Exploratory talk, resilience and attitudes to learning

by Ellie Garment, Colonel Frank Seely Academy

Project rationale 

In March 2018, as part of an annual review, four external senior leaders visited our school to look at the quality of teaching and learning. A common observation made by each of the visiting senior leaders was that students in some lessons were ‘apathetic’ or ‘passive’ and were not actively engaged in their learning. 

After reviewing the data for the subject areas where most passivity was observed and carrying out a whole-school oracy audit, it became clear that classrooms where exploratory talk was valued and more embedded into student learning, the data was more positive. Exploratory talk is defined by Wegerif et al as talk in which “in which partners engage critically but constructively with each other’s ideas” (1998, p. 200). This led me to develop the following research question: 

To what extent does exploratory talk improve attitudes to learning and resilience among Year 9 students? 

Baseline data 

The students chosen for this research were Year 9 GCSE PE students. The focus group was made up of four boys and three girls. with the lowest attitudinal data out of the class across all subjects. Attitude to learning is categorised by a number (1 = outstanding, 2 = good, 3 = needs improvement, 4 = poor). Behaviour data revealed that the students selected for this study had the lowest number of ones and twos. 

Following this, qualitative data was collected, using questionnaires and interviews, to explore students’ attitudes to learning and resilience. Interviews were carried out by a pastoral support member of staff with the aim of reducing any subject bias. 

Whilst the intervention took place in PE, teachers of other subjects were involved in gathering data for the project. All teachers that taught the seven selected students were asked to provide information on each student’s attitude to learning and resilience in their lessons. 

Intervention and intended impact 

In the Autumn term, discussion guidelines were established with the class following a Harkness discussion. The discussion topic was relatable to all students. Discussion role cards were distributed and differentiated accordingly. The discussion guidelines were displayed in the classroom and explicitly referred to throughout each lesson when praising a student or when challenging a student’s contribution. 

Talk partners and talk trios were established as well as an increased use of other groupings, such as traverse lines for discussions (whereby students sit in two facing rows and rotate talk partners). The main priority was preparing students to contribute more in lessons and developing their understanding of oracy and how it can help their understanding of challenging subject content. 

Students became more practiced at working together to overcome difficulties in their learning in this half term. The rule of ‘ask three before me’ was introduced and reinforced during each lesson. 

In the Spring term, there was a more explicit focus on the linguistic strand of the Oracy Skills Framework and an increased use of subject specific vocabulary through word tallies and talk games such as Taboo. The priority for this term was not only raising the profile of student talk but ensuring that students used better quality language during discussion with their peers. 

Finally in the Summer term, student-led parents’ evenings were introduced. Students were asked to share their work with a parent, talking to them about the successes they had had during the year and any specific topics they had found difficult. 

Impact data

At the end of the project, student questionnaires were distributed, and interviews took place. Attitudinal data was also recollected for students both in PE and in other subjects.

The questionnaires revealed that GCSE PE was viewed by four of the seven students as their favourite subject; for the remaining students, GCSE PE was one of three most favourable subjects. The questionnaire highlighted that following the oracy intervention, students felt more confident in GCSE PE lessons, despite often finding the subject content challenging. Students felt this was because the classroom atmosphere was more positive, and they were made to feel safe to make mistakes. 

Interviews revealed that students liked being given sentence stems to scaffold their verbal responses. They felt that they gained better clarity in their understanding in their learning after verbalising their thoughts. All students valued being able to talk about their answers before they were expected to write. 

Students also reported receiving more sanctions in lessons where they were not given the opportunity to talk. They explained that when they found work challenging, they were unsure of what to do next, which often resulted in them losing focus.

Students were able to confidently identify what the discussion guidelines were and were able to explain what active listening meant and how this can be demonstrated during discussions with peers. Students also felt less anxious in GCSE PE than in any other subject, particularly when being questioned by the teacher. 

Feedback from subject teachers indicated that for target students, attitude to learning in their lessons was less favourable than in GCSE PE. This was the case for the optional subjects as well as mandatory ones. None of the seven target students received a category one (outstanding) for attitude to learning in these subjects, whereas three received this in GCSE PE. 

Parent response to the student led progress evening was also extremely positive. Parents felt that students had taken ownership of their learning and encouraged them to be more accountable for listening to feedback.

Research ethics

Each of the subject teachers were formally and informally made aware of the rationale and intended outcome of the research. Feedback from teachers was made optional and was not referenced specifically in the project overview.

Next steps

Oracy is one of three whole school teaching and learning priorities for the next academic year. A lesson study model will be incorporated into the academy’s whole school CPD programme, which has taken place on a small scale this year. Teachers will collaboratively plan and evaluate lessons where oracy is embedded into every lesson. Oracy assemblies in the round have been trialled this year but next year will take place fortnightly. Student led progress evenings are being introduced in July 2019. 


Wegerif, R., Mercer, N., & Dawes, L. (1998). Software design to support discussion in the primary classroom. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 14(3), 199-211.

Featured image: Pixabay

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