Assessing the impact of oracy on your students

This week, with the Rethinking Assessment group in the news and the recent Oracy APPG roundtable on improving assessment in oracy, assessment is very much on our minds. In fact one of the first questions most schools we work with ask is, ‘how can we assess our students’ oracy?’.


 Assessment of oracy is a thorny issue and, unfortunately, there is no one single, definitive answer as to how you should go about assessing the oracy of the students you teach.

However, if oracy is at the heart of the education we seek to provide, we must find ways to assess its impact on students, both in terms of the development of their oracy skills and their wider learning. Of course, not all assessments are big, formal exams – but we need some way of knowing about our students’ strengths and weaknesses in oracy, and how this is impacting their wider learning.

What are the challenges?

The challenges of assessing oracy are frequently lamented. There are three big ones

  • Logistics: it’s trickier to store a ‘piece of oracy’ than it is a piece of writing. It can also be harder to gather – it’s not as simple as sitting the class down in one room to complete a written paper.
  • Task selection: raising the stakes in an oracy task, by telling children they’re going to be assessed, for example, sometimes ruins the task – this is especially true for exploratory talk, where it’s hard to really commit yourself to collective problem-solving and ‘thinking together’ if you’re also trying to work out how to get a good grade.
  • Reliability: concerns that the judgement (of the ‘examiner’) is too subjective – how reliably can we determine that one child’s performance is ‘better’ than another’s?

These challenges can all be met, but it’s hard to meet them all at the same time. For that reason, there isn’t one way of assessing oracy which works in every situation – each time, we must choose the method whose strengths and weaknesses are most appropriate for the circumstances. This isn’t unique to oracy. Consider the range of assessment methods we use for students’ written work – we wouldn’t want to use a formative, peer-assessment method to determine which GCSE grades to give, but nor would it be appropriate to replace every weekly spelling test with a 45-minute exam that’s been designed to permit comparison with a national cohort!

“Assessment helps children to learn”

In the classroom, you are constantly making judgements about students’ learning and using this as a basis to provide them with feedback to help them improve. Oracy should be no exception. You might try:

  1. Oracy specific praise and feedback – praising students consistently and liberally for the oracy skills you are trying to embed is an excellent way of both raising students’ awareness of these skills and motivating them to begin using them. The Oracy Framework is of course your starting point for giving students clear and specific praise for their oracy skills.  
  2. Peer feedback – as with all peer feedback, it works best when students have a clear understanding of what they should be giving feedback on. For oracy, this often means narrowing the focus of the peer assessor to give them clear areas to look out for – perhaps focusing on one or two specific skills, e.g. “turn-taking” that the class has been focusing on. Talk Detectives is a great way to scaffold peer feedback on group discussion

If students aren’t used to it, feedback on oracy can also feel very personal, so it’s even more important to model providing kind, constructive feedback. This makes it easier for the person giving feedback to do a good job, and it’s much easier to accept the feedback if you know what to expect. 

Oracy is also an important means through which students can give peer feedback on other aspects of the curriculum. Find out more about this by reading Clio Chartres highly commended submission to Voice 21 and Oracy Cambridge’s, Douglas Barnes Prize exploring the impact of teaching students to provide high-quality verbal peer feedback on writing

“I want to prove that oracy works”

It’s important to understand the impact of oracy on students, in conjunction with all the other aspects of your provision. The best approach will of course depend on your school’s goals and priorities, but you can use these two steps to make a plan:

“I need to provide evidence of learning”

Sometimes we want to assess oracy because, in the absence of ‘something in the books’ there is pressure to demonstrate that learning happened. There are two approaches to this – and probably in most classrooms, a mixture of both is appropriate.

  1. Capture direct evidence of talk happening (videos and audio recordings) – some teachers Voice 21 are working with have stuck QR codes into books with links to recordings of talk, so that it’s easy to access that work again, and show it off to parents and other teachers.
  2. Capture indirect evidence – consider how your talk task was built into your lesson or sequence of work, and provide evidence of the role it played. For example, if students are going to use a discussion as a launchpad for a piece of writing, perhaps an intermediary step involves taking some notes on what was said – this then shows how the talk informed the writing. If the talk itself was the focus, perhaps students can record their self-assessments or peer feedback in a written form.
“I want to know if they’re getting better”

There’s no single test or measurement to capture every aspect of oracy, just as there’s no single way to assess students’ written work. Here are three ideas, focusing on different areas that you might be looking at to inform your teaching:

1. Quality of classroom discussion – high quality classroom discussions are the bread and butter of an oracy-rich classroom. You could analyse your classroom discussions at a few points in the year, to monitor the quality of dialogue. One way to do this is to record a discussion, and then use a tool like ‘The Teacher Scheme for Educational Dialogue Analysis’ (T-SEDA), a framework which helps you monitor the instances of different types of contribution to group talk. You might want to narrow your scope to a smaller number of types of talk that are particularly important in your classroom (as Rachel Mayes did in her winning entry to the Douglas Barnes prize); or alternatively, keep it broad allowing you to see all the strengths and weaknesses of your students’ discussions.

2. Assessing individual students – The Oracy Assessment Toolkit, developed by Cambridge University, offers a series of tasks that are designed to assess students’ performance against the Oracy Framework. Depending on the purpose for assessment, you may choose to use only one or two of the tasks, and you may not want to assess every student in your class, every time you’re checking in. You may also want to adapt the record sheets to focus on fewer aspects of talk (those which are most important in your classroom). The Oracy Assessment Toolkit also comes with a range of exemplar videos – you may find these are a helpful resource for any assessment method you choose. 

3. Valuing every voice – one concern you might have is whether all students’ voices are heard in your classroom. If this is the case you could use a simple diagram, as in this example from a Harkness discussion, to assess a discussion ‘live’ and monitor who participates, and in what ways. Similarly, you could count the number of turns taken by students during a discussion. It’s often also possible for students to create these sorts of records of their own talk, using ‘Talk Tokens’ or a simple tally, for example, and as such it’s something you could use frequently to measure progress towards the aim of ensuring all students are confident participating in classroom talk. 

A final word

There are no simple, quick-fix answers to the question, ‘how should I assess my students’ oracy?’ However, a combination of the methods described above should enable you to both understand and demonstrate the impact of a high-quality oracy education on your students. As you explore the assessment methods most suited to your students and context, it is also worth considering the following three questions in order to help you choose and refine your approach:

  • Logistics: is this assessment approach practical, given the amount of time you have available for oracy assessment? (And have you allocated enough time – is it comparable to the time you spend assessing things of similar importance?)
  • Task selection: is this the right task to assess? (Does it involve the sort of talk you’re most interested in knowing about? How can you make sure the assessment method isn’t so distracting as to prevent students from doing their best?)
  • Reliability: is this assessment method reliable enough for the importance you’re placing upon it? (The higher the stakes, the more reliable the assessment needs to be – but we use relatively unreliable testing in low stakes contexts all the time, because that’s often the trade-off we need to make to get useful information.)

Let us know if you try any of our top tips for assessing oracy by tagging us on Twitter @voice21oracy or emailing us at hello@voice21.org

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