“Turn and talk” activities are quick check-ins in which students turn and talk to a partner for a quick conversation about the topic of the lesson. You can keep students on task by modeling how you expect them to interact and by reporting on what their partner said.


Dr. Diane August: Lessons learned about peer interaction for ELLs

More Resources

6 Strategies to Help ELLs Succeed in Peer Learning and Collaboration

ELL Strategies for Success

6 Strategies to Help ELLs Succeed in Peer Learning and Collaboration

Students in class discussion

Learn how you can increase ELLs' peer collaboration and make their group work more successful with these strategies and recommended resources. This article is part of our Strategies for ELL Success guide.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Peer learning can be a powerful tool in the classroom, particularly for English language learners (ELLs). Encouraging peer interaction and collaboration not only provides opportunities for language use and practice — it builds community in the classroom! ELLs also benefit from observing how their peers learn and solve problems.

However, most students, especially ELLs, will need guidance and lots of practice with group work. This article offers some ideas you can use to get started.

Reflection Questions: 

  • What benefits have you seen from peer learning with students?
  • How are some important considerations when planning peer activities for ELLs?

1. Give students lots of practice

Related research

Learn more about peer learning in Dr. Diane August's article "Educating English Language Learners" in American Educator.

Whenever you introduce new strategies that involve pair or group work, assign ELLs' roles carefully. Use modeling, clear directions, and comprehension checks to ensure students understand:

  • how the activity works
  • their role in group work
  • the objective of the activity
  • any key vocabulary or phrases they should be using.

Here are additional other tips on group work for ELLs that Judie Haynes and Debbie Zacarian share in their book Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas:

  • Assign students group roles that match their language ability (37).
  • Promote students to new roles as their language skills improve (42).
  • Make sure that all students understand that they will be working in diverse groups and that everyone's contributions are important (41).
  • Keep an eye on the balance of student participation; if some students are speaking more than others, ask them to think of some ways to even participation out (42).
  • Ask students to reflect on their group work after they have finished an activity. Haynes and Zacarian include a chart in their book with some guiding statements for student reflection (48).

Increasing ELLs' comfort with group work

  • Give students lots of opportunities to express themselves and practice discussion in smalls group and the larger group. Small groups may be especially beneficial for ELLs.
  • Keep in mind that some ELLs may be apprehensive about speaking out in a group and afraid to make mistakes in front of their peers.
  • In addition, keep in mind that ELLs may be trying to use English with their English-speaking peers but their peers may not be engaging with them. This was a common occurence that Dr. Diane August noticed in her research into ELLs' peer learning.
  • Stay positive and patient with your ELLs, and remind other students to do the same.
  • If needed, use some activities to build empathy and respect for ELLs, such as talking about the benefits of being bilingual, asking students to teach their peers a few words in their language, or asking a bilingual teacher to teach a lesson in another language to the class for a few minutes.
  • If you decide to assign each student in a team a role (such as reporter, recorder, time keeper, and materials manager), you might want to rotate roles each week or by activity. This prevents what typically happens if students select their own roles — the same students wind up performing the same tasks. By rotating, students develop the skills they most need to practice.

Using group work early and often

Video: A success story from virtual learning

ELL teacher Omar Salem shares an unexpected success story of peer collaboration from a group of his students on an asynchronous learning day.

2. Encourage use of students' home languages

Using students' home languages in the classroom can:

  • help build comprehension
  • deepen understanding
  • build confidence
  • give students the chance to express themselves.

Some activities that may be appropriate for using home language include:

  • brainstorming background knowledge about a topic
  • discussing a particularly rich topic first with peers.

Educators can set parameters, such as time limits, and put scaffolds in place for reporting out in English.


3. Be intentional with your grouping  

  • Be mindful of how you group students. Give ELLs opportunities to work both with peers who speak their language as well as native English speakers.
  • Consider situations when using the home language might be beneficial, as noted above. On the other hand, there will be times when you want students to have more direct time to practice their English skills.  If students are practicing some new vocabulary words or specific language structures, putting students in mixed groups might make more sense.
  • Look for partners who will be patient and supportive of ELLs when pairing them with native English speakers.

Video: How I group ELLs for peer learning

High school ELL teacher Michelle Lawrence Biggar describes the way she uses peer learning groups with her ELLs.


4. Look for ways to increase oral academic language

  • Ask students to show work and explain their processes to others in order to practice academic language.
  • Use sentence frames that students can practice with lighter topics related to their daily routines, likes and dislikes, etc. Continue using these on a regular basis, including them as part of academic conversations.  If the time comes that you need to address a difficult topic or event, your students will have a familiar activity to use.
  • Try structuring student conversations with tips such as these from Tan Huynh's Empowering ELLs blog or Valentina Gonzalez's description of the QSSSA method (Question-Signal-Stem-Share-Assess).
  • Keep in mind Kristina Robertson's helpful formula: When introducing new language, use old content. When introducing new content, use old language.

See more ideas in the following resources:

Video: Writing a cooperative paragraph

Albuquerque teacher Ali Nava walks her students through a cooperative paragraph summarizing the beginning, middle, and end the children's book Burro's Tortillas and uses the exercise as an opportunity to practice their writing skills.


5. Remember the 'silent period'

It is very common for students who are learning a new language to be 'silent' for a period of time, when they are listening to the language around them without speaking yet. This is considered the first stage of language acquisition. 

Be patient, and give the student opportunities for small successes in speaking with you and individual peers before speaking in front of larger groups.

6. Don't forget culture

Culture can play a big role in how students collaborate and interact with peers. For example, students who come from a more "collectivist" culture (one that is oriented more towards the group than the individual) maybe be particularly successful in group work. They may be used to working cooperatively on assigned tasks — so much so that they may need to learn what your expectations are for independent work. Use this to your advantage with group work and projects, and share guidance on when independent work is appropriate and expected.

In addition, keep in mind that students may have specific cultural norms around interacting with peers, and ELLs who have the same racial background, speak the same language, or hail from the same country may not have all that much in common. In some cases, they may actually come from groups with histories of conflict. Consult with family liaisons if you have questions about what is appropriate in your classroom.

Closing Thoughts

Like anything new, peer learning takes trial and error. However, once you figure out what works for your students, the benefits to your ELLs (and their peers) will be well worth it. You may even find some ideas that your colleagues can use!

So grab a graphic organizer or sentence frame — and pretty soon you will be on your way to making peer learning an integral part of your work with English language learners.

Video: Building a cereal dispenser with ELLs

4th-grade teacher Michelle Iadevaia tells the story of her students' efforts to build a cereal dispenser through the Rube Goldberg project.


Haynes, J. & Zacarian, D. (2010). Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact info@colorincolorado.org.

Best Practice for ELLs: Peer-Assisted Learning

Best Practice for ELLs: Peer-Assisted Learning

One way to create effective literacy instruction for English learners in the elementary grades is to schedule regular peer assisted learning opportunities.

Ensure that teachers of English learners devote approximately 90 minutes a week to instructional activities in which pairs of students at different ability levels or different English language proficiencies work together on academic tasks in a structured fashion. These activities should practice and extend material already taught.1

Level of evidence: strong

This recommendation is based on several high-quality experiments and quasi experiments with English learners. In addition, many peer-assisted studies also have been conducted with native-English-speaking students, and the results have consistently supported the positive impact of peer tutoring on student learning outcomes.

Brief summary of evidence to support this recommendation

Three high-quality experiments and quasi experiments have evaluated the effectiveness of English learners working in pairs in a structured fashion several times a week.2 These studies spanned virtually all of the elementary grade levels. All these studies demonstrated positive impacts on reading achievement for students at various ability levels. Two additional studies provide evidence of the positive impact of student activities in cooperative groups of four to six students.3 Although less evidence supports cooperative groups than pairs of students working together, the guidance here is relevant for districts wanting to implement some type of cooperative learning structure in their schools.

Of the five studies, two were reviewed by the What Works Clearinghouse and rated as providing potentially positive effects on reading achievement.4 One of the two met the Clearinghouse evidence standards5 and the other met the standards with reservations.6

Partner work is an opportunity for students to practice and extend what the teacher has taught during regular instruction. Partner work is excellent for tasks in which correct and incorrect responses can be clearly determined (word and text reading and phonological awareness activities, such as identifying sounds in words).

However, evidence also demonstrates that partner activities can build skills for tasks in which correct and incorrect responses are harder to determine, such as reading comprehension and other tasks that require student explanations. In three of the five studies, students worked in pairs to practice, consolidate, and extend prereading, decoding, comprehension, and spelling skills. In each of the studies student pairs, with different abilities in either reading or English language proficiency, were provided with clear instructional activities and taught procedures for working effectively with peers. Teachers used guides that included prompt cards and activities for students.

How to carry out the recommendation

  1. Develop plans that encourage teachers to schedule about 90 minutes a week with activities in reading and language arts that entail students working in structured pair activities.

Kindergarteners can learn peer-assisted learning techniques if the routines are reasonably simple and taught in an explicit fashion.7 Older elementary students can learn fairly sophisticated strategies for providing peers with feedback on comprehension and vocabulary. Students can also assist each other in learning or clarifying the meanings of words in English.8

The Panel recommends that the focus of the pair activities be tied to areas that emerge as key targets from a district's evaluation data. These could include oral reading fluency, vocabulary development, syntax, and comprehension strategies.

Districts should provide professional development for teachers setting up peer-assistance learning systems. Professional development should be scheduled during the early part of the school year, so that teachers can practice immediately with their own students. Training need not be lengthy and could be provided by reading coaches. Coaches should also observe teachers as they get started and help teachers during the difficult early phases.

  1. Also consider the use of partnering for English language development instruction.9

The Panel members know that there was no experimental research on this topic, but we still consider this to be a promising practice, based on the documented success of peer-assisted learning in other areas of language arts. During the part of the day reserved for English language development, for example, peers would work together on reading connected text to each other and then discussing the text in a structured way. Students could read short passages of text and then practice summarizing the text for a few minutes, using specific summarization strategies. Or, after reading the text, they could answer questions, generate "gist" statements, or use another comprehension procedure, such as "prediction relay," thinking ahead in the text and predicting what might happen based on the story content to that point.

Possible roadblocks and solutions

  1. Some teachers may feel that the added time required by English learners may take instructional time away from other students.

A benefit of peer-assisted instruction is that all students can participate. So, teachers do not have to plan additional activities for separate groups of students in the class. This partner work gives teachers a way to structure learning opportunities that address some of the unique learning needs of English learners. It also gives them a way to address the learning needs of other students in the class. Students who have learning disabilities or who are low performers, as well as average and above-average students, will benefit from working with a partner in a structured way if the activities are organized and carried out appropriately.

Peer-assisted learning is not, however, a substitute for teacher-led instruction. It is an evidence-based approach intended to replace some of the independent seatwork or round-robin reading that students do, for example, when the intention is to provide practice and extended learning opportunities for students.

  1. Teachers may be concerned about the time it takes to teach students the routines.

Once students have learned peer-assisted instructional routines, such as how to respond to errors, the format can be used in a number of different content areas across grade levels. The use of peer-assisted instruction across grade levels provides a consistent and familiar structure for practicing specific content.

  1. Teachers may be concerned that this takes time away from instruction.

Most teachers replace some of the independent seatwork or round-robin reading with peer-assisted learning. Again, peer-assisted learning is not a substitute for instruction. It is an opportunity for English learners to practice and work with skills and concepts they are learning. It allows students to receive feedback as they practice.


Gersten, R., Baker, S.K., Shanahan, T., Linan-Thompson, S., Collins, P., & Scarcella, R. (2007). Effective Literacy and English Language Instruction for English Learners in the Elementary Grades: A Practice Guide (NCEE 2007-4011). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/pdf/practiceguides/20074011.pdf.


Calderón, M., Hertz-Lazarowitz, R., & Slavin, R. (1998). Effects of bilingual cooperative integrated reading and composition on students transitioning from Spanish to English reading. Elementary School Journal, 99, 153-165.

Calhoon, M. B., Al Otaiba, S., Cihak, D., King, A., & Avalos, A. C. (2006). Effects of a peer-mediated program on reading skill acquisition for two-way bilingual first grade classrooms. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Klingner, J. K., & Vaughn, S. (1996). Reciprocal teaching of reading comprehension strategies for students with learning disabilities who use English as a second language. Elementary School Journal, 96, 275-293.

McMaster, K. L., Kung, H., Han, I., & Cao, M. (in press). Peer-assisted learning strategies: A "tier 1" approach to promoting responsiveness to beginning reading instruction for English learners. Exceptional Children.

Saenz, L. M., Fuchs, L. S., & Fuchs, D. (2005). Peer-assisted learning strategies for English language learners with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 71, 231-247.


1. 90 minutes is the median amount of time per week in the research.

2. Calhoon, Al Otaiba, Cihak, King, & Avalos (2006); McMaster et al. (in press); Saenz, Fuchs, & Fuchs (2005).

3. Calderón et al. (1998); Klingner & Vaughn (1996).

4. Calderón et al. (1998); Saenz et al. (2005).

5. Saenz et al. (2005).

6. Calderón et al. (1998).

7. McMaster et al. (in press).

8. Calderón et al. (1998).

9. Klingner & Vaughn (1996).


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.

Increase Student Interaction with "Think-Pair-Shares" and "Circle Chats"

Increase Student Interaction with "Think-Pair-Shares" and "Circle Chats"

"Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen."

John Steinbeck, US novelist (1902 - 1968)


When I mentored student teachers I told them, "If I could offer one piece of advice for every teacher — it would be to do think-pair-shares in the class every day." The think-pair-share is a very simple, yet effective technique that allows ELL students time to process their thoughts — often in two languages — which takes more time.

To understand how this works, imagine you are an ELL student and the teacher has just asked the class a question such as, "Why did the ancient Egyptians create pyramids?" Immediately students around the room shoot up their hands and offer answers. As an ELL student, you are still searching your memory banks to translate the words "ancient" and "pyramids." You've finally got the meaning, now you are thinking about the possible answers — again searching your memory for what you've learned in class and read in the textbook. You think you have a viable answer, but you're not sure if it's right or exactly how to say it, and if you make a mistake others might laugh at you.

At this point you may decide to offer an answer, but the teacher has already moved on and asked two new questions. The average wait time for teacher questions is one second! For an ELL student it may become a habit to sit back and listen while others engage in class discussion. While listening to the discussion, the ELL student may or may not understand what is said, and the teacher may be hesitant to call on the student in order to avoid embarrassment.


Steps of a Think-Pair-Share

This kind of situation, where both the student and teacher are hesitating to increase interaction, is the reason why think-pair-share is so effective!

In a think-pair-share, students are given think time to reflect on a question silently, so that they have more time to process the question, the language, or think of the language needed to convey the answer. By then discussing their answer with a partner and the class, students have the opportunity for increased interaction, and teachers can monitor comprehension. In order to use this activity, follow these steps:

  1. Ask a thought-provoking question of your class.
  2. Give students some time to think about the question on their own, as well as the language they will need to respond.
  3. Have students share their thoughts with a partner; this gives the students the opportunity to 'check out' their answer with another student or hear another possible answer. If confused, the students can ask their peers for help.
  4. Finally, ask students to share thoughts with the whole group, which serves as a form of accountability for the students. In this discussion/explanation, the teacher gets feedback on what the students do or don't know though informal assessment.

In the example given above, the teacher asks the class,

"Why did the ancient Egyptians create pyramids? Let's do a "think-pair-share." Everyone take a moment and think about the question."

The room is silent for a minute while everyone reflects. At this time the ELL students may be putting together language and content concepts. Next the teacher instructs the students,

"Now turn to the person next to you and tell them what you are thinking."

The ELL student has an opportunity to offer his/her idea in a relatively comfortable setting — perhaps with grammatical errors — or to get more information from his/her partner. This can reinforce the student's confidence in his/her thinking and provide modeling for how to say the idea correctly in English. The teacher lets students share for a couple of minutes and then brings their attention back.

"Okay, I heard lots of good ideas. Who would like to share what you talked about?"

At this point, when students offer an answer, they have had some time to work with the concepts and also may feel that they are not offering the idea "on their own" but as part of a pair, which may not seem so intimidating.


A benefit of the think-pair-share is that the teacher has an opportunity to hear from many students — including the "quiet" ones. I have seen some of my shyest students offer wonderful answers after they had an opportunity to do a think-pair-share. It also gives the teacher the opportunity to observe all the students as they interact in pairs and get an idea of whether all students understand the content or if there are areas that need to be reviewed.

Circle Chat

A "circle chat" is another activity for student-to-student interaction that is a little more involved, but always fun and informative. In this activity every student speaks with a variety of partners, which allows for greater exposure to other thoughts and students. I have often used this as a pre-writing exercise to really get my students' imaginations going. Here is a step-by-step guide to the activity. It may be a bit confusing the first time you try it, but once the students get the hang of it, you'll be able to start it easily. For younger students the teacher may want to ask simple questions and make the discussion time much shorter.

  1. Clear a space in the room large enough for all the students to stand together in two concentric circles.
  2. Take the total number of students in the room and divide it by half. This is the number of students you will call forward. Let's say in this example it is 10 students.
  3. The 10 students stand in a circle.
  4. Call the next 10 students to come forward and form a circle around the first circle of students.
  5. Tell the students in the inside circle to turn around and face their new partner in the outside circle. Everyone should have a partner. (If there is an odd number of students the teacher may form one group with three students).
  6. The students will have two minutes to talk to their partners about the question they are asked. The teacher will want to use a bell or another sign to get the students' attention when the two minutes are up.
  7. At the two minute signal, the teacher asks student in the outside circle (make sure students understand that only the "outside" circle moves) to take one step to the left. Now each student has a new partner to talk to.
  8. Continue this process — asking a new question each time new pairs are formed — until the students have worked their way around the circle.

This activity is quite noisy and usually generates energy and laughter. For some pairs — quieter students, emerging English speakers, or those without much to share on the question — the conversation may be short and teachers may observe them standing quietly waiting for the bell to signal a change to a new partner. This is okay, because new partners and new questions bring new opportunities to interact. Teachers may also enjoy circulating among pairs as they talk in order to hear what great ideas students are sharing.


Creating an interactive classroom environment is very important to the success of ELL students. Just as it would be difficult to become a good piano player by listening to someone play, with no opportunity of your own to practice, ELL students need more opportunities to practice language skills in an academic environment in order to become more successful students. When teachers create a variety of opportunities for students to interact and use English, language and content learning is accelerated.

Hot links

Icebreakers for Students

On About.com's Secondary Education website, you can find many icebreaker ideas for starting the school year and new classes. Many activities can be used for the elementary level, as well.

National Geographic Photography

This site offers many intriguing photos, including a photo of the day, news photos, photo gallery, and short video clips. These can be useful for supporting content instruction, fostering dialogue with emerging English speakers, and creating writing prompts.

Interactive Classroom Activities

Provides ideas for a variety of interactive student activities, such as information gap, ordering and sorting, problem-solving, and conversation grids.



You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact info@colorincolorado.org.