Six Ways to Improve Turn and Talk


If I'm being perfectly honest, turn and talk has typically been one of those things I pull out of my back pocket when I get the blank stares from my kids or it gets weirdly quiet in a discussion - especially if there's an "observer" in my room.

It'll go something like this.

Me: "Okay, based on the character's actions and feelings, do you think she's a Loyalist or a Patriot?"

Kids: *Blink, blink

Me: *Scan the room and pray for a good response in the middle of my observation. Try to make eye contact with the kid who can always pull out something but they look away.

Kids: *Blink, blink

Me: "Okay, let's turn and talk."

And sometimes it works, and it kind of primes the pump of the conversation to get it going. Which is fine. 

But sometimes, it feels like a filler in my lesson that I plopped in because it felt like it needed something - that little dash of hot sauce on top of the chili - but not necessarily because it was just the right instructional move at just the right time. I know this is the case when the kids' talk is surface-level, or not 100% on topic, or when they talk for just a second and then stop. Then I wonder, should I have given more wait time, or asked everyone to write, or asked a clearer question instead?

To move turn and talk from being just a thing to being just the right thing, here are a few moves you can make:

  1. Post a good question where it's visible. It may seem obvious, but give them a thoughtful question to really respond to. Instead of "What do you wonder about this?" try "What is new information to you here?" or "How does this build on what you already know?" or "What might someone disagree with here and why?" And always post it so it's visible. With turn and talk, the room can get loud and kids are having to take turns, and that can overwhelm some brains. Posting the question on the board gives them a place to go back to and remember what they're actually supposed to be talking about.
  2. Give time to process. Give the kids a heads up that a turn and talk is coming and then give them some time to think before they have to talk. Odds are that about 50% of your kids will be more introverted and need a bit of time to collect their thoughts before they interact with someone else. Try, "Here's your question. In a minute, I'm going to invite you to talk to your partner about this question. I'll give you a minute of quiet think time to consider what you want to say and how you'll listen."
  3. Set up partners or triads early. I have probably wasted hours of classroom time in coming up with cute ways to pair my kids up. "Who's peanut butter? No, Charlie, you're jelly. Brayden, your jelly partner is missing today, so find another one. There isn't one. Just join another group. I don't care if you're jelly or peanut butter - just talk to them, please." It's best to keep this super simple and adaptable for when kids are out. Try elbow buddies, row buddies, or anything else that takes less than 15 seconds to organize and get going.
  4. Have a standard in-cue and out-cue. Have one standard, verbal (and/or non-verbal) cue that lets students know it's time to talk and it's time to stop. A simple one could sound something like, "The question to talk about is on the board. Take a moment of quiet time to think of your response. And we'll talk in 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1." When it's time to bring them back together, give them a minute or so of warning and bring them back with the same countdown. 
  5. Use your out-cue at the crest of the wave. Often, we wait until the turn and talk conversation fades a bit so we're certain they've finished, and then we bring them back to the whole group discussion. Instead, try bringing them back when they're not quite finished - when they're at the top or crest of that discussion wave. Doing so can help bring that discussion energy productively back to your whole group discussion.
  6. Try Everybody Writes instead or in addition to. Instead of so much turn and talk, try this strategy from Teach Like a Champion, where you give kids time to write their responses to a question or prompt. It takes about the same amount of time, gives kids independent time to think and process, and makes their thinking visible to you. Or, if you see that some ideas need to be fleshed out through discussion, you could do Everybody Writes and then have students turn and talk about it what they wrote.
And always know why you're using your turn and talk strategy. If it's a filler or just a way to get some discussion going, consider whether there's something else you need to do - or whether you just need to let a question sit for a bit. On the other hand, if partner discussion is just the thing that's needed for kids to process, press in on their thinking, practice some speaking and listening skills, or even rehearse writing, then maybe turn and talk is perfect. Either way, know exactly why you're using it before you do so you're making the most of every instructional minute you've got.

Here's to simply teaching well,

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