Structured A/B Partner Talk & PD

Nov 12, 2016

How can we invite students to go beyond a “turn-and-talk” and truly interact with each other’s ideas? The structured A/B partner talk protocol scaffolds equitable talk through protected turns for each partner to share and actively listen — and it can be extended to other kinds of talk too, like identifying where partners agree or disagree.

We share several variations of structured A/B partner talk protocols that have been used in science classrooms. See what might best fit your needs, or use these as starting points for adaptation!

Teaching Considerations

The downloadable templates provide several variations of a structured A/B partner talk protocol — but they all share some common characteristics and steps! Here we share several key steps and tips for using a structured A/B partner talk.

1.) Make the structure and purpose of the talk protocol explicit for students. When you first engage students in an A/B partner talk, you may want to model the protocol with a student or have a pair of students model the protocol in a fishbowl. Taking time to make each step visible along the way and talking about why it is important can help make the class’s first attempts smoother. It can be useful to manage expectations too (for yourself and your class!) — teachers often share that structured talk feels clunky and over-structured at first, but that it builds community and comfort with sharing and listening that pays off over time.

2.) Ground talk in a meaty question or task that has multiple possible answers. What we ask students to talk about opens or limits possibilities! When you first try an A/B partner talk, you might choose a relevant non-science question so that students can practice the protocol in a more familiar context. Then, aim to use structured talk with open-ended questions or tasks that invite multiple responses and extend beyond yes-no, right-wrong, or basic descriptive answers. Consider using this practice to ask questions about how and why something happened or the social or ethical impacts of scientific advances. Here are three rounds of questions asked in a high school Biology class learning about osmosis and food webs though a phenomena about a train trestle that divided a lake, shifting the salinity, and the ecosystem.

1. What do you notice about the Great Salt Lake at these two points in time? 2. Why do you think the two sides of the link are different colors after 1950? 3. Who and what should be considered when building structures in nature, such as a train trestle?

3.) Protect time for each step of the structured A/B partner talk process. The base-level steps are as follows:

  • Partner A shares
  • Partner B revoices (and potentially asks clarifying questions)
  • Partner A responds
  • Partners switch roles and repeat the steps.

At first, it can be helpful to have each step on a slide or handout for students to see, and to use a timer to ensure there is space for each step (ex., 30 seconds for Partner A to share, 30 seconds for Partner B to revoice, and so on). Over time, these scaffolds can be reduced and additional steps can be added based on what is useful for the class to discuss, or what you want to use the protocol to work on with students.

4.) Provide sentence frames as options for students. For instance, the following bilingual table tents were used with 5th- and 6th-graders to provide entry points for active listening.

A bilingual table tent in Spanish and English for providing entry points for active listening.

5.) Have students individually reflect on their partner talk and learning. Students can record any new or revised ideas or questions they have from the discussion, and they could also engage in broader reflection on the process — like how it helped them learn together, what they feel they did well and want to work on, and/or how it shaped their understanding of how we do science. Here is an exit ticket that has been used with middle and high school classes with some of these possibilities, that you could use or adapt.


Collaborative knowledge building is a great approach for a science classroom — it supports student learning as they work together to develop ideas and parallels how knowledge is socially constructed in science (NRC, 2012). A structured talk protocol can help reinforce a culture in which students recognize their peers as valuable, unique contributors, and ideas as worth probing, expanding, critiquing, and revising (Rosebery et al., 2010). Routines like A/B partner talk can distribute talk opportunities more equitably and provide support for all students to contribute and be heard — challenging the traditional hierarchy of one “correct” answer from an authoritative source. Further, intentional partnering that considers students’ languages and ways of knowing can support productive opportunities for translanguaging (Andersen et al., 2022).

Questions to consider when using structured A/B partner talk:

  • How can we make sure that partners understand and appreciate the value of each other’s ideas in broadening their own thinking?
  • What talk norms or prompts might help everyone feel like they can contribute meaningfully? How might we encourage diverse communication methods?
  • How can we encourage students to exchange thinking that expands their understanding of phenomena, rather than just sharing information? 
  • How can we modify the protocol to support multilingual classrooms, or diverse physical needs?
  • What opportunities are there for student choice? How might we involve students in finding partners, or selecting foci for talk?
  • How does using A/B partner talk help students question and challenge the way we do and learn science?
  • How can you learn from students about their experiences of these talk routines?


Using Structured A/B Partner Talk to Work on Evidence and Reasoning. Structured talk proved to be a useful way for a middle school team to work with students on using evidence!  Teachers at Chinook Middle School in Washington had been working on different parts of supporting students in evaluating and revising their hypotheses about unit-level phenomena during the year, like identifying how a given piece of evidence relates or does not relate to a given hypothesis. When teachers saw a baseline structured talk protocol, they thought it could be adapted to help students talk more about their reasoning. The picture below shows part of a protocol the team used for middle school partner talk. In writing, each student identified a relevant piece of evidence and applied it to their current hypothesis. The A/B talk then focused on each student’s reasoning with evidence in relation to their hypothesis.


Teacher Educators & Professional Learning

Suggested Templates/Downloads



Design Considerations


A generative way to learn and iterate on structured A/B partner talk in the science classroom is to explore the practice through a Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle. This cycle involves several phases and can be done independently, but is often more productive when done collaboratively and repeatedly within a teacher learning community. (See this Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching blog post for more on PDSA cycles in general).

Here, we share a Structured talk data snap tool originally developed by teachers and coaches at Evergreen Campus in Washington State. This tool can ground and document PDSA cycles around structured talk. You can build such cycles into your TE courses or PL opportunities. Structured A/B partner talk data snap tool. Plan the talk opportunity: 1. What is the purpose of the talk planned for this lesson? 2. Which non negotiable aspects of equitable science talk will be in play? 3. What, if anything, are you changing about the talk opportunities from last time? What do you hope those changes will do? 5. What question will students discuss? Anticipate what you might hear in student reasoning at different levels in response to this question: What: How:

Plan: The tool prompts teachers to plan the purpose, components, and questions for an upcoming partner talk. Teachers can also describe specific instructional changes to the talk opportunity based on what they learned from prior experiences or data.

Do: Teachers then try the planned talk protocol in classrooms and collect data that will help them see if the talk opportunity accomplishes what they intended. The tool includes a table for documenting specific students’ depth of explanation during partner talk — whether students mostly discuss what happened, or start to explain how and/or why something happened. However, this may not be the most informative data for all goals. 

Another option could be focusing on students’ interactions, as seen below or in a student exit ticket for structured talk, or mapping the diversity of ideas students raise during partner talk. You may want to make data collection part of the planning phase and support teachers in identifying what data would be most meaningful for gaining insight into their goals for the talk.

Ways of interacting: Limited: Student does not interact with peer or does so in a limited way (e.g., stating "I agree" without further specification). Engaged: Student is involved in sharing and revoicing ideas. May add to a peer's idea or use a prompt in a generic way, but does not show evidence of comparing ideas in detail. Complex: Student shows evidence of deep consideration of ideas - explaining areas of agreement/disagreement, asking questions about ideas or use of evidence, rethinking own ideas based on further reasoning.

Study: In this phase, teachers consider what they have learned from the data and how well the talk served its intended purpose.

Act: Finally, teachers identify what they might try next time to support students and any new questions. This resets the PDSA cycle back to planning and deciding what instructional changes may improve the talk opportunities for their students and goals.

In addition to small instructional changes, you can also invite teachers to think about how structured A/B partner talk may change forms over the course of a year, or how it can serve as an entry point to other practices like peer feedback or structured model share-outs. This adaptability is part of the richness of engaging A/B partner talk as part of a classroom repertoire.




Improving the Evolution of Thinking Through Partner Talk in High School Science. A high school teacher team began using structured A/B partner talk to support students in sharing and listening to different ideas, but they hoped to deepen the talk and thinking that occurred. They decided to investigate using a student exit ticket (Do), to see what sorts of talk activity students reported engaging in. Data from over 200 students across five teachers showed the following patterns:

A bar chart of reported talk ideas. The highest two values are "I shared my idea" and "I listened to my partner's idea" at almost 90%, and the lowest value is "other" being close to about 5%. "I disagreed with my partner's..." and "I changed my ideas from the..." are both circled on the bar graph. The team saw that disagreeing with a partner’s idea and changing ideas based on the discussion were both infrequently reported (Study). Teachers noted these activities tended to be more socially risky, yet also important for the evolution of thinking through talk. They made several instructional changes to see if they could shift these patterns (Act/Plan). First, teachers coupled partner talk with more intentional writing opportunities, in which students were asked to write if and how their thinking changed after talking with their partner. Teachers also explicitly discussed with their classes how questioning their own and their partner’s ideas was helpful. The graph below shows student-reported talk behaviors from one teacher’s class as these changes were implemented, demonstrating some growth in disagreeing and mixed reports on changing ideas (Do/Study).

A bar graph of Changes in Student-Reported Talk Behaviors in One Teacher's Class over Time. "I disagreed with my partner's idea" and "I changed my ideas from the..." are both circled. The data is from November 14, January 15th, and February 15th.

The team continued tweaking how structured talk was coupled with writing, as well as other ways of supporting the evolution of student thinking.


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This site is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through Award #1907471 and #1315995