Talk roles and child-led discussions in guided reading

Katy O’Neill | South Malling CE Primary and Nursery 

Project rationale 

I chose to focus on developing the quality and quantity of talk in a guided reading group of five Year 3 students. I selected this focus in response to observations I had made of the characteristics of group talk generated in guided reading sessions prior to embarking on the project, outlined in my explanation of the baseline data below. I chose to focus on a group of secure readers, who were able decoders of texts, but reluctant to share their ideas in group discussions and would rarely contribute unless invited to do so by an adult. Through teaching specific oracy strategies, my aim was to equip the members of the group with discussion skills which would develop their independence, active-listening, reasoning and self-confidence in discussions. 

My evaluative research question was: To what extent does the explicit teaching of talk roles improve the quality and quantity of child-led discussions in a guided reading group of secure readers who lack confidence when participating in group discussions? 

Baseline data 

I observed that the structure of the talk in guided reading sessions, and the dynamic between teacher and students, encouraged passivity in the students. The students lacked the necessary skills to sustain a discussion without adult intervention and needed constant support and encouragement to respond to one another’s ideas. They did not build on or challenge one another’s ideas and frequently needed to be prompted to elaborate on, or to provide justification for, their responses. 

The talk I observed was cumulative rather than exploratory, with questions posed solely by the teacher. Furthermore, the responses from the students were directed to the teacher rather than to the group as a whole. The group relied on the teacher to lead and manage the whole discussion, with students only speaking when invited to do so by the adult. 

My aim was to move away from a structure which bounced the talk back and forth from teacher to individual students to ‘‘dialogic talk’ in which both teachers and pupils make substantial and significant contributions and through which pupils’ thinking on a given idea or theme is helped to move forward’ (Mercer, 2003). 

Intervention & intended impact 

I ran the intervention during a set of thirty-minute guided reading sessions once a week over a six-week period. I video-recorded each session in order to watch back and codify the talk. 

Harkness Models / Coded Interactions 

I recorded each session using the Harkness model to illustrate the distribution and nature of the interactions across the group. 

I also developed and implemented my own coding system, based on T-SEDA (2018), for identifying and recording the type of verbal interactions. I included my own contributions as teacher in the data collection as I hoped to see a reduction in the amount of teacher talk and to evidence a shift in my role; moving away from managing the contributions of the students to probing, clarifying and addressing misconceptions within the dialogue. 

Talk Roles / Talk Counters 

Talk counters were used to evidence the quantity and nature of each participants’ contributions. The counters were placed on a talk roles sheet which I created (Fig 1.). This resource was developed over the course of each session, as I identified additional talk roles which were beneficial to evidencing the impact of this strategy.

Figure 1

Initially, I introduced the roles of Instigator, Builder, Challenger, Clarifier, Prober and Summariser. Before each session, the group rehearsed the sentence stems for each talk role and discussed at what point in the discussion they could be used. After the first two sessions, I added the roles of Inviter: to encourage students to actively invite one another to speak; Encourager: to praise use of roles and other talk strategies; and the role of Discussion Guide: to map teacher interactions which steered the talk. I hoped the use of the sentence stems would encourage a more rigorous and robust dialogue around the text. 

Talk Protocol

I introduced the talk protocol of ‘thumbs in’ for students to be able indicate a desire to share an idea and to avoid students talking over one another, or interrupting. I hoped this would encourage the less confident students to participate more frequently in the discussions. 


In the second session, I decided to introduce the role of a chairperson. My hope was that this strategy would develop the children’s skills to initiate, sustain and independently manage their discussion.

Discussion Guidelines

The students were familiar with discussion guidelines from whole-class oracy lessons. My aim in this intervention was for the students to apply these guidelines to their talk in guided reading sessions. We reviewed our discussion guidelines before the start of the intervention and discussed how this would look and sound in a guided reading context. The children were accustomed to the physical strand skills of making eye contact with and facing the person talking. They also had experience of building on and challenging ideas, changing their minds and reaching a group consensus, from explicit oracy sessions. I hoped they would be able to transfer these skills to small group guided reading discussions.

Impact data

The Harkness models (Fig. 2) illustrates the redistribution of the interactions over the intervention period. The Harkness diagram from the baseline data shows a back and forth interaction between the teacher and individual students. As the weeks progressed, the Harkness model shows a fairer distribution of interactions across members of the group, a reduction in teacher-talk and an increase in student-to-student interactions.

Figure 2

Summaries of Codified Contributions

As the weeks progressed, the coding shows an improvement in the quality and quantity of student-led talk evidenced by:

• an overall decrease in the number of adult-prompted verbal contributions.

Week Adult-prompted student contributions (i.e. not independent)
Baseline 32
Week 1 7
Week 2 16
Week 5  7
Week 6 14

• an increase in the number of questions, in particular clarifying questions, asked by the students:

Week Number of questions asked by the students
Baseline 0
Week 1 8
Week 2 6
Week 5  10
Week 6 3

• an increase in the number of reasons the students give for their answers without adult prompt.

Week Number of times students gave reason to support point without teacher prompt
Baseline 0
Week 1 4
Week 2 7
Week 5  16
Week 6 12

• an increase in the number of times the students invited one another to speak. 

Week Number of times students  invited one another to speak
Baseline 0
Week 1 7
Week 2 4
Week 5  2
Week 6 0

Talk Roles / Talk Counters Results 

In first sessions, the teacher talk was focused on managing the discussion and posing instigating questions. As the intervention progressed, the role of the teacher adapted to focus around clarifying, probing and encouraging use of the talk roles. With the chair managing the discussion it became more democratic and, as a teacher, I was able to focus on addressing misconceptions, asking for clarification and probing for deeper understanding (Fig 3.).

Figure 3

I also noticed an improvement in the students metacognitive understanding of discussion, recognising when they, or other members of the group, were talking in a particular role. There was evidence of students changing their minds as a result of the discussion, students building on one another’s ideas, challenging one another and inviting one another to talk. 


The strategy of having a chairperson, allowed the students to develop and experience ownership over their discussion and to manage their own interactions, independently of the adult in the group. Each week, we discussed the role of the chairperson and formulated a ‘chairperson toolkit’ (Fig 4.); a set of guidelines for the chairperson to follow, in order to facilitate a purposeful and fair discussion. 

Figure 4

Learning Loss

The final session took place the first week back after the Easter holidays and the data evidences a slight fall-back in the talk-skills the students had developed before the break. This underscores the importance of making oracy education a regular feature of classroom practice, rather than a one-off intervention.


I have learned a great deal about how to carry out action research and my findings have reinforced my belief in the positive impact of oracy pedagogy. Next time, I would consider how to run the intervention in a more manageable way and simplify the data collection process. For example, if I was to use video again, I would think carefully about how much footage I was realistically able to monitor, I would also implement the coding system from the start of the intervention and carefully define the parameters I set to quantify the nature of the verbal contributions. In future projects, I would like to include a control group to provide a comparative set of data. 

My next steps are to share the Impact Project with my school colleagues and advocate for an oracy-based approach to guided reading sessions across the school. In my classroom, I intend to introduce the talk roles to the whole class and, in my role as a leader, I plan to support others to carry out their own action research projects. 


Mercer, N. (2003), The educational value of ‘dialogic talk’ in ‘whole-class dialogue, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. 

Vrikki, M., Kershner, R., Calcagni, E., Hennessy, S., Lee, L., Estrada, N., Hernández, F., Ahmed, F. (2018) The Teacher Scheme for Educational Dialogue Analysis (T-SEDA): Developing a research-based observation tool for supporting teacher inquiry into pupils’ participation in classroom dialogue, International Journal of Research and Methods in Education.

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