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Let’s talk about disadvantage: The fundamental importance of oracy in closing the gap

Written by: Angela Schofield
8 min read
Angela Schofield, Programme Development Lead, Excelsior Multi-Academy Trust, UK 

When considering the wealth of research around the complexities of narrowing the disadvantage gap, the fundamental importance of oracy to the many suggested strategies is clear. Whether the focus is on early reading, relationships, metacognition and self-regulation or language development and comprehension, oracy underpins the work. According to the Fisher Family Trust (2022), the attainment gap at Key Stage 2 in 2022 was the highest for a decade, at 3.4. Worryingly, 6.1 per cent of disadvantaged pupils were not entered for the reading test in 2022, compared to 4.8 per cent in 2019, an increase of 1.3 percentage points. The equivalent figures in maths were 5.8 per cent and 4.6 per cent, an increase of 1.2 percentage points. This paints a picture of a Sisyphean struggle to narrow the gap. Is closing the gap an unattainable dream? While COVID certainly played a part in this increasing gap, the trend has been so slowly moving downwards that the Education Policy Institute (2020) declared that it would take 500 years to close the gap, based on pre-COVID trends. However, we know that there are schools where the gap is narrowing significantly or closing completely. It is possible to tackle the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers, but it takes a whole-school approach and a drive to deliver evidence-informed change.

This article will consider the research findings and argue that a focus on a high-quality oracy education lies at the heart of the recommended approaches. As Mannion and McAllister (2020, p.164) argue, ‘Taking oracy education seriously is perhaps the most powerful thing a teacher can do to positively impact the future life chances of their pupils.’ Poor language skills at age five are a strong predictor of poor academic outcomes at age 11, being six times less likely to reach the expected standard in English and 11 times less likely to reach the standard in maths (Save the Children, 2016, and DfE, 2010, cited in APPG, 2021) Rowland (2021) identifies four core elements that must be addressed to mitigate the impact of socio-economic disadvantage on learning: 

  • relationships
  • metacognition and self-regulated learning
  • social, emotional and mental health (SEMH)
  • language development and comprehension.



Relationships between students and teachers and with their peers underpin their experience of education. There is a clear link to attainment: where students feel that they belong in school, ‘a sense of belonging gives students feelings of security, identity and community, which, in turn, support academic, psychological and social development’ (Jethwani-Keyser, 2008, cited in OECD, 2017, p. 118), and there is also a link between the teacher–family relationship and attainment (Herman, 2017).

Belonging – knowing that they are valued by teachers and peers – is also linked to attainment, particularly for disadvantaged students (Immordino–Yang et al., 2018, cited in Gross, 2022). A meta-analysis of 46 studies demonstrated a correlation between these teacher–student relationships and improved attendance, behaviour and outcomes (Quinn, 2016, cited in Gross, 2022). Ensuring that every voice is heard and valued in the classroom is a foundation for developing that sense of belonging. Valuing every voice is one of the oracy benchmarks identified by Voice 21 (2019) as being central to effective oracy provision.

Metacognition and self-regulated learning

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF, 2021a, p. 9) identified three components of self-regulated learning: cognition, metacognition and motivation. ‘Metacognition is about the ways learners monitor and purposefully direct their learning.’ This article will consider the importance of oracy in metacognition. 

Metacognition and oracy are closely interlinked, with oracy supporting the development of students’ understanding of the metacognitive process in reading. Voice 21’s talk tactics make the types of contribution needed in a discussion explicit (Voice 21, nd). The talk tactics of summarising, probing and clarifying are essential reading skills; through guided practice with using these talk tactics in oral discussions, students are able to write more considered responses. Having been taught the strands of the Oracy Framework, students are more aware of the linguistic and cognitive skills that they are using and how to apply them effectively (Cambridge Oracy and Voice 21, nd). 

Metacognition has benefits for teachers as well as students: ‘Not only does the voicing of thoughts enhance learning, but once voiced those thoughts are visible to the teacher.’ (Mercer, 1995, cited in Tarrant and Holt, 2016, p. 3) The teacher can then act on this new information to support and extend thinking. For the student, the more they understand and can articulate their thinking, the easier they will find it to transfer that understanding to other subjects and tasks. For students to talk about how they succeeded in their learning, they need to have the appropriate language and sentence structures. These scaffolds are a central part of effective oracy teaching. 

Metacognitive knowledge of themselves as learners increases students’ self-efficacy. This increased confidence in their ability to tackle a challenge not only improves the likelihood of them succeeding but also increases their independence in learning.

Social, emotional and mental health (SEMH)

A sense of belonging is essential: ‘Young people with poor communication skills are one and a half times more likely to have mental health difficulties, even after taking account of a range of other factors that might have played a part.’ (Gascoigne and Gross, 2017, p. 6) The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists’ evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Oracy (APPG, 2021) highlighted that those with poor early language were more likely to have anxiety disorders as adults. An oracy education enables students to engage effectively with the world; the ability to express their ideas, needs, fears and opinions clearly and respectfully is an essential life skill in school and beyond. Oracy also improves a student’s sense of self-efficacy, which has been identified as a significant factor in attainment for disadvantaged students (Gross 2022). By encouraging students to find their voice and then make their voice heard, we give them a greater sense that they can have an impact on their surroundings. 

‘Having the ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships, communicate effectively, resolve conflicts, resist peer pressure and collaborate are essential in all human interaction, and no less so in school.’ (Kekeliadis, 2022) Extending oracy teaching beyond the classroom into unstructured times supports children in making and maintaining those important friendships – for example, lunchtime talk tasks, conversation corners and family dining all take oracy into wider school life.

Language development and comprehension

Poor language skills in the early years is a common theme for disadvantaged students. Oracy is clearly central to this topic, with a focus on the development of language and communication skills. There is a 19-month gap between the language skills of five-year-olds in the lowest and highest income groups (Gascoigne and Gross, 2017). Pupils receiving free school meals (FSM) are 1.6 times more likely to be below language expectations at age five, compared to their non-FSM peers. Children below language expectations at age five are six times less likely to reach the expected standard in English at age 11, and this rises to 11 times in maths (Save the Children, 2016, cited in Gascoigne and Gross, 2017).

This gap in language has an impact on reading and writing attainment. ‘Spoken language is fundamental in the process of becoming a reader.’ (DfES, 2006, cited in Myhill et al., 2022, p. 35) From the spoken sounds in phonics to shared story time and book talk to develop comprehension skills, talk is central to decoding, understanding and enjoying reading. ‘Oral language skills at kindergarten are the strongest overall predictor of reading performance, stronger even than early reading skills themselves.’ (Dockrell, 2021, evidence to the APPG, 2021, p. 16)

As Pie Corbett says, ‘You cannot write it if you cannot say it – and you cannot say it unless you have heard it.’ (Corbett and Strong, 2011, p. 1) It is generally accepted that ‘Reading and writing float on a sea of talk.’ (Britton, 1970, cited in APPG, 2021, p. 16) What is now becoming clear is that talk supports higher outcomes in other subjects too. In evidence to the APPG on oracy, Mercer stated there were positive impacts on attainment in maths and science too (APPG, 2021). 

On average, pupils who participate in oral language interventions make approximately five months’ additional progress over the course of a year. This rises to six months for children from disadvantaged backgrounds (EEF, 2021b). Children who were supported with communication and language approaches in EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage) made seven months’ additional progress or more (EEF, 2023). While they issue the caveat that few studies have focused precisely on the impact for disadvantaged students, ‘studies that have taken place in settings with a higher proportion of children experiencing socio-economic disadvantage tended to have above average effects suggesting that this is likely to be a beneficial approach for this group’ (EEF, 2023).


Disadvantaged students are not a homogenous mass. They do not all have poor early language development. For those that do, it is important to stress that they are not deficit. They do not lack cultural capital; their cultural capital may be different to that needed to access the curriculum. Their non-standard English patterns of speaking are not wrong or less valuable than standard English. Their vocabulary outside school may not be littered with tier 3 words, but it is as rich and broad as the academic vocabulary that we need to build in school. Oracy approaches do not seek to replace regional ways of speaking or to impose standard English on students in every situation that they face. Instead, the intention is to bridge the gap between the language of school – and, to some extent, the world of work – and the language of home and community. Code switching is something that we all do in order to feel that we belong in a group; it does not lead to us changing our presentation in other settings. For students to access the learning, we need to teach them the language, syntax and conversational rules of school. We need to make it explicit that presentational talk has rules, and that messy, exploratory talk has different expectations. The common misconception that oracy requires children to speak in full sentences at all times could not be more wrong. In exploratory talk, children are encouraged to verbalise their thinking as they are doing it. There is no expectation that they stop to phrase it in a complete sentence or choose the most precise vocabulary, because their thinking is not yet complete. For our most disadvantaged students, making those implicit rules explicit is essential. When our students leave primary school, we need to have equipped them to manage in the huge range of contexts for talk that they will face in secondary. As teachers, we have to perform a ‘delicate balancing act’ of valuing the home culture while providing an understanding of the knowledge, language and behaviours most likely to support them to succeed in education and increase their life choices as adults (Henderson and Smith, 2022, p. 48).

Every child deserves a high-quality oracy education; this is even more important for our most disadvantaged students.

Excelsior Multi-Academy Trust is a six-school trust in Birmingham. The schools are all primary schools and all work with Voice 21 to support their oracy work.

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