Evidence for Learning: Oral language interventions

Oral language interventions

Very high impact for very low cost based on extensive evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

Oral language interventions (also known as oracy or speaking and listening interventions) refer to approaches that emphasise the importance of spoken language and verbal interaction in the classroom. They include dialogic activities.

Oral language interventions are based on the idea that comprehension and reading skills benefit from explicit discussion of either content or processes of learning, or both, oral language interventions aim to support students’ use of vocabulary, articulation of ideas and spoken expression.

Oral language approaches might include:

  • targeted reading aloud and book discussion with young students;
  • explicitly extending students’ spoken vocabulary;
  • the use of structured questioning to develop reading comprehension; and
  • the use of purposeful, curriculum-focused, dialogue and interaction.

Oral language interventions have some similarity to approaches based on metacognition and self-regulation (which make talk about learning explicit in classrooms), and to collaborative learning approaches which promote students’ interaction in groups.

1. On average, oral language approaches have a high impact on student outcomes of 6 months’ additional progress.

2. It is important that spoken language activities are matched to students’ current stage of development, so that it extends their learning and connects with the curriculum.

3. Training can support adults to ensure they model and develop students’ oral language skills and vocabulary development.

4. Some students may struggle specifically with spoken language. Schools should consider how they will identify students that need additional support around oral language and articulation. It may be helpful to focus on speaking and listening activities separately where needed to meet particular needs.

The average impact of oral language interventions is approximately an additional six months’ progress over the course of a year. Some studies also often report improved classroom climate and fewer behavioural issues following work on oral language.

Approaches that focus on speaking, listening and a combination of the two all show positive impacts on attainment.

Most of the studies focus on reading outcomes. The small amount of studies that do study maths and science show small positive effects. Language approaches in these subjects may be used to explicitly practice subject specific vocabulary.

The studies in the Toolkit indicate that language interventions with frequent sessions over a sustained period may have a larger impact, overall. Approaches that are delivered one-to-one also have larger impacts.

There is very little Australasian-based research examining the effectiveness of school-based oral language interventions in improving students’ verbal or literacy skills. The few studies published involve explicit oral language instructions or the incorporation of oral language by teachers in their lessons. The studies tend to show positive gains.

  • Impact in early years (+7 months) and primary schools (+6 months) tends to be higher than that secondary schools (+5 months.)

  • By far the majority of studies have looked at the impact on reading. Where studies have investigated other subjects such as mathematics and science the effects are substantially lower (+1 month), though the number of studies is very small.

  • Oral language interventions supported or led by trained teaching assistants have broadly similar impact (+6 months) as those by teachers.

  • Oral language interventions with frequent sessions (3 times a week or more) over a sustained period appear to be most successful.

There is evidence to suggest that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to be behind their more advantaged counterparts in developing early language and speech skills, which may affect their school experience and learning later in their school lives.

Given that oral language interventions can be used to provide additional support to students who are behind their peers in oral language development, the targeted use of approaches may support some disadvantaged students to catch up with peers, particularly when this is provided one-to-one.

Evidence suggests that oral language interventions that explicitly aim to develop spoken vocabulary work best when they are related to current content being studied in school, and when they involve active and meaningful use of any new vocabulary. Some examples of approaches that have been shown to be effective include:

  • encouraging students to read aloud and then have conversations about book content with teachers and peers
  • modelling inference through the use of structured questioning
  • group or paired work that allow students to share thought processes
  • implicit and explicit activities that extend students.

With any of these activities is it crucial to ensure that oral language activities are linked to the wider curriculum (e.g., using oral language activities to model technical language in science).

Oral language interventions can be delivered intensively over the course of a few weeks, but may also be developed over the course of an academic year. Frequent sessions (3 times a week or more) over a sustained period (half a term to a term) appear to be most successful.

When introducing new approaches, schools should consider implementation. For more information see Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation.

Overall, the median costs of implementing oral language interventions are estimated as very low. The costs associated with oral Language Interventions largely arise from books, resources, and training, the majority of which are start-up costs.

Whilst the median cost estimate for oral language interventions is very low, the option to provide training for staff means that costs can range from very low to moderate.

The security of the evidence around oral language interventions is rated as high. 154 studies were identified. Overall, the topic lost one padlock because a large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers, typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strength
Number of studies154
Review last updatedJuly 2021