The role of teacher regulatory talk in students’ self-regulation development


This research summary discusses a study about the link between naturally occurring teacher talk and students’ self-regulation. In particular, the summarised study shows the effects of teacher talk on students’ self-regulation.  Self-regulation refers to people’s capacity to regulate their own cognition, motivation, and behaviour towards the successful completion of a goal (Pintrich, 2000). Teacher talk is the verbal communication used by teachers in the classroom with their students.

As self-regulation is one of the most relevant student capacities underlying educational achievement (Hattie, 2009), I put two and two together and started a PhD project to understand the effects of teacher talk on student self-regulation. Here I summarise the methods and results of the first publication that has resulted from the study.

Observational methods were used to analyse teacher talk and student behaviour in eight schools (four in England and four in Chile). One teacher in each school and 49 eight to nine-year-old students participated in the study. They were video-recorded for 3 hours of everyday literacy lessons per teacher, and about 30-50 minutes of students carrying out a series of block-building tasks. Teacher talk was scrutinised for examples of teachers directing, guiding, and supporting the autonomy of students’ thinking during learning (for examples, see Torres, 2017, p. 98). Below is a summary of the different features I encountered and measured as part of these different types of regulatory talk:

Teacher regulatory talk, definitions and observables

Teacher regulatory talk type Definition Observable communications (utterances)
Directive talk Directing students in such a way that replaces students’ need to regulate their own thinking for learning ● Giving direct answer to questions, problems, or demands raised by students or teachers themselves

● Asking questions that are heavily leading towards a specific student answer or learning action

● Strongly suggesting a specific way of doing something

Guiding talk Guiding students in the regulation of their own thinking for learning OR helps students expand their own thinking for learning ● Asking questions, offering feedback, or generating demands adjusted to students’ contributions

● Elaborating on students’ contributions

● Unpacking students’ ideas by explaining back to them the relevant aspects of their contributions

● Requesting more ideas in relation to their contributions

Autonomy- supportive talk Requesting autonomous or self-regulated learning from students ● Requiring students to think about their own thinking, learning, or performance (even when students ask for help)

● Requesting students to plan, reflect, evaluate, change, or check their own work or ideas

Note: Students’ contributions refer to students’ learning products, actions, or ideas.

Self-regulation consists of both metacognitive monitoring and control (Nelson and Narens, 1990). Based on this division, the extent to which students were aware of their own errors (effective metacognitive monitoring) and were able to overcome any problems they faced (effective metacognitive control) when carrying out the block building tasks was rated.

Then teachers’ directive talk, guiding talk, and autonomy-supportive talk were explored as potential predictors of students’ self-regulation, which I divided into ‘effective metacognitive monitoring’ and ‘effective metacognitive control’.

Here are the most relevant results (all results regarding relationships or differences were statistically significant, unless otherwise indicated):

  • In the sample from England, directive talk had a negative effect on students’ self-regulation (effective metacognitive monitoring and effective metacognitive control). Guiding talk had a positive effect on students’ self-regulation (monitoring). Autonomy supportive talk had a negative effect on students’ self-regulation (control).
  • In the sample from Chile, directive talk did not have any effect on students’ self-regulation. Guiding talk had a positive effect on students’ self-regulation (monitoring). Autonomy supportive talk had a positive effect on students’ self-regulation (control).
  • Teachers talked to students 2499 times in England, and 2234 times in Chile.
  • On average, nine (Chile) to 10 (England) out of 100 teacher utterances were directive; 12 (Chile) to 17 (England) out of 100 guided students; and four out of 100 were autonomy supportive (Chile and England). Differences in frequencies were non statistically significant.
  • In both national samples, there appeared to be a link between parental education and teacher talk. Teachers who taught students whose parents had reached higher levels of education tended to use more directive talk in both the English and the Chilean sample.
  • In both national samples, teachers who used more guiding talk also tended to use more autonomy supportive talk.
  • Students in the English sample were more self-regulated than those from the Chilean sample (both monitoring and control).

Despite the limitations inherent to smaller sample sizes, the study provides some important indications for teacher practice aimed at promoting self-regulation in students.

The study indicates that teacher guidance can have a positive effect on students’ self-regulation across cultures. This is consistent with previous research (Díaz, Neil, Amaya-Williams, 1990; Hadwin, Wozney and Pontin, 2005; Perry & Winne, 2013). The added contribution of this study, however, is that it identifies specific naturally occurring ways in which teachers effectively guide students through talk in their classrooms. In particular, the study shows that to promote students’ self-regulation (effective metacognitive monitoring) teachers might benefit from enhancing students’ reflective thinking, which is what guiding talk does. Guiding talk can be achieved by: asking questions, offering feedback, or generating requests that are adjusted to what students’ have just done or said; elaborating (building) on or unpacking students’ ideas so students become aware of the relevance of their ideas; and engaging in conversations that make students think about more ideas related to their own products, actions or ideas. This could be done when talking with individual students, groups of students, or the whole classroom.

The study also indicates that some types of teacher talk could have context-specific effects. This was evident in the culture-specific effects of directive and autonomy supportive teacher talk in this sample. Unfortunately, at present, there is not enough research carried out on this phenomenon for us to understand why this might be the case or if this observation would hold true in a larger sample.

Further reading

Quigley A, Muijs D and Stringer E (2018). Metacognition and self-regulated learning: Guidance report. Education Endowment Foundation. Available at: (accessed 18 August 2020).

Gershon M (2014) How to develop independent learners. Practical ideas and strategies for creating a more independent learning environment. Tes Resources. Available at: (accessed 18 August 2020).

van Beek JA, de Jong FPCM, Minnaert AEMG et al. (2014) Teacher practice in secondary vocational education: Between teacher-regulated activities of student learning and student self-regulation. Teaching and Teacher Education 40: 1–9.


Díaz, R., Neal, C., & Amaya-Williams, M. (1990). The social origins of self-regulation. In L. C. Moll (Ed.), Vygotsky and education: Instructional implications and applications of sociohistorical psychology (pp. 127–154). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Hadwin AF, Wozney L and Pontin O (2005) Scaffolding the appropriation of self-regulatory activity: A socio-cultural analysis of changes in teacher–student discourse about a graduate research portfolio. Instructional Science 33(5–6): 413–450.

Hattie J (2009) Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.

Nelson T and Narens L (1990) Metamemory: A theoretical framework and new findings. In: GH Bower (Ed) The psychology of learning and motivation 26: 125–173. New York: Academic Press.

Perry NE and Winne PH (2013) Tracing students’ regulation of learning in complex collaborative tasks. In: S Volet and M Vauras (Ed) Interpersonal regulation of learning and motivation, pp. 45–66. New York: Routledge

Pintrich PR (2000) The role of goal orientation in self-regulated learning. In: M Boekaerts, PR Pintrich and M Zeidner (Ed) Handbook of Self-Regulation, pp. 451–502. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Torres PE (2017) The culturally adaptive functionality of self-regulation: Explorations of children’s behavioural strategies and motivational attitudes (Doctoral thesis). Cambridge: University of Cambridge. Available at: (accessed 18 August 2020).

Torres PE, Whitebread D and McLellan R (2018) The role of teacher regulatory talk in students’ self-regulation development across cultures. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development 162: 89–114.


Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. What is the nature of teacher regulatory talk in your context and what impact does it have on pupils’ self-regulation?

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