Using Collaborative Structures in the Classroom

The primacy of oral language to literacy development is not a new idea. Wilkinson (1965, 3-5) asserted this thinking decades ago and Britton (1983, 11) poetically noted, “Reading and writing float on a sea of talk.” 

With the importance of student talk so well established, it would seem logical that student talk and conversation should be flourishing in today’s classrooms. 

Why, then, does the “ping-pong” model of conversation—in which a teacher asks a question, a student answers, and this pattern continues—get perpetuated in so many classrooms?

Why is it so difficult to move away from this “ping-pong” model towards one in which conversations are more akin to basketball, with students responding to and asking questions of one another?

Here you will learn key practices to implementing collaborative learning techniques in your classroom to get your students to listen and engage with intent:

  • How to Implement Collaborative Structures in the Classroom
  • Two Key Practices for Collaborative Learning in the Classroom
  • Increase Student Talk and Engagement With Collaborative Structures in the Classroom

How to Implement Collaborative Structures in the Classroom

Moving away from “ping-pong” conversation isn’t as simple as it might seem. In fact, the answers to these questions above are complex and involve an interaction of systems and competing priorities. 

One major reason for the intractability of the prevailing paradigm lies in the difficulty of switching our stance from one of disseminating information and checking for understanding to one of posing authentic questions and listening for how students are processing and constructing knowledge. The way teachers engage with their students is extremely important, and Collaborative Classroom truly understands that.

A change in stance is not easily or quickly accomplished, but two key practices can help us to make this shift: 

  1. The use of cooperative structures; and
  2. The use of facilitation techniques (Brunn 2010, 83-90)

Two Key Practices for Collaborative Learning in the Classroom

Cooperative structures and facilitation techniques are simple ways to change the way students listen, think, and talk in the classroom.

Using cooperative structures and facilitation techniques in the classroom is an easy integration. Neither practice requires compromising any practices that a teacher is already using in their classroom and they can both easily work into any content area.

#1: Cooperative Structures

Cooperative structures allow more students to talk and engage at once (Joritz-Nakagawa). This differs from the traditional way of classroom talk where the teacher speaks and one student responds at a time.

There are many different ways to use cooperative structures in the classroom, including:

  • Turn and Talk
  • Think, Pair, Share

Both of these cooperative structures are great ways to allow every student to talk in the same amount of time it would take for two people to share their thinking with the whole class. They also offer a safe option for quiet or shy students to share ideas that they may be reluctant to share with the whole group (Brunn 2010, 88).

Teachers who are already using cooperative structures in their classroom might think about adding other variations to their repertoire, such as: 

  • Think, Pair, Write
  • Heads Together

Additionally, it may be helpful to think about the intentional use of these structures for achieving a specific purpose. Used at the right time, such as at a point in the lesson when few students respond to a question, they can help stimulate thinking and elevate the conversation.

Examples of Collaborative Learning Using Cooperative Structures

Below are explanations and ways you use the cooperative structures mentioned above in the classroom:

  1. Turn and Talk – This permits all students to participate in a discussion by the teacher posing a question or prompt and allowing the students a few minutes to turn to a partner and talk about their ideas related to the prompt.
  2. Think, Pair, Share –  This promotes and supports a higher level of thinking by the teacher asking students to think about a topic, pairing them with another student to discuss their thoughts, and then sharing their ideas with the class.
  3. Think, Pair, Write – This is similar to “Think, Pair, Share”, however, students write their ideas after discussing with a partner.
  4. Heads Together – This encourages everyone in the group to both think and discuss. The teacher assigns everyone in a small group a number (1-4, for example) and has them discuss the prompt for an allotted time. When time is up, the teacher calls a number (1-4) and each student assigned that number from every group stands up to share their thoughts on the prompt.

#2: Facilitation Techniques

A teacher’s use of facilitation techniques is key to encouraging more students to contribute their ideas and listen to and respond to one another. 

You can see for yourself how deceptively simple some facilitation techniques can be. 

How? Pay attention to your responses to your students. Do you find yourself responding neutrally, or do you find yourself praising with comments such as, “Good thinking!” or “That’s a smart idea!”?

Here are some facilitation techniques you can implement in your classroom:

  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Use wait-time
  • Ask facilitative questions
  • Avoid repeating and paraphrasing students’ responses
  • Respond neutrality with interest

Examples of Collaborative Learning Using Facilitation Techniques

Below are rationales and examples of each facilitation technique mentioned above:

  1. Ask open-ended questions. This elicits a greater depth of student thinking and allows for the contribution of multiple ideas. For example, “Why is it important that you express your opinion even if you know others may not agree with you?”
  2. Use wait-time. This gives students a chance to think before talking and encourages more students to participate.
  3. Ask facilitative questions. This encourages students to respond directly to one another’s ideas. For example, “What do others think about what [Marie] just said?”, or “What questions can you ask [Tom] about what he said?”
  4. Avoid repeating and paraphrasing students’ responses. This encourages students to:

    • Speak clearly
    • Take responsibility for listening carefully to one another; and 
    • Ask classmates to speak up or repeat comments as necessary
  5. Respond neutrally with interest. This builds intrinsic motivation and encourages students to think and speak independently without the need for teacher validation.  For example, “Interesting—say more about that.”, or “Hmm – what do others think about what [Alex] just said?”

Note: Techniques adapted from the Being a Writer™ and Making Meaning® programs, developed by Center for the Collaborative Classroom.

Increase Student Talk and Engagement With Collaborative Structures in the Classroom

Is your classroom struggling with student engagement? 

Do you find that as the teacher, you are doing most of the talking?

Introducing collaborative structures in the classroom can help to get your students thinking, talking, and engaging more than ever before.

There are many simple ways to introduce collaborative structures in your classroom through:

  • Cooperative structures
  • Facilitation techniques

By implementing these collaborative learning techniques into your classroom today and using them together, you can help increase the volume of student talk greatly. Now, it’s your turn to listen.


Britton, James. 1983. “Writing and the Story of the World.” In Explorations in the Development of Writing, Theory, Research, and Practice. Edited by Barry M. Kroll and Gordon Wells, 3–30. New York: Wiley.

Brunn, Peter. 2010. The Lesson Planning Handbook: Essential Strategies That Inspire Student Thinking and Learning. New York: Scholastic Teaching Resources.

Center for the Collaborative Classroom. 2014. Being a Writer

Center for the Collaborative Classroom. 2015. Making Meaning

Joritz-Nakagawa, Jane. Spencer Kegan’s Cooperative Learning Structures

Wilkinson, Andrew. 1965. “The Concept of Oracy.” English in Education, 2, no. A2 (June): 3–5.