Enriching the year 7 curriculum through talk roles, debating and structured group work

by Beth Cooper, St Wilfrid’s RC College 

Project rationale 

  • To promote more ambitious teaching and learning experiences for a high prior-attaining Y7 class 
  • To maximise outcomes for Y7 students with high KS3 scores 
  • To ensure participation and engagement of every student in the class 
  • To promote exploratory talk to stretch and challenge students’ ability to analyse texts in English 

Baseline data 


Six students were selected by their English teacher to describe their current experiences of speaking and listening in the classroom. Their responses indicated that: 

  • They felt that only a small number from the class were actively involved in whole class discussion through ‘hands up’ 
  • They were eager to develop their own presentational speaking skills 
  • They understood that speaking and listening skills were important for sharing ideas in the classroom but wanted to do more group work in lessons 

Student progress data

At the beginning of the year, Y7 students completed a baseline reading assessment in English. No students at the beginning of the year were meeting or exceeding their end of year target and on average, students were 2 or 3 grades away from meeting their targets.

Intervention & Impact 

Debate leaders appointed 

The 6 students met with their English teacher to develop skills and understanding of talking roles and British Parliamentary style debating for 6 lunchtime sessions. Students practiced holding structured conversations using talk roles, as well as debating motions so that they could teach their peers in the rest of the class about key principles for productive debate and discussion. 

Teaching strategies initially used in English lessons 

Students were given discussion prompts to deepen analysis of texts and given opportunities for structured discussion and group work using the talk roles. 

One example is group work 3s where one student is the initiator, one is the builder and one is a challenger. These roles were built into the lessons throughout the year to familiarise and build students skills and confidence in using talk with peers and in whole class discussion. 

Work in liaison with Assistant Head for Teaching and Learning and oracy champion to broaden scope of project to all departments 

The research was broadened part way through the academic year (January onwards) to include all subjects and teachers for this Y7 group. An oracy champion ran CPD for staff and took responsibility for a Y7 lunchtime debating club. 

Impact data

Focus group

The focus group described the following impressions from learning about oracy over the course of this year:

  • Using oracy has given them more confidence in expressing their views and opinions
  • They do feel that their ability to discuss in more structured ways enables them to explore their learning in more detail and to make accelerated progress
  • They have noticed that all members of the class are more fully involved and engaged in lessons where there are opportunities for group or paired work

Interviews with students

I interviewed 3 students and their responses showed that:

  • They have been using oracy teaching strategies in other areas of the curriculum, especially Maths and History.
  • Using structured debate has improved their analytical ability to listen to and appreciate different perspectives and viewpoints.
  • They feel that paired and group work is particularly valuable for peer support.
  • They see oracy as strongly linked to understanding the content of lessons better: the use of exploratory talk in lessons stretches and challenges their knowledge and skills because they have more opportunities to communicate with others.
  • They associate oracy with enjoyment in learning and finding lessons fun.
  • Group work ensures that everyone is involved and actively participating, even for peers who are less confident speaking in whole class discussions.

Student progress data

Baseline data at the beginning of the year for reading in English showed that no students were meeting or exceeding their target grades. Most recent reading assessments have shown that 6 students are exceeding their target grades and 10 students have met their target grade.

Lesson observations

I have observed this class for 8 weeks in English lessons while their current English teacher (a PGCE student) has continued to use oracy teaching strategies with them.

  • Group work is effective for peer support and allows more able students to consolidate their knowledge by teaching others as well as allowing less able students to get support
  • Speaking and listening opportunities do increase participation and engagement
  • Debate has enabled deeper analysis 
  • Some inconsistency in quality of discussion depending on relationships between students: some students need even more structure (sentence stems?) to make discussion productive
  • Some students are still dominating discussions – discussion guidelines need to be reinforced for debate/ talking roles to work more effectively.

Research ethics

Using this group as an experimental group has enabled the Assistant Head of Teaching and Learning and oracy champion to focus on working with and providing CPD for a smaller group of staff. This will also develop future oracy champions for each department who has been involved with this Y7 and who will then be able to better secure the quality of future CPD and to promote a positive culture around oracy by having evidence of its impact.

All students will be informed about this project and given assurance that their identities have been kept anonymous. There was also a post-research debriefing to inform students about the research project.

Evaluating the Impact Project

The focus of this research has been narrow in terms of focussing on one Y7 class, initially just working with their English teacher and then broadening this out to all subject teachers for this group. This design allowed for CPD for a relatively small group of staff so that the Assistant Head of Teaching and Learning and oracy champion could ensure the quality of teaching strategies being implemented. However, as there is not another fully comparable group in Y7 in terms of ability/ target grades, it is difficult to know how the way the curriculum has been differentiated and adapted for this group has impacted student attainment and progress. 

The ways in which the curriculum has been ‘enriched’ are difficult to identify and pin down, but I have focussed the impact of this project on the following four areas: student engagement and participation; opportunities to stretch and challenge students through critical thinking; improved student attainment through peer support and exploratory talk; developing students’ soft-skills in terms of team-work and confidence.

Student engagement and participation

Impact data showed that students felt that there was more participation in lessons where oracy teaching strategies were used. This was also observed in lessons, though there is still some evidence of students dominating discussions and the need for more consistent use of discussion guidelines. They commented in particular on opportunities for peer support and how it made the content of lessons exciting and enjoyable. 

Stretch and challenge through critical thinking

Students’ ability to explore perspectives and interpretations in their reading analysis in English lessons has shown improvement. This is evident from observations, as well as students’ comments about valuing their peer’s views. Further evidence would be needed to see if these skills are transferring fully to other subjects.

Student attainment 

This is inconclusive without a comparison group but there has been good progress in English assessments.

Soft skills

Students commented on the confidence that using oracy across their curriculum has given them. There is not a reliable measure for this as the students will have developed confidence naturally through their first year in secondary education, but both the interviews and focus group identified this as important to their understanding of oracy. They described using teamwork in Maths lessons for example as developing their ability to communicate clearly and productively with peers and the fact that they associate oracy in lessons with enjoyment in learning. 

Featured image: Pixabay

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