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Boost student language output: implement and maximize the turn-and-talk strategy

Immersion educators who are committed to dual language development are constantly thinking about ways to boost student language output. One of the foundational strategies we teach our add.a.lingua partner teachers is “turn-and-talk.” It’s a simple strategy to help get students producing more in the immersion language, and it can be used in any immersion classroom.

how to implement and maximize the turn-and-talk strategy

Imagine it’s math class, and the teacher shows a bar graph titled “Nuestras Actividades Preferidas.” She directs students to look at the table quietly, asking them, “¿Qué observas y qué te preguntas?” After a few moments, she invites them to share with a partner, saying, “Ahora, dobla y habla con tu compañero acerca de qué observas y qué te preguntas de la gráfica de barras.”

Students turn to face their partners, and they begin to share their noticings and wonderings about the table. One partnership references an anchor chart that shows the components of graphs. “Observo que hay un título y dos ejes.” “Sí, estoy de acuerdo. También observo que cada eje tiene un rótulo.”

Another partnership is asking questions: “¿Cuántas personas contestaron la pregunta?” “Yo me pregunto, ¿por qué tantas personas prefieren los deportes y no el arte?

As the conversation lulls, the teacher calls for attention:

Excelente, chicos. Escuché a Madison y Desiree usar solamente el español durante su conversación. ¡Muy bien, chicas! Así aumentan sus habilidades lingüísticas. También vi a Damien y Connor usar la pared de matemáticas para ayudarles usar el vocabulario que aprendimos ayer. ¡Fantástico!”

After praising their use of Spanish and classroom resources, she asks students to share what their partner said. Questions and observations are shared, all of which the teacher responds to by asking for linguistic clarification and then paraphrasing. After a few minutes of class discussion, she transitions into her teaching point about making comparisons using a graph.

This teacher is demonstrating her commitment to dual language development by intentionally planning for student talk. Research suggests that it is foundational to language learning that students are producing language verbally and in writing. This is referred to as the “language output hypothesis.” Even at the earliest grades of immersion education, it is critical that students are pushed and supported to speak and write in the immersion language.

“Even at the earliest grades of immersion education, it is critical that students are pushed and supported to speak and write in the immersion language.”

You may be quite familiar with the strategy this teacher is using, called the “turn-and-talk” strategy. When we talk about high-impact, easy-to-implement strategies that promote dual language development, this one tops the list.

Turn-and-talk can be used across contexts, grade levels, and program models. It’s a strategy that the most effective immersion teachers use constantly as they are teaching. Why? Turn-and-talk keeps students engaged in the lesson, provides time for students to process what they are learning, and boosts their language output, which is important for language development.

The turn-and-talk strategy is extremely easy to implement. To use this strategy to its maximum potential, keep the following six considerations in mind.

1. Teach students the behaviors you’re looking for during turn-and-talk.

This is true for any grade level, from preschool to twelfth grade. Students need to be explicitly taught the turn-and-talk routine. They need the opportunity to practice it and get feedback. They’ll likely need reminders throughout the year of what the best turn-and-talkers do. Some behaviors you might consider teaching are:

  • establish eye contact
  • take turns sharing ideas
  • listen thoughtfully
  • use a quiet partner voice

It’s also helpful to include visual cues. Many teachers make an anchor chart with the behaviors listed. Some also take pictures of their own students exhibiting the desired behaviors during turn-and-talk, and they add those pictures to the chart.

2. Make your Spanish-Only (or Mandarin-Only) language expectations clear.

Be sure to also talk about why it’s important to only use the immersion language during turn-and-talk. If you teach in an add.a.lingua partner program, remind students of the immersion language-only timeline lesson. During this lesson, the class generated reasons why staying in the immersion language is so important to them.

As you start to use the turn-and-talk strategy, keep in mind the saying, “You get what you focus on.” If there are a few students speaking in English, consider how you might praise the efforts of students who spoke only in the immersion language: “¡Me encanta como __ y __ están conversando en español!” You might also consider teaching students ways to respond when a peer starts talking in English. For instance, “¿Lo puedes decir en español, por favor?” or “¿Puedes intentar la estrategia de circunloquio para describirlo?”

3. Ask an interesting question that requires students to think and reason.

Students will be most actively engaged in dialoguing about questions that are thought-provoking and elicit higher order thinking. Open-ended prompts such as “What do you notice? What do you wonder?” invite all students to contribute to the conversation. Other questions that promote extended responses include:

  • How are __ and __ similar? How are they different?
  • What if…?
  • What caused…?
  • What might the effects be of…?
  • What do you predict might happen next?
  • Which one is more efficient? Why?
  • What evidence supports…?
  • How would you do ___ differently?

4. Provide appropriate language scaffolds.

When students are producing language by speaking or writing, they often notice what researchers refer to as linguistic “holes.” These “holes” are words, phrases, or structures that students realize they are lacking because they are not able to express themselves precisely. It’s important to anticipate this and provide supports in the classroom to help students fill their own “holes.”

One way to do this is to post vocabulary on the walls of the classroom. Students should have access to add.a.lingua mentor text vocabulary cards, content area word walls, and language-rich anchor charts. You might also consider providing students with language stems and frames to model the types of responses you’d like students to use. If you teach in an add.a.lingua partner program, language stems and frames are particularly effective for setting students up to accurately apply the week’s enfoque lingüístico.

5. Vary how students share their thinking with the whole group.

Everyone appreciates spicing up a routine every now and then! Consider having students share what their partner said, rather than their own ideas. This elevates the importance of listening for understanding. You might also consider inviting students to share a lingering question, a realization, or a very impactful point. Keep in mind that when it comes to sharing with the whole group, it’s important to make sure that students are called on in an equitable manner. Some teachers do this by using strategies like name sticks and participation chips.

6. Make it a rule for yourself to only call on a student after all students have had the opportunity to discuss.

This is where the rubber hits the road, as they say. When teachers who are committed to language output ask a question, they consistently use a strategy like turn-and-talk. They value the time that every student has to process their thinking and produce the immersion language. Only after everyone has had the opportunity to talk do these teachers call on individual students.

As you look to increase students’ language output in the immersion language, consider ways you might incorporate more opportunities for turn-and-talk in your classroom. Remember, when students are speaking and writing in the immersion language, they are more deeply learning the language and the content!

What other strategies have you found effective in encouraging student language output? Leave us a comment below and let us know.


The concepts that I reference in the post about “research says” come from these articles/chapters:

Swain, M. (2000). The output hypothesis and beyond: Mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue. Sociocultural theory and second language learning, 97, 114. Retrieved here.

Swain, M. (2008). The output hypothesis: Its history and its future. Foreign Language Teaching and Research, 40(1), 45-50.

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