Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

08.20.21TLAC 3.0: Using Turn & Talk to Make Your Classroom ‘Crackle to Life’

Just a few more weeks now til TLAC 3.0 drops. But of course the new school year is already underway so I’ve been trying to share excerpts in advance.  Here’s the beginning of the write-up on Turn and Talk, with amazing video of BreOnna TIndall and Sarah Wright’s classrooms.

Turn and Talk—a short, contained pair discussion—is a common teaching tool used in thousands of classrooms and it offers a lot of benefits.

Among others:

  • It boosts Participation Ratio. You say “Why is Scout afraid? Turn and Talk to your partner for thirty seconds. Go!” and suddenly fifteen voices are going at once instead of just one. In a short time you’ve allowed almost everyone the chance to share an answer.


  • It can increase reluctant students’ willingness to speak in larger settings. A student rehearses an idea she might not offer in front of thirty people, and finds it comes out well or earns admiration from her partner. She becomes more willing to share her idea with the whole group.


  • It’s a great response when the class appears stuck. You ask a question, get only a smattering of hands or perhaps none at all, and respond: “Hmmm. No one seems quite sure. Turn and Talk with your partner for thirty seconds. See if you can come up with some ideas. Go!” Suddenly you have a workaround for explaining the answer.


  • It can allow you to listen in on conversations and choose valuable comments to start discussion with, as in, “Maria, would you mind sharing what you and Justine talked about?”


But there are challenges to go with the benefits. Because it can result in fifteen people talking at once does not mean it will, and a disengaged Turn and Talk where there’s little turning and even less talking is a culture killer. And there are a variety of accountability challenges:


  • Conversations may wander off the assigned topic and may never even address the topic at all. (It is, after all, exciting to have the chance to chat with your friend in the middle of class.)


  • There is the risk that students in a Turn and Talk listen poorly—that their partner is merely a target for their own words and not a source of insight.


  • Even if everyone is on topic and listening their hardest, erroneous information could still spread. Billy Knowsforsure tells Tammy Tendstobelieve that to take the square root of something means to divide it by two; she nods, begins committing it to memory, and you never know it.


Education researcher Graham Nuthall, carefully observing students during lessons,  found that students frequently persuaded their classmates that erroneous information was true. The most credulous were likely to be those with the weakest knowledge on a topic.


So used frequently does not always imply used well. The details of execution are critical. BreOnna Tindall’s execution of her Turn and Talk in the video BreOnna Tindall: Keystone provides a road map. Students have read a short passage about the idea of “blind justice” and have been asked to discuss whether the idea of justice being blind is supposed to be a positive or a negative symbol. BreOnna gives a direction: “One minute to Turn and Talk. Share out your response with your face partner. Go!” Suddenly, the room crackles to life.


Her success starts with the directions. They are crisp and clear, without an extraneous word, economy of language exemplified. The speed and energy of the transition capped off by the cue to action “Go!” means that everyone starts at exactly the same time. No one has time or incentive to glance around and see if their peers are really doing it. In these ways her directions exemplify technique 28, Brighten the Lines.


Of course it’s critical that Turn and Talk is a familiar procedure. BreOnna has taught her students how to do Turn and Talk well and they’ve practiced it. You can see their familiarity with it in the video. They know who their partner is without having to ask; they start their conversations comfortably and naturally; they speak at the appropriate volume. And perhaps most of all, the practice has taught them that since everyone is going to join in the Turn and Talk with energy and enthusiasm, they can safely do the same. This lack of hesitation is one of the main reasons why just seconds after the prompt, the room crackles to life.


Interestingly, it’s not just one procedure. As the phrase “Turn and Talk with your face partner” implies, there are face partners and also shoulder partners. BreOnna can keep things fresh by shifting which partner students talk to. Her room layout is designed around Turn and Talk!


And don’t overlook her phrase “share out your response” as it implies something important. Of course, they have plenty to say. Students have written first and are sharing what they wrote. As with whole group discussions, writing first means a more substantive and inclusive partner discussion (see technique 40, Front the Writing). As we will see, Turn and Talk works best when designed for synergy with what happens before and after.


Finally, BreOnna tells her students they will have (just) one minute to talk. This helps them gauge the appropriate length of their comments. And, ironically, keeping the Turn and Talk short maximizes its value. It’s a preliminary to the larger class discussion, so BreOnna wants students to have more to say, still, when it’s over. She doesn’t want them to say everything yet.


You can see many of the same themes in the video Sarah Wright: Keystone.

First, Sarah asks a question: “Imagine you are Tio Luis [in Pam Muñoz-Ryan’s novel Esperanza Rising], what would you say?” This is a reiteration of a question they have already responded to in writing, and now they get to share their brilliance. There are hands in the air. Lots. Students are eager to talk so this might seem like a surprising moment to choose a Turn and Talk. One of its best uses, I noted earlier, is to help build engagement when students are hesitant. But here it’s useful for the opposite reason. When you have lots of eager hands, Turn and Talk can be a great way to let everyone get to talk and to minimize the I had a great answer and didn’t get to share it frustration.


Like in BreOnna’s classroom, Sarah’s directions are crisp and clear with no extra words. They end in a consistent in-cue—the same as Breonna’s, “Go!”—and again the room crackles to life. You can then see Sarah circulating, listening to answers, sharing her appreciation, and also perhaps deciding whom to call on.


But again, not every Turn and Talk looks like these. How does a teacher build this level of energy and productivity?


The first step is ensuring that students feel responsible for doing the task in front of them to the best of their ability. Once you’ve done that, you can begin to design the activity for maximum rigor. This “all in” attitude is achieved mostly through intentional habit-building.


In the videos, neither BreOnna nor Sarah tells their students, “Be attentive; be active; do your best, and talk about the topic at hand.” Those things are understood. Students do them automatically, which means they are carefully taught and reinforced until they become routine.


Build the Routine


A Turn and Talk is a recurring classroom procedure; a common means for students to engage ideas. The more frequently something recurs in the classroom, the more important to make it a routine—to map the steps of the procedure, then rehearse and repeat it until it happens smoothly and with almost no drain on working memory. You can read more in Chapter Ten about installing routines but some specific aspects of the Turn and Talk routine deserve specific comment.


“My Turn and Talks actually used to be pretty ineffective,” BreOnna shared. “[Students] would not talk—or they would talk about something else.” Now, though, she builds in “an extensive rollout where I explain ‘this is what I’m expecting [active on-topic conversations; asking questions of each other], this is the type of language I want to hear [academic vocabulary]. I want to see these actions [nodding; facing each other; showing your partner you’re listening].’ It could seem a little Type A but I honestly think kids just don’t know how to have an academic conversation in a way that brings out the best in their partner. I try to make sure they have all the tools before they need them.”




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