.  It piloted a model of commissioning effective provision for children’s speech, language and communication across all levels of need in children aged four to seven. 

At the time of developing A Chance to Talk, models which worked across the three “waves” of provision in primary school had been established for improving children’s literacy and numeracy – but not for children’s communication. 

The project ran for two years in four clusters of schools in different areas in England. Each cluster of seven to eight schools had the support of a specialist speech and language therapist (funded jointly by the schools and the project) to work across those schools. 

An important aspect of the ACTT therapist’s role was not just in assessing and working with the wave 3 children, but working across all three levels. 

They had a role in overseeing and supporting the wave 2 intervention, as well as supporting whole-staff understanding of speech, language and communication across the school. This meant they could support staff in implementing the practical, everyday strategies for the whole-class activities described in this article. 

For children in wave 3 at Northwood Primary, the therapist’s work included bringing activities into the classroom for class teachers to deliver and also for children to complete at home. For these children, with severe and complex communication difficulties, their progress was greatly accelerated. 

The whole-staff development for wave 1 included a flexible package of training and support to build on strategies that staff were already using, ensuring that speech, language and communication strategies were embedded in everyday practice. Other key strategies included: 

  • Various ways of providing children with more thinking time before having to answer in class.
  • Explicit teaching of new words using semantic as well as phonological links, and aligning this with the curriculum.
  • Comprehension monitoring strategies, giving children the skills and confidence to say when they don’t understand something in a lesson and how to get clarification.

As a result of the ACTT project, three of the four pilot areas have continued with this model of working with the speech and language therapist in some way. Learning from the project has also been distilled into the Commissioning Guide for Schools which is freely available for schools to download, along with the end-of-project report. 

  • Jonothan Wright is I CAN’s communication advisor.

Further information

For more information, including the Commissioning Guide for Schools and the end-of-project report, visit www.ican.org.uk/achancetotalk


  1. Waldfogel and E Washbrook, Achievement Gaps in Childhood: A cross-national perspective. S Paper prepared for the Sutton Trust/Carnegie Corporation Summit on Social Mobility, London, May 2012, referenced in Ofsted (2012) Annual HMCI report: Early Years.


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