Using verbal reasoning activities to boost attainment in Year 1 maths

by Emily Bass, Fulbridge Academy

Project rationale 

The purpose of this project was to investigate verbal reasoning as a means of embedding mathematical concepts in year 1 children and to see whether this led to an increase in scoring both in summative maths testing and through teacher assessment of knowledge and lesson progress. It was also an opportunity to embed Oracy teaching into a daily maths lesson and ascertain whether this had an effect on the children’s communication skills, specifically their explanatory ability, outside of the context of more literary based school subjects. 

Fulbridge Academy is a large primary academy, based near the centre of Peterborough. A high percentage of the children have English as an additional language and the school is placed in an area of high socio-economic deprivation. As a result of this, over 80% of reception children begin their school careers behind in their speech and language development. 

The school’s teaching and learning approach focuses on retrieval exercises, explicit teacher modelling, minimal difference, knowledge chanting and reasoning activities to finish every lesson. During the reasoning activity, children are given a problem that requires the skill learnt during that lesson, but it is placed in a different context. For example, finding ¼ of an amount might be placed into a word problem, or classifying objects as solids, liquids or gases might be turned around, requiring children to list properties of solid objects. 

In September 2018 the school changed its approach to teaching and learning, to focus on direct instruction as detailed above. This required a change to the ways that Oracy had previously been taught. The children could no longer explore subjects verbally without prior knowledge and there was much less opportunity for free speech within lessons as the focus is on the teacher as expert and instructor. One way in which Oracy could find its place within the daily lesson structure, is the reasoning activity. 

Intervention and intended impact 

It is the reasoning section of the lesson that was the focus of this study. Each year group at the school is comprised of 4 classes. In the study class, the children had the opportunity to talk through their reasoning during a maths lesson, working with a partner or their table group to explain their thoughts and justify their answers as well as talking through the mathematical processes required in order to solve a problem. 

This talk was modelled by the teacher before the children answered their own questions using the same process. The children only recorded answers in books after the verbal reasoning had taken place, and importance was placed upon the quality of the talk over the book work. 

The other 3 classes constituted a control group that were not prioritising verbal reasoning every day. On most occasions these 3 classes entered their reasoning directly into their books. Although modelling took place by the teacher, who talked through thought processes and mathematical methods, the children were not given the same oracy opportunities when answering their questions. 

Specific oracy skills were focussed on during teacher modelling and practiced by the children in discussion. Students have specific roles in their pairs of A and B. Each time the children were instructed to talk, they were given a specific role and focus of this talk e.g. Partner A describe the steps needed in order to solve this problem. Partner B explain how you know each of those steps helps you to solve the problem (i.e. one partner says the “what” the other partner justifies the “how”). Sentence stems were modelled and highlighted to help students verbalise their answers in full sentences (e.g. “I know this because…” or “If… then…”). During the process of ‘thinking out loud’, adults would specifically draw attention to the oracy skills being used, to make the implicit features of classroom talk explicit. 

Alongside this, the school upholds oracy expectations such as facing the speaker, making eye contact and using specific gestures to aid explanation. At times the children had resources such as cubes or number lines that they could use, just as the adult did, to aid in their modelling of a process. 

Baseline data for both oracy and maths was gathered in December at the end of the Autumn term. The intervention took place between January and April during maths lessons for 4 days a week. Impact data was gathered at the end of the Spring term for oracy and maths as well as summative test results.

Impact data

Findings: Study group (with verbal reasoning intervention):

December baseline maths data:

66.6% of students are attaining at the age expected level and above. Across all but one mathematical domains students are achieving below the National Average.

April post-intervention maths data:

79.3% of children are attaining at the age expected level and above. Across all mathematical domains students are achieving at or above the National Average.

Progress over intervention period: 

The blue bars show pre-intervention attainment across boys and girls. The red demonstrates attainment at the end of the intervention period.

Comparative data with control group:

December summative maths data:

55.1% of children are attaining at the age expected level and above. Students are below National Average in all but one mathematical domain.

April summative maths data: 

63.4% of children are attaining at the age expected level and above. Students are below National Average in most mathematical domains.

Progress for control group over intervention period:

The blue bars show pre-intervention attainment across boys and girls. The red demonstrates attainment at the end of the intervention period.


The use of a control group along with standardised summative testing has allowed this investigation to draw conclusions regarding the impact of oracy practice on the children’s embedded mathematical thinking skills. It is clear to see that the impact this verbal reasoning practice has had on the test group has been overwhelmingly positive as almost 80% of children in this class are now achieving at the age expected level or above in summative maths testing. This is particularly interesting when compared with the control group’s 63% on track or above. 

Qualitative data also indicate an increased level of confidence in the children in the study group when communicating. In particular, they were able to make extended contributions with greater ease, speak clearly and explain reasoning with assurance. 

It is clear from the control group assessment data that the school’s explicit approach to teaching and learning is having a positive impact on maths attainment. The students are also being given the opportunity to practice reasoning skills each day with tasks that put the day’s learning in a different context to help embed the new skill. However, the test group took this a step further, allowing the students to rehearse their answers verbally and collaboratively before answering in writing. 


At times it was challenging to ensure that sufficient time was allowed for the children to be able to fully explore the processes and justifications during the reasoning activity. This was often due to a new concept being taught in the lesson that required more, or longer practice before the students were ready to use this skill to reason. This was overcome in two ways: firstly, by practicing the approach of minimal difference, no lesson included a new concept that was either too alien or involved too many unfamiliar steps. Secondly, regular revisiting of previously taught concepts meant that students had repeated opportunities to master a skill and subsequently more time was available for reasoning following practice.

In addition to this, there are other factors to consider when assessing the data. At the initial data collection, the test group already had a higher attaining group (66.6% vs 55.1% achieving expected level or above). It could be argued that the test group were more likely to achieve an accelerated level of progress, however it is worth noting that both groups began the journey below National Average and the progress rates shown far exceed the natural progression usually seen in termly data comparisons. 

In this study, the test group’s scores improved by 12.7% compared with 8.3% improvement in the control group. The control group’s progress shows a natural gradient of improvement in attainment. Therefore, the verbal reasoning intervention must be considered as a contributing factor in the test group’s anomalous level of progress. 

Featured image: Pixabay

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