Talking points for Year 7 scientists

by Benjamin Strawbridge, Hughes Hall, Cambridge

Technical or ‘tier 3’ vocabulary presents a significant challenge in the secondary classroom: as students become older the breadth and specialisation of vocabulary in their lessons increases.

The traditional method for learning these words involves the rote learning of dictionary definitions. This may enable marks to be obtained in recall-based exam questions, but will only leave students with what Umberto Eco suggested would be an impoverished understanding compared to a deep, interconnected, encyclopaedia entry type definition (which might be seen in Wikipedia today).

These challenges exist for all students, but are most strongly felt by those with language disadvantage. The main groups I have identified include students with Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN), students for whom English is an Additional Language (EAL), and those from Socioeconomically Disadvantaged backgrounds (SD). It is perhaps no surprise that much evidence suggests that these students (or sub-groups of them, in the case of EAL students) are at risk of underperforming in GCSE exams compared to their peers.

In the classroom, the scaffolded support of an experienced teacher or teaching assistant (TA) can help a student develop their knowledge of a word. However, it is not possible to have a one-to-one teacher or TA for all students. Having seen this problem, I asked myself: what if students could work together to practice vocabulary use and support one another’s learning during lessons?

I realised that Talking Points (the use of provocative statements, rather than questions, as a stimulus for discussion) could form the basis for a structured, supportive environment where students could practice phonology (sounds), explore semantics (meanings), and reinforce orthography (writing), while still receiving expert input from a teacher. This seemed to be both efficient and compatible with secondary teaching.

My MEd project, undertaken through Hughes Hall, used Talking Points in groups and pairs (with TA support) in lessons, as part of a vocabulary support package for all students in a Year 7 physics class. I particularly focused on SLCN students, as students who would have some of the greatest language needs in the class. Results were overwhelmingly positive and revealed many points to consider when using Talking Points with SLCN students. Highlights specifically relating to Talking Points included:

  • Talking Points supported the work of the TA with SLCN students and enabled some students to emulate aspects of the TA’s use of language even when the TA was not present.
  • Talking Points promoted positive learning behaviours and engagement.
  • The SLCN student sample was too small to give significance to test data, but three out of four of those students had notably higher test scores in the intervention topic compared to the pre-intervention topics (they scored in Q2 compared to Q4).
  • The vocabulary test scores for my intervention class (which tested encoding, spelling and definition) were significantly higher than comparison classes.
  • Group work may not be suitable for some SLCN students, who may prefer to work in pairs. Under these conditions the Talking Points activities may still work.
  • A phonological-semantic-orthographic approach was compatible with Talking Points activities and may support students with limited working memory capabilities.
  • Comments made by some students suggest that Talking Points may support students with ASD by providing a rule-based framework where roles and expectations are clearly defined, thus reducing stress, and improving participation in social situations.

My PhD study, which is just beginning, builds on this work by exploring how SLCN, EAL and SD students respond to an improved intervention, still using Talking Points in the classroom, with a small number of case study classes across a range of schools. Through understanding how students’ knowledge of vocabulary changes over time, how attitudes to vocabulary change in different contexts, and how dialogue changes (with peers and with teachers) in lessons, I can refine the intervention package and support guidance before assessing its efficacy through a control trial (which will happen after completing my PhD).

4 thoughts on “Talking points for Year 7 scientists”

  1. I’m wondering if you refer to the Talking Points booklet set out by experienced SLTs around 2013 – A lot of work had been recorded around ideas for interaction and language/vocab development.
    As a Science teacher originally (Hughes Hall post grad teaching course), then teacher of the deaf, I took knowledge of language development and new methods back to mainstream teaching science and maths, whilst also working with the deaf in school, later trained in Specific learning difficulties working in schools and with communication speech and language training/teams.

    Your work seems to be successful- that’s great.

    Can you expand on what you mean by talking points- is this a programme you have developed or are you referring to something earlier?
    Do I assume that you will have researched what has previously been developed? For example there was a time when accelerated learning strategies was rolled out by ‘advanced skills teachers’ with the innovative ‘teaching and learning strategies’: a myriad of good in class activities to develop vocab and other skills eg thinking g skills, which could be adapted to varying subjects schools could incorporate into their topic schedules.
    Would you be choosing from or referring to what’s gone before eg comparing new ideas.

    As a specialist teacher working in and with departments, so much that was available over a short time, would never get used! I do hope you get the chance (or perhaps it’s mandatory for PhD), to look back and select or not, but at least acknowledge what’s gone before?

    1. Hello Viv,

      I am a member of the Oracy Cambridge team and the author of the Talking Points book which Benjamin used as a source for his research. You can find a link to the book and other related texts here:

      As you point out, there are a range of strategies which can support teachers who wish to both teach oracy skills and encourage productive discussion for learning. Talking Points is just one of them. But we’ve used it over many years and the research justifies our endorsement of this simple way of helping children to think through their ideas with others. It is an extrapolation of ‘Concept Cartoons’ in science – do you remember them? Very useful indeed.

      I have been a teacher and researcher in education for enough time to see many things come and go; it does seem crucial to keep emphasising what is sound theory, exemplary research, and solid practice. We can’t afford to lose the impetus which we now have to foreground oracy for our youngsters, using Talking Points or any of the strategies you mention.

      Benjamin’s careful research has extended the thinking about use of Talking Points in secondary school science classrooms in a methodical way. Also I believe that because he has both conducted this study and made it available, the ideas are generalisable and will be an inspiration for other teachers.

      If you’d like to suggest publications which we can make available to teachers on the Oracy Cambridge website, or through our newsletter, that would be most welcome.

      Thank you for your interest,
      Best wishes
      Lyn Dawes

      Dr Lyn Dawes
      Education Consultant, Oracy Cambridge
      Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge

  2. Benjamin Strawbridge,
    I have been looking at oracy in school chemistry education. My particular area of interest is developing talk in laboratory work.
    I would be very interested to read more about your work.
    Naomi Hennah

    1. Hello Naomi,

      Thank you for your interest in my research. I agree that talk in laboratory work is incredibly important, and it is something I have considered in my PhD study. At the moment I am still collecting data, so I look forward to publishing findings once I have finished my analysis. When this happens I will be sure to write another blog about my findings, so stay tuned!

      Best wishes,
      Benjamin Strawbridge

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