Voice 21's response to the Department for Education's new reading framework

Amy Gaunt is the Director of Learning and Impact at Voice 21.

‘Proficiency in reading, writing and spoken language is vital for pupils’ success’, The reading framework: teaching the foundations of literacy, Department for Education (2021).

The Department for Education’s new reading framework, published over the weekend, emphasises the fundamental importance of oracy in ensuring all children become confident and proficient readers. Whilst many teachers have already raised legitimate concerns about the minutiae of the report, particularly some of the more prescriptive guidance, Voice 21 welcomes the report’s focus on spoken language as a foundation for literacy. In particular, we welcome its emphasis on the importance of oracy for social mobility and signposting to the spoken language components in the national curriculum and EYFS statutory framework. This is particularly encouraging given recent calls from Voice 21 and cross-party MPs from the Oracy All-Party Parliamentary Group for greater guidance for schools on how to implement the spoken language elements of the national curriculum, neglected in some schools due to a lack of understanding or support.

Throughout, the report emphasises the need to provide students with opportunities to develop their spoken language and vocabulary through talk, recognising in particular the contribution of ‘child directed speech’ to students’ ability to process familiar words, as well as the size of their expressive vocabularies. As the report states, a language-rich environment, in which children take part in conversations throughout the day, supports vocabulary development and therefore reading; the wider vocabulary a child has, the more words they will be able to recognise and understand when reading. In relation to vocabulary teaching, it is particularly encouraging to read the report’s support for the robust, oracy-rich approach set out in Beck et al.’s Bringing Words to Life. 

While the report clearly signals the importance of oracy for vocabulary development at the beginning of a child’s schooling, it suggests that, as children become confident, independent readers, who can absorb new vocabulary through reading, this should become less of a focus. Yet, as Beck et al. explain in Bringing Words to Life, ‘written language is a far less effective vehicle for learning new words than oral language’. Indeed, the EEF’s Key Stage 2 Literacy Guidance emphasises that speaking and listening are ‘critical to extending pupils’ receptive and expressive vocabulary.’  With 92% of teachers reporting that school closures have contributed to a widening of the ‘word gap’, it is vital that we continue to provide well-planned, structured opportunities for students to grow their vocabularies through talk at all stages of education. In fact, this is the focus of Voice 21’s new Voicing Vocabulary project which aims to improve the vocabulary of Key Stage 2 and 3 students through the development of an oracy-rich, cross-phase approach to vocabulary teaching. 

Other notable and welcome references to oracy in the report include a focus on teaching listening skills and a recognition of the importance of conversational turn taking, or ‘back and forth talk’, as it is termed in the report. The principles for high-quality back and forth interactions set out in the report, which bring to mind the sustained shared thinking approach, provide a blueprint for what this could look like in the Early Years. However, it is again vital that this good practice is continued beyond the Early Years throughout primary and indeed into secondary school. Our Teacher and Student Talk Tactics provide a scaffold for this type of high-quality classroom dialogue beyond the Early Years, encouraging both students and teachers to make different types of contributions to group or whole-class discussion. 

The report also references the importance of learning to talk when engaging in back and forth talk with a partner, acknowledging that learning these routines is particularly important for children who have not experienced such talk before they come to school. Helpful guidance on  managing talk in pairs is included in the report. This could also be further strengthened with reference to Voice 21’s Teacher Talk Tactics which set out different ‘talk moves’ or ‘tactics’ a teacher can employ to deepen or extend a child’s thinking. Whilst an acknowledgement of the importance of structured, purposeful talk – namely paired talk – is welcome, we would encourage educators in the Early Years and beyond to trial different groupings once paired talk is well-established, ensuring students have plenty of opportunities to practice oracy in different contexts.

This report reflects a shift in emphasis on the critical importance of developing spoken language, both as a foundation for literacy and as a goal in and of itself, explicitly referencing the importance of developing communication skills ‘for education and for working with others: in school, in training and at work’. As Nick Gibb notes in his introduction to the report, the ‘very best schools in our country’ recognise, amongst other things, the importance of talk. As such we call on the Department for Education to produce further guidance on the crucial role of spoken language and listening – oracy – aimed at all phases of education.

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