The prevalence of the “turn and talk” strategy has increased in schools over the past several years as teachers realize the importance of keeping students actively engaged in instruction; listening to students as a form of formative assessment; and, for multilingual learners, having students practice speaking the target language.

While the practice has increased, some teachers may not be incorporating the practice as often as possible to maximize the benefits, and may be able to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the strategy by incorporating in a few practices to develop more purposeful practice of both language and content, a key aspect of teaching multilingual learners in any classroom.

“Turn and talk” times are opportunities for students to discuss, negotiate, or relate to any newly presented material. The concept of the 10/2, as developed by Art Costa, is designed to present information in manageable chunks, and then have students process that information in some way.

For example, after presenting a comprehensible lecture, reading a section of text, or watching a short video clip, have students turn to a partner and discuss what they learned, important facts or concepts, or asking and addressing questions they still have about the content.

Costa discusses that the chunk of information should not be more than about 10 minutes before students have an opportunity to process for about two minutes. However, the numbers are not hard and fast. The amount of time for the comprehensible lecture or chunk of information will depend on the age/grade level and English proficiency level of the students, as well as the complexity of the content being taught.

A good rule of thumb is to keep your presentation time to around the age of the students. In other words, five-year-olds should get information in about five-minute chunks, while 16-year-olds can get information in about 16-minute chunks. However, the amount of time should be maximized at 20; in other words, you should not exceed 20 minutes for any age.

Additionally, be sure to lower the amount of time when the content concepts and skills are more complex. By making sure we as teachers only provide direct instruction in chunks, our students will be able to attend to the lesson with more focus.

Prompting Students: Asking the Right Questions

One of the keys to providing meaningful “turn and talk” times is to provide a specific, meaningful, somewhat open-ended prompt for students to discuss. Prompts such as, “Turn to your partner and share what we just learned/discussed/read about,” are not specific enough to provide students with the direction they need to meaningfully discuss the topic. Instead, more specificity should be provided to students by asking questions such as, “Discuss three to five key events that happened in the text and tell your partner which page they occurred on.”

Prompts do not have to be factual in nature, though. Higher-order thinking questions can also be incorporated into instruction and can serve as excellent prompts for partner or small group instruction. For example, the following question or prompt stems can be adapted based on the content or topic you are teaching.

  • What changes would you make to ____?
  • Create a new/alternative ending for ____.
  • Defend your position about ____.
  • Why is _____ important?
  • How would you have reacted in this situation?

Other questions can be asked to link students’ prior experiences and background knowledge. These connections can be especially helpful to multilingual learners as they learn content in a new language. Have students consider an experience they have had, for example, that is related to the topic being studied, or previous learning about content that relates to what is currently being studied.

No matter the prompt, the more specificity provided, the easier it will be for students to answer the questions, especially if you provide the linguistic scaffolding needed to support multilingual learners.

Scaffolding Responses to Prompts

Linguistic scaffolds may be necessary for your students to answer questions based on their proficiency level in the target language. There are a number of scaffolds that can be provided to students to support them as they respond to prompts in small groups or with partners.

One simple practice that can be encouraged, and even required, is to have students speak in complete sentences when they answer a question or prompt. Teaching students to “turn the question around,” or use the words from the question or prompt to answer the question or prompt, is an effective response tool. This can be used along with providing sentence frames or sentence starters, which you can read more about here.

Vocabulary instruction is an important piece of providing scaffolding as well. “Turn and talk” prompts are excellent opportunities for students to incorporate specific, precise vocabulary into their speech. By providing students a bank or list of words to practice, and the expectation that they incorporate these words into their responses, we can reinforce the vocabulary we are teaching, deepen students’ understanding of the content and language we are teaching, and provide students with a safe environment to authentically build their language skills.

In either case, using choral calling and choral responses to practice the response frames and practice pronouncing vocabulary will help build confidence in the students.

Who is Talking First? Setting Expectations

Once you have developed and given a prompt, consider setting expectations as to who will respond first, and for how long. Consider your students; when you give a prompt, it is likely that you can predict which students will eagerly respond, and which will remain quiet and wait for someone else to reply. It is of course normal for some students to be more extroverted, and others to be more introverted and shy.

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, if we rely on the more extroverted, or the students with higher language proficiency to consistently respond, we may be robbing other students in the class opportunities to practice language and process the content being taught. Specific structure can help to alleviate this dilemma.

Consider setting up an expectation of who will talk first, and for how long, after giving a specific prompt. For example, you may have student partnerships that determine, or are assigned, a letter, either A or B. After giving the prompt, tell students which partner, A or B, should begin.

Alternatively, you can have the student born earlier in the year, the person with more siblings, the person wearing a lighter or darker color, etc. respond to the prompt first. It is important to give the prompt before telling the students which partner will go first, as you want everyone to think about what their response might be.

Coupling this practice with a response frame will provide the scaffolding that introverted or shy students might need to feel confident in responding first. In addition, a timer can be used to set a specific amount of time that students have to respond.

For prompts that are somewhat simple or require a short answer, require a short answer, or for groups of students who are more beginning in terms of language proficient, provide a short timeframe, such as 10-30 seconds to respond. For prompts that are more complex, and as students gain deeper language skills, provide a longer timeframe to respond.

Using a timer will help keep students on track and provide the opportunity for each student to respond. Give the prompt, tell the students who will respond first in their partnership, set a timer for a specific amount of time, and when the timer is up, instruct students to switch so that the other person also gets to respond.

Holding Students Accountable

Another common name for the “turn and talk” is the “think, pair, share.” Conceptually, the process is similar. However, thinking time is not always explicitly provided to students in order for them to first process information.

When students share, they often give the answer that they had said when discussing with a partner. This practice is not wrong, but additional accountability can be added by having students share what their partner said or shared. You might have students begin with, “My partner shared that…” as a way to hold students accountable as well as a way to reinforce and repeat what they had discussed. This provides an additional opportunity to sue language and practice the academic vocabulary you have taught and encouraged your students to utilize in their discussions.

With these simple refinements, the opportunities students have for student-to-student discussions through “turn and talk” and “think-pair-share” will be maximized, especially for our multilingual students.