TIES TIPS Foundations of Inclusion

TIP #15:
Turn and Talk in the Inclusive Classroom

TIES Center | TIES Inclusive Practice Series (TIPS)


Collaborative learning is a high-leverage practice widely used in schools across grades and subjects. One method involves two students discussing a topic, coming to a consensus, and then sharing with the class. It goes by many names—Turn and Talk, Think Pair Share, Shoulder Partners, Numbered Heads Together, etc. In this TIPS, we show how to remove barriers to allow students with significant cognitive disabilities (SCD) to engage in Turn and Talk activities during instruction in general education classes through the UDL framework . We include examples from an inclusive classroom. The examples presented are reflective of a collaborative process required to plan the use of any strategy, such as Turn and Talk, in inclusive classrooms. To learn more about the process and how to implement it in an inclusive general education classroom, please see the TIES Center 5-15-45 tool


Collaborative learning can be found threaded through several High Leverage Practices (HLP; McLeskey et al., 2017). Cooperative learning promotes self-esteem, creates a safe learning environment, and increases participation opportunities for all students (Jenkins et al., 2003). Check out the HLP Crosswalk TIP sheet for a quick refresher on how HLPs overlap between general and special education.

 Through collaborative planning, educators can make the Turn and Talk strategy accessible to all students. This collaboration will require thoughtful consideration to enable all students to participate and benefit, including students with significant cognitive disabilities.

Typically a Turn and Talk process involves three steps:

  1. Each student considers the topic or prompt on their own.
  2. Each student shares their thoughts with their partner and they come to a consensus.
  3. The pair shares their findings with the class (Michaels & O’Connor, 2012).

Turn and Talk is one strategy used to promote academically productive talk in classroom settings. The four main goals of Turn and Talk are to:

  1. help individual students share, expand, and clarify their own thoughts;
  2. help students listen carefully to one another;
  3. help students deepen their reasoning; and
  4. help students engage with the reasoning of others (Michaels & O’Connor, 2012).

Research support for using Turn and Talk

Turn and Talks help students apply content to their lives, practice discrete skills, access background knowledge, and answer content related questions (Stewart & Swanson, 2019). Evidence from research shows Turn and Talks help increase students’ number of opportunities to respond in content discussions (e.g., MacSuga-Gage & Simonsen, 2015) and the increase in on-task behavior can help students who struggle with inattention (e.g., Locke & Fuchs, 1995). Additionally, the use of Turn and Talk has been known to expand students’ expressive communication skills (e.g., Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013) and improve vocabulary knowledge (e.g., Swanson et al., 2017; Vaughn et al., 2017).


Optimize your Turn and Talk by planning opportunities within a lesson prior to being in front of students. Turn and Talks are most effective if a backwards design is used where teachers ask themselves:

  • if the use of a Turn & Talk will help all students to meet goals of the lesson;
  • what students should experience and understand by the end of each Turn and Talk.

 This backwards design allows teachers to specifically plan how to effectively involve students with significant cognitive disabilities. General education and special education teachers must examine each individual student’s expressive and receptive communication skills and level of background knowledge for the topics chosen to determine the best format for engaging every student.

Inclusive Implementation

The UDL framework involves providing multiple means of engagement (the “why” of learning), representation (the “what” of learning), and action & expression (the “how” of learning).

One way to ensure all students have equal access from the use of a Turn & Talk is to use the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL; Meyer et al., 2014) . UDL is a framework to help teachers develop lessons and activities that include all students by addressing engagement, representation, and action and expression. These UDL principles help educators to make the most of varying student strengths and reduced barriers in implementing the Turn & Talk. When students have improved access to content and instructional practices, like the Turn & Talk, they are able to show what they know and become more independent and actively engaged.

Turn and Talk in Action

Below are examples showcasing different general education and special education co-teachers' collaboration to provide Turn and Talk opportunities for all students, including those with a significant cognitive disability. Using a UDL framework, barriers and potential solutions are provided showing where teachers can create access points for these students.

Student 1: Dustin

Dustin is a first grader with multiple disabilities who spends his entire school day in an inclusive classroom with the support of a special educator engaging in some co-teaching. Paraprofessional support is also available to the class, due to Dustin’s additional need for support. The teacher is planning to read aloud the book “Ferdinand” and engage the class in discussion as they read using Turn and Talks. Dustin communicates with an Augmentative and Alternative communication device (AAC)—a tablet with different icons that speak aloud when he touches them. Dustin is always listening with a smile on his face, but he doesn’t independently share his ideas with the class and tends to look to the paraprofessional when his name is called.

Dustin’s general and special education teachers met quickly to discuss his participation in turn and talks in the general education classroom. Here’s their conversation:

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Conversation transcript

General education teacher: “Dustin is a joy to have in class, but I wonder how can we get him talking with peers and looking at the person asking the question instead of looking at his paraprofessional?”

Special education teacher: “I’d like to see him more independent from his paraprofessional too. I think it would help me help Dustin if we could develop Ferdinand or other story lesson plans ahead of time so that we can go in and pre-program the vocabulary in Dustin’s tablet and then I can pre-teach some of the words and definitions to him.”

General education teacher: “That’s a great idea. I can help pre-teach the vocabulary as well to get Dustin communicating with both of us. This will help several other students in the class too.”

See the table below for the process and outcomes Dustin’s team used to come up with a plan for his participation in the classroom Turn and Talk.

What are possible barriers?

What are possible solutions?

Is there a barrier to student interest or engagement (Yes or No)? Yes.

Dustin relies on the paraprofessional to communicate for him.

  • The special education teacher will promote high expectations by modeling how to have Dustin use the checklist for behaviors (i.e., turn head/body in direction of the person talking, etc.) for the paraprofessional and general education teacher to promote Dustin’s independence.
  • Allow Dustin to choose partners through scaffolded choice- making rather than working exclusively with the paraprofessional.
  • The special education teacher or paraprofessional will model for peers how to guide Dustin to use his AAC and checklist during interactions to lessen the need for adult intervention.

Is there a barrier to student background knowledge or receiving new information (Yes or No)? Yes.

The student may not have learned content area vocabulary.

  • Clarify vocabulary and symbols. Pre-teach vocabulary and symbols and make sure they are available on his AAC so that Dustin is prepared for the Turn-and-Talk.
  • Provide Dustin with multiple formats for story reading (digital text, read aloud with teacher or peer).
  • Provide Dustin and his partner with a graphic organizer or have students audio record interaction so they can keep a record of their brainstorming ideas during the Turn and Talk.

Is there a barrier to how the student shows what they know (Yes or No)? Yes.

Content-area vocabulary is not available on Dustin’s speech-generating device.

  • The special educator will program Dustin’s AAC device with a list of words from the general education teacher.
  • In Dustin’s classroom, providing flexible ways to communicate allows all students to share so all forms of communication are valued - whether through text, AAC (such as alternative keyboards), written, visual, or other.
  • Provide Dustin with a sentence stem or an example of the kind of answer the teachers want.
  • Provide Dustin with reminders/checklists about how to have productive turn and talk conversations (i.e., group norms for turn and talk) that can be checked off as interactions happen.
Student 2: Sasha

Sasha is a student with autism who has recently been included at her middle school. She had previous experience participating  in a general education science class, but due to concerns around her challenging behavior, the team had to pull back and create a new plan to meet her current needs. Sasha is now in a 6th grade earth science class learning about the structure of the earth’s layers (i.e., mantle and core). Sasha is good at task completion if she is given hands-on materials at the beginning of lessons. Sasha communicates primarily with speech with visual supports for new concepts. She has a history of humming loudly when not physically engaged with materials. She also tends to swipe materials away from her when someone asks her to do something with them. However, when the purpose of the activity and a model of using the materials is provided, she willingly participates.

Sasha’s general and special education teachers met quickly to discuss her participation in Turn and Talks in the general education classroom. Here’s their conversation:

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Conversation transcript

General education teacher: “I’m nervous about Sasha’s swiping the science materials off the table. We need to think carefully about who will be her lab partner.”

Special education teacher: “I agree, it’s important that we figure out how to teach science lab expectations and find out what keeps Sasha engaged so that she is less inclined to swipe materials. One thing we need to plan for is minimizing the time Sasha is just passively sitting and try to keep the momentum going during the Turn & Talk interactions.”

General education teacher: “Hmm..I think a checklist for the lesson will be helpful to Sasha so she understands what we are doing and who she’s working with. How about I draft one out and share it with you?”

Special education teacher: “That would be great. I’ll also ask Sasha and her parents what we can use to reinforce her engagement and appropriate behavior.”

See the table below for the process and outcomes Sasha’s team used to come up with a plan for her participation in a Turn and Talk within the science classroom.

What are possible barriers?

What are possible solutions?

Is there a barrier to student interest or engagement (Yes or No)? Yes.

Sasha hums loudly in idle time and swipes materials.

  • The general education teacher will choose a peer who has shown interest in working with Sasha and does not seem bothered by humming or swiping behaviors.
  • The special education teacher will make choice cards with different Turn and Talk topics for the peer to show Sasha for the first interaction.
  • The special education teacher will provide a first-then card with check boxes for each successfully completed back and forth conversational exchange​. As Sasha interacts with the peer, Sasha and the peer will check off the boxes, showing her progress to the end of the task .This will later be extended to more checkboxes for longer interactions.

Is there a barrier to student background knowledge or receiving new information (Yes or No)? Yes.

New to inclusive education environment and general education classroom norms.

  • The special education teacher customizes the display of information for students. Specifically, Sasha will have individualized prompt cards for following group norms (i.e., turn body in direction of the person talking, yes/no cards telling when it is okay to hum or when it is a quiet time, etc.).
  • Sasha will be provided with models for the science content vocabulary (i.e. given a model of the Earth showing the layers).

Is there a barrier to how the student shows what they know (Yes or No)? Yes.

Communicates verbally but requires support to illustrate her understanding of the content.

  • In the context of the Turn and Talk, her peer partner can read the content and prompt aloud to Sasha and have her point to the answers or demonstrate with models.
  • The special education teacher gives models of questions that she can ask during the Turn and Talk as visual supports during interactions.
  • In effort to help Sasha monitor her progress, she will use a template that guides self-reflection on quality and completeness of responses.
Student 3: Rico

Rico is a student with Down Syndrome in 4th grade who recently started participating in the   education classroom for more than just recess and lunch. He knows many of the students in the class well because of their previous interactions. He has not spent academic learning time with his general education peers other than in physical education, art, and music class. Rico’s peers like him and are always giving him high-fives and fist bumps. When in the general education classroom, Rico does not answer questions in the whole group and will often just repeat the question. Rico’s speech is also hard to understand, but he does not use any assistive technology to support his communication.

Rico’s general and special education teachers met quickly to discuss his participation in Turn and Talks in the general education classroom. Here’s their conversation:

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Conversation transcript

Special education teacher: “You know, Rico is very capable socially and I know he can do the work academically. I don’t want to see him get away with not responding to the Turn & Talk prompts. What do you think?”

General education teacher: “I love having Rico in the classroom, but I am unsure how to get him to participate. I really would like to see him respond without someone telling him what to say.”

Special education teacher: ​“I think we need to work with his peers so that they also hold high-expectations for him. Let’s think through how we can help both Rico and his peers during the Turn and Talk.”

See the table below for the process and outcomes Rico’s team used to come up with a plan for his participation in the classroom Turn and Talk.

What are possible barriers?

What are possible solutions?

Is there a barrier to student interest or engagement (Yes or No)? Yes.

General education peers are seen more as friends than academic partners. Rico and the general education peers only want to play together in class.

  • The special education and general education teachers will train multiple peers on how to provide social and communication supports (i.e., showing response materials and prompting) during the Turn and Talk.
  • The general education teacher will pair Rico with a trained peer who will provide wait time and not answer for Rico. The peer will encourage Rico after he makes a response that is not repeating the question.
  • The special education teacher will make sentence starter strips and response cards for the peer to use with Rico during Turn & Talk.
  • The teachers and peers model how to use virtual or concrete manipulatives for mathematics (and not as toys).

Is there a barrier to student background knowledge or receiving new information (Yes or No)? Yes.

Rico has limited content vocabulary in areas of 4th grade reading and math.

  • Rico will need access to his vocabulary journal where he keeps picture supports for math vocabulary during Turn and Talk interactions.
  • The special education teacher will give explicit prompts for each step sequentially in the Turn and Talk process.
  • Teachers should maximize the use of the classroom environment (e.g., prompting him to use a word wall, anchor charts, etc.) to support Rico’s responses.

Is there a barrier to how the student shows what they know (Yes or No)? Yes.

Rico does not communicate/generate responses independently. His verbal speech is difficult to understand.

  • The teacher designs multiple tools for all students to aid in their construction and composition of responses.
  • The general education teacher and special education teacher plan Turn and Talk prompts before class to create pre-made sentence strips with appropriate response choices.

Below is an example of a self-monitoring checklist to use as a peer communication support (Figure 1). This may not be necessary for all students. From the examples above, Dustin may not need a checklist like this; however, it could help Sasha monitor her own progress in back and forth interactions with a peer. It could also help Rico’s partner provide appropriate support, as needed, during the Turn and Talk interaction.

Figure 1. Turn and Talk Self-monitoring Checklist/Peer Communication Support

Illustrated guide of task analysis for turn and talk from Project IMPACT. The image includes 6 rows showing the steps for turn and talk with symbols that can be checked off as a student progress through the steps:

  1. listen to question;
  2. answer a question;
  3. read paragraph, read sentence, touch answer;
  4. ask question;
  5. listen to answer, [repeat steps 1-5 or]
  6. agree/disagree.


For students with significant cognitive disabilities, contributions in collaborative learning like Turn and Talks require thoughtful planning by general education and special education teachers and staff. When teams work together to create access points for these students, authentic participation is possible.



  • CAST. (2018). Universal design for learning guidelines (version 2.2). Retrieved from
  • Clausen, A., Reyes, E. N., & Wakeman, S. (2020). High-leverage practices crosswalk (TIPS Series: Tip #8). Retrieved from University of Minnesota, TIES Center website:
  • Michaels, S., & O’Connor, C. (2012). Talk science primer. TERC. Retrieved from
  • Stewart, A. A., & Swanson, E. (2019). Turn and Talk: An evidence-based practice teacher’s guide.


  • Giangreco, M. F., Edelman, S. W., Luiselli, T. E., & Macfarland, S. Z. C. (1997). Effects of instructional assistant proximity on students with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 64(1), 7–18.

  • Jenkins, J. R., Antil, L. R., Wayne, S. K., & Vadasy, P. F. (2003). How cooperative learning works for special education and remedial students. Exceptional Children, 69(3), 279–292.

  • Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. CAST Professional Publishing.

TIPS Series: Tip #15, November 2020

The information in this Brief is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this Brief are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Reyes, E. N., Wakeman, S., & Clausen, A. (2020). Turn and Talk (TIPS Series: Tip #15). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

TIES Center is the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies. Its purpose is to create sustainable changes in kindergarten-grade 8 school and district educational systems so that students with significant cognitive disabilities can fully engage in the same instructional and non-instructional activities as their general education peers, while being instructed in a way that meets individual learning needs. TIES Center is led by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, and includes the following additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and University of North Carolina – Greensboro.

TIES Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326Y170004) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

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