Where did it go?

Initial references to teacher assessment of spoken language from 2016 have been quietly dropped by the DfE, and no performance descriptors have been produced. Unless they appear in the substantial revision of Performance Descriptors that is now underway, we must assume that spoken language has been stripped from the reporting regime for primary schools.  It will survive in the reception baseline test, but no other collection seems to be planned. Spoken language has entered the twilight zone.

The relegation of spoken language will at least move us away from the stiff formalities of debate and presentation which are easy to assess, and potentially it will free up time for high quality talk for learning.  A worst case scenario is that spoken language will fade back into routine practice. There will be lots of it, but will it be any good?

Those who may lose out

The last-minute inclusion of the Spoken Language in the curriculum has left us with an ambitious but rather muddled brief. There’s nothing you’d disagree with, and much that you can use to deliver the rest of the curriculum, but it would be wrong to assume that pupils can pick it up as a matter of practice.  How many pupils come to school with a full repertoire of standard English, skills in hypothesis, the ability to listen carefully and ask pertinent questions, or use debating tactics?  How many lacking these skills pick them all up before they leave? Not many! These aspects of oral English need to be taught and cultivated.

The pupils with most to lose are those lacking a wide experience of sustained talk, limited in their range of oral types, low in self-confidence and unacquainted with social and discursive conventions. The disadvantaged include the shy, the socially deprived and the newly-arrived.  They need oral skills to access the curriculum, show what they know and to enquire further into things.

The problem with assessing spoken language

The problem for teachers is that tracking individual oral skills is time-consuming and it can be tricky.  Research tells us that teachers carry different models of success in their heads when it comes to spoken language.  It takes skill to screen out prejudice about accents and expressions, for example. Moderation is limited by the transience of spoken language: it evaporates the moment it is spoken.  In the early days of the curriculum, we went through a long period of keeping written notes and tapes of assessed speech and although the practice has survived in nurseries and special schools, most mainstream teachers found it hard to maintain on top of other assessment commitments.

Simple tracking

We owe it to pupils to keep track of their oral skills. Life is lived at second hand if one can’t voice one’s ideas or join in everyday discussions. And this is particularly true for quiet children, disadvantaged children and new arrivals.  As a minimum, we should be monitoring oral development in the way we monitor the range of reading, by keeping track of clear successes in the objectives laid out in the new curriculum.

The Spoken Language objectives are not layered year by year or even by key stage. Nonetheless, a wise school will find time to list by year how they will build each year towards those objectives so that a steady gradient of improvement can be achieved in teaching.

Here’s a complete example of a layered assessment ladder from Climbing Frames:



Year 1
  • Can listen, respond and ask questions for help or interest
  • Plays in role
  • Takes turns
  •  Speaks clearly
  • Tells others about first hand experience or knowledge
Year 2 
  • Asks relevant questions
  • Can maintain attention
  • Contributes several sentences
  • Speaks audibly
  • Can act out a short scenario
  • Can explain a simple idea or process
Year 3 
  • Joins in discussions, extending ideas
  • Can focus on the main points
  • Expresses opinions clearly and politely
  • Speaks aloud with expression using an appropriate tone
  • Can retell a story expressively and with awareness of audience reaction
Year 4
  • Can work collaboratively in discussion
  • Can maintain an exchange of ideas or opinions
  • Can adapt tone and formality to suit different audience
  • Can project voice and expression for class-size audiences
  • Can work with others to devise a short improvised drama or presentation
Year 5
  • Can develop, explore and speculate about ideas
  • Can justify opinions with evidence
  • Can adopt a formal role in discussion e.g. chair, spokesperson
  • Can project voice for larger audience
  • Can use standard English as necessary
  • Can rehearse and perform a play competently for an audience
Year 6
  • Can initiate and lead discussions
  • Can respond to counter-arguments
  • Can help to progress or manage discussions
  • Can use standard English confidently
  • Can prepare and present a particular speaking task competently for a large audience



Year 7
  • Contributes clearly to small and larger group discussion
  • Can give a short, clear, well-structured speech to a familiar audience
  • Uses the main features of spoken Standard English and knows when it is appropriate to use it
Year 8
  • Can make a sustained and coherent contribution to debate or discussion, acknowledging and adding to the things that others have said.
  • Can plan and act out play scripts with confidence and clear speech
  • Can sustain the use of Standard English
Year 9
  • Adapts delivery to suit context, showing good control of language choices e.g. vocabulary, tone, degree of formality
  • Can performs plays, adapting delivery to enhance meaning
  • Moves easily between degrees of formality to respond appropriately in different situations


(from Climbing Frames. See

Over the year, the teacher will mark off the skills that have been evidenced by each child, and this will act as an in-year guide to where to focus most energy and support.

Talk is worth teaching and worth tracking because it is the cornerstone of learning for the whole of out lives. It would be a shame to see active teaching of oral skills die away when it can pay back so well across the curriculum.