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Home > News and views > The effects of speaking and listening activities on primary school performance: an empirical study

The effects of speaking and listening activities on primary school performance: an empirical study


A controlled research project carried out in 2013 over a seven month period with children aged 7-9 years has shown that pupils who were given more opportunities to develop their verbal and oral communication skills, on average showed highly significant gains in a nationally standardised test of non-verbal reasoning compared to others who did not have those opportunities, and did better in achieving/exceeding their interim National Curriculum Key Stage 2 targets over the period.


Over three school years, more than a thousand children and their teachers in twelve primary schools helped develop new teaching materials which extend pupils’ skills of oral communication. The activities – which focus on the use of persuasive speech, argument, questioning and spontaneous response, public speaking, and debating – aim to place children in situations which encourage an educationally mature level of verbal exchange with their peers, boosting their self-confidence and their command and understanding of English.

In this associated research project, parallel classes from years 3 and 4 in two schools were mixed and then re-divided into matched pairs using educational and social criteria. Each group drew equal numbers from the two classes involved to eliminate teacher bias. One was randomly chosen to follow the new activities (the Project Group) for one teaching session a week over two terms, and alternative activities were arranged for the paired group (the Control).


A nationally standardised test of Non-Verbal Reasoning (GL Assessment) was chosen as the main vehicle for assessment. This type of test establishes a pupil’s ability to recognise similarities, analogies and patterns in unfamiliar designs. The mental processes used are fundamental to how information and ideas are understood and assimilated, and are used whenever and wherever pupils learn – such as recognising similarities between words when learning to read and spell, identifying number patterns, and seeing analogies between instructions for carrying out apparently different tasks.

As such, scores on this test give a good indication of a pupil’s ability to master new material in a wide range of school subjects. Using designs (which are not culturally specific) rather than words allows these processes to be assessed independently of language skills – an essential consideration when evaluating pupils with English as a second language or those who struggle to think verbally. This was particularly relevant to the schools taking part in this research, in one of which 92% of pupils were registered as having English as an additional language.

The test was administered to all the children both before and after the trial period, roughly a seven month interval. Mean scores for the groups as a whole and for various subsets were calculated, and statistical analysis (Student t-tests) applied to examine for significant differences in the test/retest scores. When interpreting the results, standard social science criteria were applied for rejecting the null (no difference) hypothesis: i.e. 5% or less for a significant difference, and 1% or less for a highly significant difference. 108 pupils were present for the both the test and the retest, and the schools’ Key Stage 2 assessments in four curriculum areas were also recorded by the teachers in their original classes on a similar ‘before and after’ basis.


(These are standardised scores. A gain of zero would indicate pupils had improved by the expected amount for their seven months increase in age) PROJECT GROUPS – MEAN SCORES

A. Whole Group 100% 100.4 106.3 5.9
B. Pupils initially scoring <100 49% 89.0 97.1 8.1
C. EAL pupils 65% 99.5 107.0 7.5
D. EAL initially scoring <100 33% 88.6 100.4 11.8
E. Boys 51% 95.8 103.8 8.0
F. Boys initially scoring <100 33% 88.2 97.6 9.4
G. Girls 49% 105.3 109.3 4.0

Gains for all groups A to G are highly significant at the 1% level or better CONTROL GROUPS – MEAN SCORES

A. Whole Group 100% 102.6 104.4 1.8
B. Pupils initially scoring <100 42% 90.2 93.1 2.9
C. EAL pupils 56% 103.9 106.2 2.3
D. EAL initially scoring <100 19%* 88.4 90.6 2.2
E. Boys 46% 101.1 104.5 3.4
F. Boys initially scoring <100 23%* 91.1 95.3 4.2
G. Girls 54% 103.9 104.4 0.5

* Subset too small for valid analysis

All gains are considerably less than those in the equivalent subsets of the Project Groups, and only the gains in groups B and E are significant at a 5% level. The general increases can most likely be attributed to the ‘Halo’ effect, resulting from the Control Groups also taking part in ”special’ activities.

Standardised tests and Key Stage 2 assessments

The above tables illustrate that the children who followed the programme had, on average, highly significant improvements in their test scores which were far in excess of what would be expected for their several months increase in age. Further, these greatly exceeded the comparable gains by the children in the Control Groups who had followed alternative activities.

Further examination of these differences was sought by comparing the gains of all the project pupils (Group A in the first table) directly with those of the control pupils (Group A in the second table). This direct comparison also yielded a highly significant difference in the score gains between the groups at better than a 1% level, thereby verifying the earlier findings.

These differences in the performances of the children were reflected in all four curriculum areas for which the schools provided Key Stage 2 data, where the mean scores of the pupils in the programme increased by between 6% and 19% more than the others over the seven months of the project.

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