Oral language interventions

Moderate impact for very low cost, based on extensive evidence.

What is it?

Oral language interventions emphasise the importance of spoken language and verbal interaction in the classroom.

They are based on the idea that comprehension and reading skills benefit from explicit discussion of either the content or processes of learning, or both. Oral language approaches include:

  • Targeted reading aloud and discussing books with young children
  • Explicitly extending pupils’ spoken vocabulary
  • The use of structured questioning to develop reading comprehension

All of the approaches reviewed in this section support learners’ articulation of ideas and spoken expression, such as Thinking Together or Philosophy for Children. Oral language interventions therefore have some similarity to approaches based on Meta-Cognition, which make talk about learning explicit in classrooms, and to Collaborative Learning approaches, which promote pupils’ talk and interaction in groups.

How effective is it?

Overall, studies of oral language interventions consistently show positive benefits on learning, including oral language skills and reading comprehension. On average, pupils who participate in oral language interventions make approximately five months' additional progress over the course of a year.

All pupils appear to benefit from oral language interventions, but some studies show slightly larger effects for younger children and pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds (up to six months' benefit). Likewise, some types of oral language interventions appear, on average, to be more effective than others.

There is consistent evidence supporting reading to young children and encouraging them to answer questions and to talk about the story with a trained adult. Conversely, ‘whole language’ approaches, which focus on meaning and personal understanding, do not appear to be as successful as those involving more interactive and dialogic activities. A number of studies show the benefits of trained teaching assistants effectively supporting both oral language skills and reading outcomes.

For all oral language interventions certain factors are associated with higher learning gains, suggesting that careful implementation is important. Approaches which explicitly aim to develop spoken vocabulary work best when they are related to current content being studied in school and when they involve active use of any new vocabulary. Likewise, approaches that use technology are most effective when technology is used as a medium to encourage collaborative work and interaction between pupils, rather than a taking a direct teaching or tutoring role. Most studies comment on the importance of training and teacher development or support with implementation.

How secure is the evidence?

There is an extensive evidence base on the impact of oral language interventions, including a substantial number of meta-analyses and systematic reviews. The evidence is relatively consistent, suggesting that oral language interventions can be successful in a variety of environments. Although the majority of the evidence relates to younger children, there is also clear evidence that older learners, and particularly disadvantaged pupils, can benefit.

The evidence base includes a number of high quality studies in UK schools. Additional evidence about matching specific programmes or approaches to particular learners’ needs either by age or by attainment would also be useful.

What are the costs?

Overall, the costs are estimated as under £80 per pupil and very low. There are few, if any, direct financial costs associated with this approach. Additional resources such as books for discussion may be required. In a recent UK evaluation the cost of these additional resources was estimated at between £10 and £20 per pupil. Professional development or training is also likely to enhance the benefits on learning.

What should I consider?

How can you help pupils to make their learning explicit through verbal expression?

How will you match the oral language activities to learners’ current stage of development so that it extends their learning and connects with the curriculum?

What training will the adults involved have to ensure they model and develop pupil’s oral language skills?

If you are using technology, how will you ensure that pupils talk about their learning and interact with each other effectively?

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