Using exploratory talk to improve reading among Year 4 middle attaining children

Frances Spivey, Academy at St James 

Project rationale 

Reading was highlighted as a particular focus due to our ASP (Analyse School Performance) report which indicates that as a school Reading is a line of enquiry due to falling standards. Therefore, as a school leadership we have prioritised the teaching of Reading, using Oracy at the centre of our practice. My exploratory research question was: to what extent does pre-prepared, scaffolded exploratory talk implemented for five lessons a week in Whole Class Reading for two terms improve reading scores amongst middle attaining children? We hoped that by incorporating Oracy into our teaching it would drive up students’ comprehension skills alongside their communication abilities. 

Recent Educational Endowment Fund studies support this rationale by advocating that oral interventions can, on average, increase progress by an additional five months. All students benefit from oral intervention but students from disadvantaged backgrounds have shown a larger impact size of up to six months additional progress. Moreover, according EEF evaluations, interventions which are related to text comprehension have a greater impact still. This is achieved by encouraging students to talk through a text whilst also supporting students to answer in-depth questions and this in turn increases reading outcomes and improves Oracy skills as well. (EEF, 2019) 

Structured Oracy led practice is linked with: Cognitive gains-where attainment is improved, retention of subject-specific knowledge and the transference of reasoning skills across subject area (Jay et al..2007) and; Personal and social gains-where attitudes to learning, self-esteem, self-confidence are increased and anxiety is reduced (Hanley P et al., 2015); (Gorard et al., 2015) 

Developing Oracy at the heart of our practise is supported by Robin Alexander and his studies into dialogic classrooms. Dialogic teaching uses Oracy to challenge students thinking which in turn supports their cognitive, social and linguistic development (Alexander, 2017) Alexander categorises talk into five main types: rote, recitation, instruction, discussion and dialogue. Alexander notes that dialogue has a far greater impact upon students’ cognitive abilities. A dialogic classroom can support students’ core skills of listening, responding, questioning, evaluating, exploring, reasoning and justifying. (Fisher, 2007); (Kazepides, 2012); (Alexander, 2017) All of which have been shown to have a positive impact on students attainment and engagement. (Alexander and Hardman, 2017) 

Additionally, the EEF’s recent evaluation into Reading Comprehension show that on average successful Reading Comprehension strategies can increase progress by six months. This is when comprehension is tailored to students needs and involve activities and texts which provide an effective challenge. Comprehension has shown to have both short and long term positive impact upon students. (EEF, 2018) This is supported by developing a Meta-Cognition and Self-Regulation approach- which encourages the practice of students thinking about their own learning using a repertoire strategies. This approach has consistently high levels of impact, with students making on average seven months additional progress. The evidence suggests that this practice can be most beneficial to underachieving students. (EEF, 2018) 

By combing all of these supporting and intrinsically linked practices we hoped to rapidly accelerate our middle attaining students’ progress. We specifically selected our middle attainers due to our ASP report which shows a consistent trend for middle attaining students to underachieve both on internal data and on national assessments. As a school our low and high attaining students make good to outstanding progress whilst our middle attaining students are falling behind. We specifically selected Year 4 and Year 6 to track, monitor and measure impact due to the strength of teaching within the year groups and the learning behaviours of the students. 

Impact data

Year 4 test data showed that in Autumn 2018 the average score for the middle attaining children was 95. Out of a year group of 44, 11 children were identified as middle attainers. (7 girls, 4 boys) This represents 25% of the cohort. The children were identified via their end of year assessments and their FFT projected score. Out the whole year group students working at or above expected was 27%. 

Year 6 test data showed that in Autumn 2018 the average score was 93. Out of a year group of 44, 15 children were identified as middle attainers. (7 girls, 8 boys) This represents 34% of the cohort. 

Again the children were identified via their end of year assessments and their projected FFT score. Out the whole year group students working at or above expected was 27%.

This data showed that a large proportion of each year group were working below expected level, with the average scores of middle attaining students being well below the standardised pass rate of 100. 

Intervention and intended impact

As a school, we implemented daily lessons of Whole Class Reading (WCR), whereby all children read an appropriately challenging yet accessible text and answer questions based upon that text. These questions were structured around the different content domains highlighted within our school QLA from the previous year’s national assessments. The QLA highlighted specific lines of enquiry from which we focused our teaching. The students were able to access a wide variety of questions and activities aimed at developing their reading comprehension skills. To support the students who were not reading at Age Related Expectations (ARE) we implemented daily readers; where all students not reading at an appropriate year group level received additional 1:1 reading with an adult on a daily basis. 

Throughout the school Discussion Guidelines, Talk Roles, Talk Groupings, Talk Prompts and Talk Protocols were introduced. These provided the foundations from which all classroom talk would be established. In Year 4 and 6 we developed Oracy Pioneers, teachers who received additional training and support to develop their dialogic teaching practice using Oracy as strategy to engage with and enhance the text. These pioneers, worked alongside our Oracy teaching hub and myself (Oracy Leader), where they were trained in Oracy techniques and practices as well as how to develop a dialogic classroom. To further enhance these strategies, additional Talk Prompts and Language Structures were introduced. All of these strategies were used in conjunction with one another to develop the students’ Oracy skills. We broke it down into two types of talk: learning to talk and learning through talk. By establishing clear expectations of what good quality talk looks like, enabled us to set the precedent for how the students interacted with one another. From this basis we then progressed onto learning through talk; where carefully planned and scaffolded exploratory talk was used to develop the student’s reading and Oracy abilities. 

Additionally, we developed a no hands up protocol, where all students were expected to partake in discussions and debates; responding to one another’s answers. We hoped that by placing the emphasis of their learning within their own hands, the students would become more active learners-developing their own meta-cognition and self-regulation skills. To help facilitate this change of strategy, further training was given to all staff to develop their questioning skills. By developing teacher questioning, we hoped that student’s responses would become more critical and reasoned. 

As the Oracy Leader, I worked alongside the Pioneers to refine and develop how Oracy is used within WCR, with particular emphasis on middle attaining students. As the project progressed the Oracy team noticed that a deficit in vocabulary was hindering the potential progress and attainment of all, but especially the target pupils. We introduced a specific vocabulary section of the lesson, where Oracy was used to promote the learning of new vocabulary and to reinforce previous vocabulary taught. Additionally, activities and practices were developed to ensure that skills were being taught and not just tested; using dialogic classroom talk to model and teach how to approach and answer a variety of questions. We hoped that Quality First Wave teaching supported by dialogic discussions would support and accelerate the middle attainers progress and attainment. 

Impact data 

The data collected was quantitative using standardised assessments. The data was collected at the end of each term (Autumn and Spring) to monitor and track student progress. 

Year 4: In Spring, the average test score was 106. This showed a positive increase of +11 from Autumn. The overall attainment rose by +25% to 52%. Out of the 11 targeted students 10 have now achieved ARE or above. 2 of the targeted students have achieved Greater Depth. Student 5 has gone from 91 to 113. Student 6 has gone from 98-118. A further 3 students are on the boundary of Greater Depth. Student 1: 92 to 109, Student 2: 99 to 107 and Student 4: 97 to 109. 

Year 6: In Spring the average test score was 103. This showed a positive increase of +10 from Autumn. The overall attainment rose by +32% to 59%. Out of the 15 targeted students 11 have now achieved ARE or above. 1 of the targeted students has achieved Greater Depth. Student 25 has gone from 95 to 112. A further 3 students are on the boundary of Greater Depth. Student 14: 98 to 109, Student 20: 96 to 107 and Student 26: 90 to 107.

The impact of our intervention shows a clear positive impact upon all targeted students. The majority are now working at ARE or above. The intervention has also impacted on all learners. Low attaining students have made positive progress. (Student 27: 88 to 97, Student 28: 88 to 102 and Student 29: 80 to 93.) High attaining students have also made positive progress (Student 30: 108 to 114, Student 31: 101 to 112.) 

Research ethics

The key ethical concerns which I encountered were consent, privacy and confidentiality. To ensure consent was given I discussed the matter and presented my project outline to my head teacher who in turn discussed it with the governors of our school. Once authoritative consent was given, I then spoke to the specific teachers who would be taking part in the project. All active participants gave their consent, agreeing to become an Oracy Pioneer and the additional training and monitoring it would entail. In order to maintain the privacy of the targeted students we kept their data collection and inventions within the whole class setting. They received no additional intervention and monitoring, the selected students maintained their classroom setting and year group assessment cycle- no additional testing or teaching was implemented. For confidentiality to be maintained data collection was undertaken by myself (Project Leader.) As a member of SLT and responsible for English across the school I have access to all assessment data. To ensure confidentiality, I collected and analysed all the data personally. The dissemination of data was also an ethical issue. I anonymised the students using a numerical system, this is then how I referred to specific students. This ensured anonymity and protected the students’ identity. 


A key barrier to the project was the release time of myself and the pioneers. Releasing several members of staff regularly is challenging-to overcome this we utilised HLTA’s and cover supervisors where appropriate. This also factored into another challenge which was that of communication between the project members. We were unable to meet as regularly as hoped due to the nature of working within a school setting, which resulted in the communication about the project not being as structured as desired. However, with several staff meetings and gap challenges, alongside informal communication we were still able to discuss the project and its progress. As a member of SLT I had a standing year group meetings with Year 4 and 6 and this formed an integral part of the communication process. 

On reflection, ensuring a structured communication process with designated meetings and feedback opportunities would have been beneficial, though I believe the absence of this has not hindered the project. Moreover, I believe that sharing the ongoing process of the project with all staff and not just the project members would also be advantageous as it would promote the impact and importance of Oracy further, whilst also sharing good practice with our colleagues’. 

To further develop the role of Oracy within WCR and to share the impact which it has undoubtedly had, is to use myself and the Oracy pioneers to model and share good practice. I will widen the dialogic training to all staff and set up additional CPD for all members of staff to develop the use of Oracy within WCR. I will also use my pioneers to work alongside other Year groups; to plan, teach and review their Oracy practice and how to use Oracy to develop the students’ skills. This project will be the foundation of how we move forward as a school, it will drive our CPD and develop our teaching practice. 


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Featured image: Pixabay.

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