The Turn and Talk

Daina Yousif Weber, English and AVID teacher in San Diego Unified School District, tells us how to apply the "Turn and Talk" strategy to empower students to make their own meaning by exploring open-ended questions, sharing their thoughts and perspectives, and building upon each other's ideas.

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Daina Yousif Weber, English and AVID Teacher from San Diego Unified School District, and Teacher Leader at the California Global Education Project, shares the “turn and talk” strategy.


The Turn and Talk strategy provides students the opportunity to share their ideas and perspectives with one another before contributing to a larger class discussion or future class activity, rather than expecting students to possibly absorb information delivered from the teacher, the Turn and Talk strategy is part of a larger inquiry-based learning framework that allows students to explore open-ended questions and empowers them to make their own meaning by sharing and building upon one another’s ideas.

The Turn and Talk strategy is effective with students of all ages, studying all subjects for a variety of reasons. First, asking students to talk in pairs or small groups sets an expectation that every single student must contribute to the conversation as their partner or partners are relying on their participants. Second, the open-ended nature of the prompts make it possible for students to join the conversation in a way that makes sense for them. For example, students might analyze a prompt out loud. Ask clarifying questions, or simply answer the question. By giving children multiple opportunities to talk with other students, we can increase the likelihood that they are exposed to diverse perspectives, which slowly expands their own perspectives. Lastly, because the Turn and Talk strategy provides students with the opportunity to discuss content from their own point of view, students are able to bring in and build on their background knowledge in meaningful ways, which ultimately increases their confidence and helps them see that every single student is valuable to our classroom can be.

The Turn and Talk strategy can be implemented in a variety of ways depending on the task at hand, but it ultimately serves the same purpose of giving students the space to think critically about and make meaning around a topic with one or more students. 

The expectation is that each student brings new ideas to the conversation, whether that be their current analysis of a topic or a question that they may want to explore. Prior to implementing the strategy, it is crucial that teachers identify the intended learning outcomes for students, and that they gather the appropriate resources and sources that will help their students achieve the outcomes set out for them. Additionally, it is important to develop clear and intentional prompts that are open-ended and push students to both grapple with the content and develop their skills sets.

After determining the intended learning outcomes, resources, and prompts, it is imperative that accountability measures are put in place so that students know their contributions during the Turn and Talk experiences will be applied in future learning. This could include asking students to share their contributions and larger class discussion or asking them to elaborate on the discussion in writing.

Once these preparations are completed, teachers then need to determine what structures students will need in order to be engaged and successful during the Turn and Talk. Teachers may consider pairing students strategically taking into account their comfort level with speaking their content, knowledge levels, their interpersonal relationships, et cetera.

Next, it’s important to be intentional about the timing and telling students exactly how much time they have, prompting them as they go. Estimating how much time is needed is difficult at first, but my experience suggests that this gets easier over time as you get a better sense of how much your students need, and also how much is too much.

When first implementing this strategy, you might consider structuring the partner talks so that each student has a turn to talk and a turned to listen. As time goes by, teachers may want to remove that scaffold as students get better at managing their own conversation. 

Providing sentence starters is another way to scaffold the activity. As sometimes all students need is a few words to get their ideas flowing. As students become more aware and more comfortable and more proficient with Turn and Talk, teachers may want to incorporate note-taking tools in order to help them retain information. Ultimately, teachers will learn how to structure the turn and talk in a way that engages their students and elevates their thinking.

One important thing to remember when using this strategy is that teachers play the very important role of facilitator during student dialogue. As facilitator, it is helpful to review the prompt and task expectation with the class prior to sending them off to the task. As you review the prompt with the class, it is often helpful to ask students to break down the task and prompt in their own words in order to make sure they understand what the prompt is saying and what they’re expected to do.

As they dive into their discussions with peers, teachers should circle the room listening for and taking notes on insightful contributions that could be shared with the whole class. Teachers should also be sure to document who was sharing what so that they can call on those students to share to the whole class after smaller conversations have ended.

As students talk, it is helpful to give them frequent reminders regarding time and expectations. Teachers should try to avoid interjecting into student dialogue as much as possible as the goal is to have students drive the experience. That said, proximity and eye contact are great non-verbal ways to redirect students who are disengaged or off task, which will of course happen.

After the Turn and Talk time is up, it is important to ensure that students have had an opportunity to apply the knowledge they gained from the talk with their peers. It is also crucial to facilitate a debrief with students. While the debrief can be used to amplify valuable ideas and insights that came up regarding content, it should also make space for students to metacognitively reflect on their contributions to the process. There is so much meaningful learning that happens when we ask students to think about and discuss their own learning. 

Moreover, by referencing these comments and recognizing who made them in subsequent conversations, teachers can validate those students willing to take a risk by sharing their ideas with their peers and ultimately increase students learning. 

Lastly, and I can’t emphasize this enough, repeat, repeat, repeat. Just as students have to take risks for this strategy to be effective, teachers must also be willing to take risks. Many teachers feel uncomfortable using this strategy at first as it can feel chaotic or out of control. However, it is important to trust the process and embrace the productive struggle, reflecting on what challenges arise during implementation and developing improvements for next time. Soon enough, the structure will become automatic and students will step into the important roles that they play as co-teachers and learners in our direct classrooms.

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