Comprehension through dialogic teaching: effects of talk on understanding text

Sharon Snowden | Park High School

Project rationale 

Data collected from our feeder schools indicated that 66 students would be starting at Park High in September 2018 not having met the nationally expected standard in reading, or had no data. This is broadly in-line with the trend over the last four years, in which between 60 and 81 students have arrived ‘not secondary ready’. Of the students in the current Year 7 cohort who had achieved the expected standard and, therefore, were deemed ‘secondary ready’, internal assessments from their primary schools identified 26 students as still ‘working towards’ the expected level. Thus, there is often a hidden group whose reading, according to the data, is secure, but for whom, in reality, a lack of vocabulary and weak comprehension skills (often linked to a lack of cultural capital) act as constant barriers, preventing them from engaging fully with the demands of the secondary curriculum. In other words, approximately a third of each year group in our current Years 7-9 (approximately 17% of the school population) arrived with a literacy and communication need. In the current Year 7 cohort, the students who arrived ‘not secondary ready’ came from 22 different feeder schools. The following team were trained to deliver a bespoke Park High KS3 reading programme: 5 highly experienced teachers/senior leaders with maths, music, geography and English subject backgrounds; 1 primary trained teacher with knowledge of reciprocal reading; 2 experienced HLTAs 

Building on Caroline Pearson’s study (2010) of exploratory talk in children’s literature circles and the large-scale York Reading for Meaning Project (2013) a randomised controlled trial carried out with 20 primary schools, this study aims to investigate the effect of oracy strategies to enhance reading comprehension in students aged 11-13. The focus of my study also builds on Mercer’s distinction between talk types (2000). 

Exploratory research question: To what extent does consistent use of the “clarifier” and “challenger” talk roles, implemented for 10 weeks, improve children’s reading comprehension, specifically in their ability to find appropriate evidence to support responses to a text? 

Intervention & intended impact 

My two reading groups became the project test groups: one Year 7 group of six students and one Year 8 group of seven students, were given explicit input on the use of talk roles and exposed to a dialogic teaching approach in their reading lessons. All reading lessons in the 17 groups taught by eight teachers received three reading lessons per week and all were exposed to a significant amount of talk-based teaching and interaction. However, the project test groups differed in the following: 

  1. almost all sessions were oracy-focussed (i.e. few written outcomes or tasks) 
  2. students were explicitly introduced to and consistently used the clarifier, summariser and challenger talk roles with visual prompts available 
  3. students were encouraged to lead and chair discussions and vocabulary teaching 
  4. students were strongly encouraged to clarify frequently and vocally: misconceptions, misunderstanding, gaps in vocabulary and text understanding. 

The intended impact of this intervention was to increase the depth with which students interacted with unfamiliar and challenging text independently of teacher input; for students to be able to articulate their text comprehension successfully in formal written tests and to increase their overall reading confidence.

Impact data

When comparing the two data sets from autumn and spring, the Student-t tests allow us to see how far from the expected mean our results are. These results demonstrate that for Year 7 there is a 99.56% probability of a school effect and the Reading Programme has significantly contributed to this.

Research ethics

No students were put at a disadvantage due to the intervention. All students on the reading programme were given a minimum of enhanced provision from teachers equally well-trained in comprehension pedagogy. Permission was sought from the members of staff using more writing-based approaches to include evaluation of this and draw conclusions. This has also led to fruitful discussion about impact and methods and greater sharing among reading teachers.


The two groups following an explicit oracy-led approach to the teaching of reading made significant gains beyond all other reading groups. In addition, the writing- focussed group, although taught the same reading strategies and following the same lesson procedures as the others, did not make as much progress as the other groups. This accidental causality reflects the findings of the York Reading for Meaning project which ran concurrent oral, text and combined versions of their reading programme and found lasting gains among the oral programme participants (Clarke, Truelove et al. 2014). Naturally, difference in rates of progress between groups could also be attributed to quality of reading input, vocabulary instruction etc. I was unable to elucidate through further questioning if students’ perceived their relative success in reading tests to be due to talk: they cited various reading strategies (“thinking aloud”, “having more vocabulary”, “other ways to read”) as well as oracy strategies (“expanding on your views”) as reasons.

The student questionnaires reveal their increased awareness of the impact and role of talk to improve text understanding. Responses on the purpose of talk in the ten weeks of the programme became more articulate, precise and relevant.

Two further steps to take in this project would be to extend dialogic talk further: students in this setting have the capacity to develop an increasingly sophisticated discursive approach to text which was only touched on here. Secondly, long term data gathering is required to ascertain the sustained impact of oracy on comprehension. It would be extremely useful to see which of the reading groups maintained these gains long after the initial input


Clarke, P., Truelove, E., Hulme C. and Snowling, M. 2014 Developing Reading Comprehension, Wiley Blackwell, Chichester.

Pearson, C April 2010 “Acting up or acting out? Unlocking children’s talk in literature circles” Literacy UKLA Vol 44 no. 1 pp.3-11

Mercer, N and Mannion, J. 2018 Oracy Across the Welsh Curriculum

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