Supporting and Developing Learners’ Oracy Skills

East Coast College: Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth

Our action research project initially set out to improve a wide range of oracy skills in response to teachers’ concerns that these skills were poorly developed in learners who live in an area of social and economic disadvantage. As the project progressed, however, it focused much more specifically on the development of technical terminology through a variety of teaching strategies across a range of levels and subjects.

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At the heart of the project was the drive to find strategies to support the development of learners’ oracy. We had identified that learners are not able to present their ideas and opinions orally as well as they could, particularly in front of peers. This area for improvement was felt to be linked to low confidence and resilience in learners as well as the social and economic deprivation in the area.

The majority of the catchment area for East Coast College’s three campuses is in the “worst performing” 10% to 20% of local authorities nationally against social mobility indicators and so it was clear to see the heightened need to support learners to become employable, apprenticeship-ready or university ready. In our project proposal we had stated that “even learners who achieve well do not always secure the same outstanding destinations as their peers in other areas of the country…”.

An improvement in life opportunities was the overarching, long-term challenge for our learners but we teachers were also keen to begin by solving the more immediate, smaller scale difficulties of increasing learner involvement in oracy-based tasks in the classroom. The potential benefits would not be limited to gaining better employment destinations, but would also support increased confidence in explaining answers orally and improving interview skills, with potential impact on structure and vocabulary in writing too.


Once action researchers from each site were identified, a core team discussed and listed some potential strategies that we believed would support learners to develop key oracy skills. One group member found information from Voice 21, an organisation formed from School 21, that had organised different skills needed for oracy into a chart (Figure 1).

As a starting point this helped us narrow down our strategies to focus on specific skill areas such as vocabulary, working with others and structure. Many strategies were discussed and considered and we remained focused on making the tasks simple to use in a variety of settings and with a range of levels.

After much careful discussion the following strategies were selected:

  • Tarsia puzzles (to support with vocabulary extension)
  • Glossary (to support with vocabulary extension)
  • Learners as experts (to increase agency, confidence and responsibility)
  • Sentence stems (to support structure of talk)
  • Discussion roles (to support working with others)

These strategies were presented to action researchers in the team; group members were asked to choose one or two that they could combine, to use with at least one group in a way that would be appropriate to their subject area. This left the strategy in their hands to be interpreted in a way that they felt would be most relevant to their students and their teaching.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

Workshop glossary: Level 3 Motor Vehicle

Learners were tasked to read out their reports following vehicle inspections and as a group they then used the whiteboard to record terms that could be more professional or technical as well as those that could be phrased in a more formal or standard way. The group worked out for themselves what the alternative term might be while the teacher ensured that the group fully understood the term used in place of the original. The teacher compiled the words in a document and the group then continued to discuss the terms and continued to add to it.

GCSE English glossary

This strategy focused on learners building their own glossaries using different tasks within the lesson, including Kahoot quizzes and starter activities using vocabulary from the unseen texts they would be using in the lessons. The teacher encouraged learners to note down any unfamiliar words in the back of their English books, creating a space for a glossary. In lessons, she would mind-map new words on the whiteboard and discuss definitions. Following this, she would challenge learners to include two or more words from the board in their work. She adapted this strategy to challenge learners to use their ambitious glossary words within their speaking and listening assessments.

Expert with a glossary: GCSE Maths

The teacher combined two strategies: learners as experts and the use of glossaries. He began by creating a glossary containing all key mathematical words for the GCSE Maths specification. While all students were able to access it, he identified one learner to lead on it. The learner had the role of explaining the terms as they arose in lessons. Both the lead learner and the rest of the group wrote down key terms and definitions as they became relevant. The lead learner did not feel singled out by this as she recognised her own need; also, as she has English as a second language, she was less familiar with the terms than the other learners. The teacher accepts that this could be a unique situation and reflected that he may not feel confident using this strategy with individual learners in other groups but that it was still a valuable exercise that others might be able to replicate.

Tarsia and Learner as expert: Level One Foundation English and Maths

The teacher initially used Tarsia puzzles with his learners to support them in discussing global warming. Once the Tarsia puzzle, containing terms such as ‘fossil fuels’ and ‘deforestation’, was put together by the learners, they were asked to explain their answers. The terms may have been too technical for some learners but the task served as an interesting way to introduce them.

At the mid-point, the teacher changed his strategy to “learners as experts”, linking it to the Level One presentation assessment for Functional English. This gave his students an opportunity to present information about a topic they understood well and were interested in, turning the tables on a traditional knowledge relationship between teacher and student. The learner chose the topic of World Wrestling Entertainment but he found it difficult to express opinions about it in terms of his favourite wrestler or competition.

Learners as experts: GCSE English and Functional Skills English Entry Level 3 – Level 2

The teacher’s strategy gave significant time to learners to research a subject of their choice and create a presentation around the subject. This strategy links to both the Functional Skills English and the GCSE English Language specifications where learners are assessed for their speaking and listening skills.

Learners were given three to four weeks of lessons to research and put together slides, a handout or a talk without either. The subjects ranged from The Little Princess Trust to ‘What’s Wrong with Teachers’?

Discussion roles and glossary: AS English Language

The teacher first used a glossary of critical theorists and theories as well as key terms such as ‘lexical field’, ‘orthography’ and ‘graphology’. He used the glossary sheets in class to support learners’ memories and use of appropriate vocabulary.

At the mid-point, the tutor moved from using just the glossaries to incorporating discussion roles (Figure 2b-2) to prevent discussions from becoming too one-sided.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Collaboration between colleagues within the action research team proved difficult because of conflicting timetables and distance. It was challenging to meet and discuss progress and adaptations. This was mainly because the project was too ambitious in aiming to generalise rather than focus on one specific department. It was important for us to see how far oracy could be developed across different subjects rather than specifically in English lessons.

From our experience of the challenges and benefits of collaborating across college, campuses and departments, we are keen to see greater innovation and discussion between sites. Each campus can clearly learn from the others and, rather than this being through delivered professional learning, working groups on different core issues or aims could support an effective, creative and synergistic environment to find solutions and ideas.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Workshop glossary: Level 3 Motor Vehicle

The main impact on learners’ behaviour was their use of the MOT manual to find the more appropriate term. The teacher explains, “Learners started to pick each other up when they used words such as ‘rust’ instead of ‘corrosion’ or ‘doesn’t work’ rather than ‘inoperative’ during all lessons”. The group have continued to build on the glossary, and the tutor saw that they found it enjoyable and how it became a normal part of the lesson.

The learner that the teacher specifically focused on made significant progress within the first six weeks; Simon used the Progression in Oracy grid (Figure 2b-3) to identify that before the project the learner was not quite on the scale for any element other than “physical”, but that by October half-term he was at “confident linguistic”, “developing cognitive” and “apprentice social and emotional”. The rest of the group showed improvements in confidence with technical language as well as increased confidence in discussions. Following discussions with the group, they recognised that their confidence in discussions and vocabulary use had improved.

GCSE English glossary

This was successful as some learners showed the ability to “articulate ambitious words in a persuasive and engaging manner”.

Overall, the teacher felt that, while the strategy had some impact and she would continue to use it, she also felt the impact would be increased with greater use of it across the college curriculum rather than just in English lessons. One piece of advice she wanted to share: “open up to learners honestly when you don’t know a word”, as the impact of this can be to show it is not a weakness and encourage learners to open up too.

Expert with a glossary: GCSE Maths

The teacher felt that the strategy mostly had the intended impact, “and did succeed in advancing the students’ confidence in reading specialised vocabulary over time” stressing that this was particularly successful when “words were repeated at key intervals”. The lead learner stated “It was really useful, because I knew where I could look up words I didn’t understand and didn’t have to worry.”

Following on from the success of the strategy, the teacher plans to focus on the glossary, create one that is “better presented” and provide one per table in future maths classes. He advises that access to key words and repetition, rather than reliance on learners’ ability to take notes has been useful and is pleased that “focusing on solutions to individual needs can be an effective way of finding generalised solutions”.

Tarsia and Learner as expert: Level One Foundation English and maths

While both strategies were difficult and appeared unsuccessful, the teacher recognised that the learner has increased the number of oral contributions since the start of term and tends to use more adverbs in his speech. While the contributions were simple, they were more frequent and demonstrated an increase in confidence. The teacher also notes that other strategies, not specifically designed to support oracy, have had an impact upon the learners’ spoken skills: “Whenever we play games such as multiplication squares (in Maths), he has quite some fun arguing with his friend about who has been cheating and becomes very vocal”, which points to another potential strategy to build on.

Learners as experts: GCSE English

When introducing presentation tasks, the teacher found that there were two questions her learners asked:
• Can it really be on anything?
• Do I have to do it in front of the whole class?

It was found that in school, most learners were given a topic to talk about and had to do it in front of their whole class. The teacher decided that, in GCSE, learners could present on a one-to-one basis, while in Functional English there needed to be a minimum of three learners in the audience.

Learners who rarely spoke in class successfully delivered presentations about topics that interested them or they were passionate about. One learner who normally remained quiet in lessons gave an emotive presentation about endangered species, bringing the teacher to tears. The learner has since spoken up several times in class, which is progress to be built upon.

Discussion roles and glossary: AS English Language

The teacher found that using the discussion roles led to “more even group participation, maintaining the quality of focus through emphasis on key terminology.” The learners’ discussions became more balanced so that all learners had an opportunity to speak.

Learners felt that the glossaries were helpful and appreciated them, but felt that the discussion roles were “clumsy and difficult to follow”. Despite this, the teacher felt that the discussion roles supported him to intervene more effectively and “push students to engage in qualitative exploration of the topic”. He also felt that he would move forward with applying structures like this to discussions in future.

Learning from this project

From all of the strategies explored in the project, the most popular with teachers was building a glossary. This suggests two things: that teachers can see that learners are struggling to retain core vocabulary and terminology and that glossaries are more easily transferable across different subjects. It is also low-to-no cost and does not particularly need to add to workload, depending on how it is used. While the overarching aim of the project was initially to improve oracy skills, the research activities focused more narrowly on supporting learners to use subject terminology or improve their vocabulary for speaking confidently.

From the team of six researchers, the use of glossaries on Level 3 Motor Vehicle programmes appeared to be most successful. The approach was collaborative which meant that learners were involved with the process of building a glossary and identified for themselves where they could be using subject-specific vocabulary.
The AS English Language teacher discovered that using prescribed roles in discussions can lead to more balanced participation. This highlights that opportunities can be shared more easily with structures to enable all learners to contribute.

On Functional English and GCSE courses, our approaches showed how the learners’ confidence with speaking increased when they were talking about a familiar topic. The strategies also showed that giving learners space to research and speak about topics of their own choice allows opportunities for learners to use their voice for what is important to them, helping to build a supportive learning relationship.