The Power of Language: Exploring behaviours and attitudes towards GCSE English through learning conversations

Sunderland College

TThis small-scale research project explored how formative assessment could be used to bring about positive behaviours and attitudes towards learning within GCSE resit in a Further Education college in the North East of England.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


For most post-16 resit GCSE English students, re-taking a subject in which you have already been labelled a ‘failure’ is a diminishing experience. It can result in a loss of confidence, not to mention a disengagement and lack of interest in the activity in which you are regarded as being simply ‘not good enough’.

GCSE English teachers worked with students and implemented the ‘Outcome Star’ to evaluate, through learning conversations, levels of learner confidence in their approach to their GCSE English studies.


In the past vast amounts of teachers’ time has been used to prepare written feedback to learners on their progress against target grade. However, this has not had the desired impact of improving learner autonomy and confidence.

Therefore, the English team developed the ‘Outcome Star’ (Figure 11c-1) as a vehicle for focusing formative feedback. This self-regulating tool was developed and inspired by the Inception Meeting and was designed in collaboration with the Literacy Lead in attendance. The ‘Outcome Star’ was used as a vehicle for a learning conversation between teacher and learner in order to build learner confidence and halt their perceptions of being a failure. This feedback tool was designed to mitigate the negative feelings of failure that learners begin their college experience with.


The tool was piloted with 2 selected English practitioners both delivering GCSE resit English to Study Programme learners. These teachers worked at 2 different centres, each with cohorts of learners who presented different behavioural needs and academic abilities. Both teachers were committed to the use of the ‘Outcome Star’ and agreed upon the 10 key expressions linked to attitudes and behaviours which were appropriate for both cohorts of learners.

The following expressions were used:
• I enjoy reading
• Reading out-loud
• Comfortable with my writing skills
• Accurate spelling for my age
• English is important to me
• I take English lessons seriously
• I get involved in English lessons
• I am always prepared for English lessons
• Use English skills away from college
• I enjoy creative writing

In the first instance and as part of the students’ initial assessment for GCSE English, the students were asked to carry out a self-assessment using the ‘Outcome Star’ to grade themselves for levels of confidence, 10 being very confident and 1 being low confidence, on each key expression within the ‘Outcome Star’.

Following this, the teacher graded the same key expressions within the ‘Outcome Star’. Both teacher and student ratings then prompted more fruitful and challenging discussions that attempted to identify and break down misconceptions and overcome self-imposed barriers to learning.


Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

The ‘Outcome Star’ was deployed during the initial assessment period and this generated rich information. The classroom teacher used this information in their interactions with their learners in order to build learner confidence and generate positive perceptions of themselves and their abilities.

This resource encouraged learners to express more fully and analyse their behaviours and attitudes towards GCSE English and afforded the teacher the opportunity to discuss and challenge negative perceptions with learners. When reflecting upon the use of this resource the teachers enjoyed the opportunity to engage in more meaningful learning conversation which helped break down the barriers much earlier than in previous years. In practice the teachers were able to challenge and have more meaningful conversations in relation to students’ experience of education and not just focus on progress against target grade.

Towards the end of the research study the teachers evaluated this form of student/teacher collaborative feedback and shared their views in case-studies. Some of the key points from the case studies include:
• Opportunity to engage in more meaningful conversations
• I am able to plan more effectively and understand my students’ needs more
• Students grow in confidence and engage in more ‘reading out-loud’ activities which previously would have been a real challenge
• Lesson planning now includes more time for oracy skills

The ‘Outcome Star’ is now part of future curriculum planning for GCSE English.

Overall students have engaged positively in the process and they can see how their perceptions can impact on their approach to GCSE English.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

This study was originally piloted with two members of GCSE English teaching staff and it has been agreed that this approach has been adopted as part of the initial assessment for GCSE English across Sunderland College.

In addition to this, the ‘Outcome Star’ was identified as best practice as part of a college Internal Review of initial assessment and has been shared with all other curriculum areas. At the request of the college’s CEO and Chair of the college’s Quality Improvement Committee, the resource developed as part of this study was recognised as best practice by the committee.

One of the teachers involved in the project has commented on changes in their practices:

“I have found that the outcome star is a great way to capture the learners’ attitudes to English. What is proving interesting is the propensity for learners to “undersell” themselves, particularly around how seriously they take the subject and their confidence. This has led to some very interesting learning conversations whereby we have the opportunity to unpick the story behind the attitude”.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

The evidence of improvement is based on teachers’ observations of changes in student behaviour and attitudes towards GCSE English. The evidence is qualitative in nature and outlined in the case studies. One teacher involved commented improvements to current practice:

“I can challenge and address not only academic progress but also attitudes and behaviours towards English which supports a more holistic approach to student development.”

It can be seen in the teachers’ case studies that learners are responding well to the teachers’ improved planning for oracy, with learners in both studies being observed to respo

Learning from this project

Key learning from this project is the importance of considering the holistic progress of learners that is not over-reliant on progress against target grade. Progress in the softer skills, including behaviours and attitudes, are equally important and are invaluable in supporting planning and formative assessment.

The deployment of the ‘Outcome Star’ as part of the initial assessment of GCSE English students has assisted in addressing some of the negative perceptions and behaviours towards English. This has given the teachers the opportunity to have learning conversations that focus both on academic progress and student resilience and confidence towards their subject.
One teacher commented that:

“I implemented a number of changes in my sessions, foremost amongst the changes was (and is) the greater focus on trying to develop learner confidence, trying to get the learner to read aloud, write on the board and develop their oracy skills by allowing opportunities for them to have a voice in discussions. I now include oracy within my planning and look at opportunities to generate more discussion and talk about English more.”

Overall, the ‘Outcome Star’ has huge potential to inform pedagogical approaches in a more timely manner prompted by the rich and broad dialogue that generates valuable information of the students’ learning journey to date.

The ‘Outcome Star’ has the potential to be adapted to include the measurement of learners’ employability traits which can be used by Personal Development tutors and curriculum staff.
This particular piece of research worked well on a smaller scale with two teachers and would require inter-disciplinary co-ordination when deployed on a college-wide scale.