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Teaching challenge

Ms Silva can keep pupils on task when they practise independently. There are times when she feels it could be valuable for pupils to work in pairs or groups, but she is frustrated that pupils can go off task or produce poor work when she allows them to talk. How can she manage the way pupils conduct discussions so they get maximum learning benefit from collaboration?

Key idea

Teachers need to prepare for and intentionally support behaviours that enable quality pupil talk.

Evidence summary

Getting pupil behaviour right in talk tasks

At the heart of pair and group work is effective pupil talk. High-quality discussions help pupils better understand what they already know by articulating their thoughts more clearly (EEF, 2018). Peer discussion is also beneficial for building vocabulary, and aids social and linguistic development (Alexander, 2017).

However, when pupils work with their peers it can give rise to behavioural issues, as pupils may get distracted or be unable to complete a task. Just as when introducing other classroom routines, teachers should anticipate and plan to avoid behavioural problems (Kern & Clemens, 2007). To promote on-task talk, Ms Silva can:

  • Outline behavioural expectations: Where appropriate share specific words to try to use, time limits and rules for turn taking. The EEF (2018) provide an example of rules for discussion.
  • Explain why these behaviours are important: If pupils know why something is effective, they’re more likely to do it properly and be more motivated to do the hard thinking expected of them (Coe et al., 2014; EEF, 2017).
  • Check understanding: To succeed, pupils need to understand behavioural expectations and task instructions (Rosenshine, 2012).
  • Practise routines: Pupils become more automatic and fluent through practice, so Ms Silva can ensure pupils talk successfully by regularly practising talk routines (Rosenshine, 2012).

Ms Silva should pre-plan groupings, as pupil groupings can affect pupil motivation and behaviour (Tereshchenko et al., 2018). She may wish to get pupils to work in pairs first, as this will help pupils to practise routines, behaviours and strategies of discussion, making it more likely pupils will talk successfully before working in larger groups. Once pupils are on task and thinking hard in pairs, she might start to trial group work – but only if she is confident that this will benefit learning. In short, Ms Silva should take an intentional approach to grouping pupils.

Preparing talk tasks that support pupil learning

As well as getting the behaviour right, Ms Silva needs to ensure pupils have the best chance of learning successfully from talk. Pupils need to understand the goals of the task in relation to their learning. Because we ‘learn what we think hard about’ (Coe, 2013), Ms Silva’s aim should be to get all pupils to think hard about important content during talk tasks. However, Ms Silva needs to balance this with ensuring that her pupils experience success, as this is critical for motivation and learning (Coe et al., 2014; Rosenshine, 2012).

A key factor in ensuring pupils think hard and experience success is teaching in ways that avoid overloading pupil working memory (Dean for Impact, 2015). Ms Silva’s talk tasks are more likely to succeed if she:

  • Makes the tasks themselves simple, while keeping the content challenging (Gathercole et al., 2006). For example, using tasks with minimal steps.
  • Builds on existing pupil knowledge (Deans for Impact, 2015).
  • Provides enough guidance and support, for example, scaffolding (Rosenshine, 2012).

High-quality classroom talk can support pupils to articulate key ideas, consolidate understanding and extend their vocabulary. Knowledgeable pupils are likely to get more insights from discussing their existing knowledge than they could without discussion (Kirschner et al., 2018). Therefore, Ms Silva should consider when in the learning sequence she introduces talk tasks, as they are likely to be more effective after behavioural expectations become embedded and pupil knowledge increases.

Supporting pupils to manage their learning in talk tasks

Having prepared tasks that support on-task behaviour and learning, how can Ms Silva now manage pupils during talk tasks? She can:

  • Circulate: Ensuring pupils are on task and not struggling (Rosenshine, 2012).
  • Support: Directing pupil attention to available scaffolding (Van der Pol et al., 2015).
  • Reinforce: Using praise, rewards and sanctions to reinforce desired behaviours (IES, 2008).

The preparation Ms Silva has done should support pupils to self-manage their behaviour and learn more effectively. This will allow Ms Silva to focus more on supporting pupil learning and less on managing off-task behaviour during paired and group talk.

Nuances and caveats

It is best when pupils are taught new knowledge before introducing pair or group work. They may struggle if peer collaboration is introduced too early in the learning sequence.

While it is possible for teachers to pick up on pupil misconceptions during pupil discussions, this is not likely to be the quickest or most efficient way of checking for understanding: strong whole-class questioning might be more effective. Discussions are best used to help pupils organise their knowledge.

Ability grouping shows limited evidence of impact on pupil outcomes (Coe et al., 2014). Ms Silva must ensure the groups pupils are placed in don’t negatively affect pupil attainment, behaviour and motivation. Ms Silva should ensure her within-class pupil groups are flexible and that she continuously considers why pupils are in a group because this is an effective way of tailoring support for identified pupil need(s) e.g. ensuring groups based on attainment are subject specific and changing groups regularly, avoiding the perception that groups are fixed.

Key takeaways

Ms Silva can support talk that enables effective pair and group work by understanding that:

  • there are behavioural challenges particular to group and paired work. Teachers can pre-empt them by pre-planning groupings, and sharing and checking behavioural expectations and practice
  • effective talk tasks support pupils to talk successfully if they avoid overloading pupil working memory so pupils can articulate key ideas, consolidate understanding and extend their vocabulary
  • teachers can support pupils to manage their behaviour and learning during collaboration

Further reading

Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation teaching and learning toolkit (see entry on oral language interventions), Education Endowment Foundation (2018)


Alexander, R. (2017), Towards dialogic teaching: rethinking classroom talk (York: Dialogos). 

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., and Major, L. E. (2014), What makes great teaching: review of the underpinning research (Durham University).

Deans for Impact (2015), The science of learning.

Education Endowment Foundation (2017), Metacognition and self-regulated learning guidance report.

Education Endowment Foundation (2018), Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation teaching and learning toolkit.

Gathercole, S., Lamont, E., and Alloway, T. (2006), Working memory in the classroom (page 219 to page 240).

Kern, L., and Clemens, N. H. (2007), Antecedent strategies to promote appropriate classroom behaviour (Psychology in the schools). 

Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., Kirschner, F., and Zambrano, J. (2018), From cognitive load theory to collaborative cognitive load theory (International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning).

Rosenshine, B. (2012), Principles of Instruction: research-based strategies that all teachers should know (American Educator)

Tereshchenko, A., Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Mazenod, A., Taylor, B., and Travers, M. C. (2018), Learners’ attitudes to mixed-attainment grouping: examining the views of students of high, middle and low attainment (Research papers in education).

Van de Pol, J., Volman, M., Oort, F., and Beishuizen, J. (2015), The effects of scaffolding in the classroom: support contingency and student independent working time in relation to student achievement, task effort and appreciation of support (Instructional Science)