: Do you ​‘do’ partner talk? Building a language-rich environment through explicitly teaching participatory learning behaviours and routines.


Do you ​‘do’ partner talk?

Building a language-rich environment through explicitly teaching participatory learning behaviours and routines.

by Torriano Primary School
on the

Katherine Branco, Director of the North London Alliance Research School, explores how building a language-rich environment in your class relies on explicitly teaching participatory learning behaviours and routines.

It’s a Year 5 maths lesson. The teacher wants her students to explain why it’s more mathematically time efficient to use addition mental methods to solve 782 + 99 = rather than formal written methods.

On the board there are two options:


a) I can solve this in my head by adding 100 and then taking away 1.

b) I can solve this by using formal written method of column addition.


This blog explores the dilemma that this instruction, without the necessary preparation, may result in a counter-productive outcome to its intention. Do you recognise the outcomes below?

1) Children are unable to complete the instruction as they are unsure who their partner is. Two children stand up and move to partner with a friend. Pace is lost, potentially the children forget what the question is, and become off task’ resulting in reduced participation(choppy time!!)

2) One child dominates and the other remains quiet, not able to offer their viewpoint or draw upon precise mathematical vocabulary. They disengage.

3) A couple of children may not have a partner so the adult available ends up being the partner’. Albeit a supportive strategy, this carried out too many times, can also narrow the children’s experiences of spontaneous, exploratory talk. This presents a risk of an imbalance to whole class participation ratio.

4) Paired talk is off task’ (guessing what’s on the lunchtime menu proves more exciting for instance). Participation is not conducive to maths learning.

5) The conversation doesn’t build – person B offers a passive yes I agree’, without offering justification or potential challenge. Participation is transactional and doesn’t serve to deepen learning.

If not well orchestrated, partner talk’ can be ineffective. It can fail to:

1) Develop children’s speaking and listening abilities

2) Engage in effective dialogic talk’(Mercer, 2012) that reveals their thinking and misconceptions

3) Lead children to adapt and refine their methods and thinking.

Effectively teaching talk cannot be incidental, left to ad-hoc moments in the classroom. Giving children more opportunities to chat’ in lessons falls short of creating a language-rich environment. That’s because teaching talk’ requires careful planning and orchestration by the facilitator/​teacher. Neil Mercer(2023), emeritus professor of education at the University of Cambridge, makes this point clear in a recent EEF podcast on high-quality talk”, highlighting that it’s necessary to teach oracy skills in the same way as we teach skills in maths and reading. It’s a skill and behaviour that needs to be taught and practised within well established routines.

Recommendation 2 of the EEF’s Improving Behaviour in Schools Guidance Report tells us that teachers can provide the conditions for learning behaviours to develop by ensuring pupils can participate in their learning. This participation can involve learning through talk’ – i.e. creating knowledge together through effective, collaborative, ground-ruled exploratory talk(Pete Dudley, 2024). So, we propose that dialogic talk’ and participatory methods are not mutually exclusive, in fact they provide a powerful synergy of strategies to maximise learning.

Ok, so we’ve established how teaching talk needs to be intentional and planned for in order to create the necessary learning behaviours for children to participate. The question that follows is-but how?

A good starting point is mapping out what the progression of teaching talk could look like in the classroom across different year groups. What routines and learning behaviours need to be explicitly taught before introducing partner talk for instance? Let’s look at an example of what such progression could look like at the start of the autumn term in Reception. As can be seen mapped out below, many routines and learning behaviours precede introducing talk partners. For example, initial oracy expectations would have to have been set, listening skills developed and class talk guidelines established.

Screenshot 2024 03 17 at 15 51 20
'Building a language-rich environment in Reception(Autumn 1)'- resource developed by Torriano and Brecknock Federation

In the clip below, the teacher uses partner talk to encourage debate surrounding the composition of number 5 in mathematics. However, before telling the children to talk to their partner, she reminds them of the class talk guidelines they devised at the start of the year. It is also clear how the children know their carpet spaces, who their talk partner is and who is going to instigate the discussion. Importantly, the teacher also front-loads’ the expectations for using sentence starters of debate.

Breaking down the routine of partner talk into micro-routines, whilst also reinforcing pre-taught learning behaviours makes for a seamless transition between teacher-pupils instruction to peer-peer discussion. Micro-routines include signalling turning to your partner, deciding who talks first and second, followed by who will feed back to the class. These well-rehearsed behaviours create the conditions for purposeful high-quality talk and optimum participation. Explicitly teaching the learning behaviours that help create a language rich environment, such as communicating with peers, shouldn’t be discarded in the older years. Moreover they should be revisited and orchestrated by the teacher throughout the year across primary and secondary phases.

Join us on our next TOLD webinar where we will share practical advice and tools on how teachers can promote high quality talk in mathematics(KS2&3)

Further Listening and Reading

Evidence into Action EEF Podcast: High Quality Talk’. This podcast includes Neil Mercer, who gives a great background to oracy and its role.

Oracy Cambridge- Blog Series. Oracy Cambridge have a range of blogs that go some way to help teachers understand what oracy is and what it isn’t.

EEF Blog. TOLD: Four Evidence-Informed principles to promote high-quality talk in Maths

The Power of Routines. Peps Mccrae Evidence Snack’ blog explores how with teaching routines you can achieve more with doing less.


Mercer, N., 2003. The educational value of dialogic talk in whole class dialogue. New perspectives on spoken English in the classroom: discussion papers, pp.73 – 76. Vancouver

Rhodes, I., Long, M., Moore, D., Benham-Clarke, S., Kenchington, R., Boyle, C., Ford, T., Hayes, R. and Rogers, M., 2019. Improving behaviour in schools: Guidance report.

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