Using a range of oracy strategies to improve the quality of written work in a mixed ability year 9 English class

Hester Dickinson , Dinnington High School

Research question:

To what extent does the use of oracy strategies improve the quality of written work, over a three-month period, among a focus group of Year 9 students? 

Project rationale:

I chose to focus on this area as my school has a large proportion of students who we are keen to work closely with to close as many gaps as possible, while accelerating the progress of all students – regardless of their starting points. By introducing more opportunities for oracy into lessons, we hope to improve the outcomes of all learners, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Our students struggle to verbalise their ideas, and a lack of ambitious vocabulary feeds in to this. I am currently working behind the scenes to create training for staff on closing the vocabulary gap and hope that by building in more tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary, we can give students the terms needed to explain themselves. By building in the Voice 21 oracy skills too, I hope to create a fusion between the two, which will impact positively on student outcomes. We want students to leave our school as well-rounded individuals, who not only achieve excellence academically, but are also well placed to enter the world as confident and articulate young people. 

My aim for this project is to firstly evidence the impact in my own English classes, using a mixed ability Year 9 class as a focus group; I hope to keep them until Year 11, so can continue to monitor their progress over the next two years. Although I had seen positive effects on learners when I introduced Voice 21 strategies to some classes last year, I am keen to have more tangible research that is more concrete and can be used to share with other colleagues to reinforce the critical importance of oracy in action. 

My exploratory questions originally centred on the current state of play regarding opportunities for students to critically engage in high-quality oracy-based group work. However, after conducting some initial audits, it became apparent that I needed to focus more on the building of key, ambitious vocabulary first to give students the key terms they needed to articulate themselves effectively. Without doing this, I found that students were unable to conduct themselves appropriately in their groups as not only did they not know how to tackle group work, but also, they did not have the appropriate vocabulary to express themselves. As such, my evaluative research question changed to focus more specifically on the use of oracy strategies first, to improve the quality of students’ written work and meant that rather than jumping ahead and building in more opportunities, I needed to first look at planning for teaching how to talk effectively (with key vocabulary) as well as getting them to learn through appropriate talk so that these exploratory discussions were more meaningful. 

Baseline data 

Baseline data included previous written assessment scores from last year, data from their first assessment with me this year (prior to the oracy intervention), student voice on initial confidence levels, and classroom observations of students in action. An example of student confidence levels with both written and verbal language analysis paragraphs can be found below. Students were asked to rate themselves (1 = not very confident, 5 = very confident). 

Figure 1 – Verbal confidence levels at the start of the project 

Figure 2 – Written confidence levels at the start of the project

Figure 3 – Example of a baseline (pre-oracy intervention) writing assessment, under exam conditions. Students were given 45 minutes and were asked to write an article to explain their views on detentions in school. (AQA, 2016)

Student A- Parts one and two:

Student B – Part one: 

Intervention & intended impact

During the project, I went back to basics and firstly introduced my focus group to the Voice 21 talk roles. It took a few sessions for students to become au fait with roles such as ‘Instigator’, ‘Challenger’ and ‘Builder’ but they quickly began to see the purpose of having these roles. I noted this group struggled to have just one set role each in a small grouped discussion, so used an idea suggested by one of the Voice 21 team which was to allow all roles to be ‘free’ but to place counters on cards, or to highlight when each role had been assumed, so they could see a visual representation of this discussion and could note when students had not ‘clarified’ or ‘built’ on an idea for a while, for example. 

This proved effective in getting students to understand that, often, they were ‘instigating’ lots of lines of enquiry but were failing to extend their ideas in depth. We then discussed how this often translated in their writing- students would rush to put their ideas down, then find they had limited themselves. From this, I then spent time creating regular talk points in lesson which enabled students to focus on just building or challenging ideas, so they got used to the concept of saying a lot about a little and considered what alternative viewpoints may arise from their first thoughts, thus aiding their writing.

I adapted a faculty scheme of work to include starting lessons with discussion points, vocabulary builder games- based on the Voice 21 summary bullseye, where the aim was to score ‘points’ by choosing the more sophisticated vocabulary on the board, and sentence stems which leant themselves to the talk role cards. By intervening in this way, students were beginning to build more confidence in their verbal capabilities. That said, some still struggled to see how they could transfer their verbal thoughts in to written form. To address this, I introduced students to the Harkness discussion format: I still gave them an appropriate talk point, still got them to assume talk roles, and still encouraged them to go in to greater depth in their explanations. However, this time, I modelled how to be a ‘talk detective’ and noted down all the key points made. During class feedback, we looked at all their shared ideas and noted how many built on others’ viewpoints. Students were asked to verbally craft their answers to the key question in pairs using the whole-class notes and many had lightbulb moments that, each of the talk role positions mirrored the structure of a written essay. Once confident in their answer, students were asked to write their ideas down and the quality of their work was far superior to that of their previous attempts without oracy opportunities first. We repeated this structure several times over coming lessons and I noted that on each occasion, students were getting to discussions quicker and had more conviction in what they were saying- I noted that they appeared to get straight to task rather than to appear to fear the unknown; rather, they were eager to see where their discussions would take them. I wanted to have a direct comparison of classwork- the same exam question answered firstly without support, then secondly with support driven by the students themselves.

I posed the examination question- a statement surrounding a student’s opinion on the use of detentions in schools- and asked them to write an article to explain their view. Under exam conditions, the results were minimal- and quite shocking. As expected, most students had quite a vague view and were unable to support their statements with effective or relevant detail. For many, they ran out of steam after the first paragraph. Cue the next lesson, where the same theme was presented as a talk point: students firstly wrote noted ideas on a white board, so they wouldn’t forget, they then shared ides in their pair, they were then grouped into six and given the talk role cards where they were challenged to build and extend as many ideas as possible. We fed back at the end and noted all the key points. The next lesson, I displayed their ideas from the previous lesson- that day’s challenge was to build on each of their ideas in even greater depth and consider alternative viewpoints. I asked students to firstly choose a line of enquiry from the board and to note down some fake facts, fake statistics to support. I asked them to build in some emotive language on their whiteboard notes- considering how we had been up-levelling our verbal work in other lessons. I then moved all the desks and facilitated a whole-class Harkness discussion asking them to answer the same question from the day before, this time weaving in all their language skills and extra ideas. The result was incredible- all students were engaged, all were contributing to discussion- even the more introverted in the group were having their say. I then asked students to write their answer up, and a snap shot of examples are below: 

Figure 4 Student A- After whole-class oracy (limited teacher input, solely driven forwards by student ideas). Compare to Figure 3 (AQA,2016)

Figure 5 – Student B After whole-class oracy (limited teacher input, solely driven forwards by student ideas)- compare to Figure 3 (AQA,2016)

Figure 6 – Improvement chart comparison. Blue- September 2018/ Orange- March 2019

Illustrative student comments:

When asked their final thoughts on our shared oracy project in May 2019, students from the focus group volunteered the following:

  • Oracy means “you know what to do”- Student C
  • “I like it when we are in a circle…everyone speaks”- Student D
  • “Everyone gets to build on other ideas”- Student E
  • “Oracy makes me go to my full potential because I have more ideas”- Student F
  • “Oracy makes me have more confidence whilst writing more tests”- Student G

When questioned on exit feedback, of the 13 focus group students that day (three were absent):

  • 100% agreed that exploratory talk made their writing better
  • 100% agreed that exploratory talk before writing made them feel more confident
  • 100% felt they would like to use more exploratory talk in English lessons before writing
  • 100% felt they would like to use more exploratory talk in their other subject areas

Progress was also formally made in the quality of their speaking and listening, and in their written work. My next steps include revisiting schemes of learning and adapting to include more oracy based opportunities, and then work under the guidance of Senior Leaders to address oracy more explicitly across the whole school.

Research Ethics

My class is a mixed ability group, including students from a range of backgrounds, 16 of whom gave permission for their data to collected for this project. Although the data for the other students was monitored as part of my normal working practice, I can confirm that only the data of students with parental permission was used for this article. All parents were informed by letter that they could withdraw data permission at any time, however at the time of writing and submission, all parental permissions remain unchanged.


The data collected undoubtedly showed a positive trend and I look forward to monitoring this further over the coming weeks. Although there are still improvements to be made, the confidence levels of these students have risen incrementally, and many are now achieving personal success. We are now at a stage where we just need to tweak written work rather than having to re-write full examples, and students feel they have more to say. It is the very first time that these students have attempted GCSE level work and I am thrilled with their efforts; I am excited to see them go from strength to strength over the next two years! 


AQA, (2016). Key Stage 3 English Language, Paper 2 Writers’ viewpoints and perspectives, Y8 Pack 2 ,Q5. (Accessed via Secure Key Materials- approved school login required for access) (Accessed 2 June 2019)

Beck, I., McKeown, M. and Kucan, L. (2006). Bringing words to life. New York: The Guilford Press. 

Closing The Vocabulary Gap Resources, Available at (Accessed 2 June 2019)

Quigley, A., (2018). Closing The Vocabulary Gap, Routledge.

Voice 21 Resources, Available at (Accessed 2 June 2019)

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