Maximizing Instructional Time through Structured Conversations

Every school year teachers ask themselves, “How can I create a class where students collaborate with one another as well as with me?” The answer to this question is cooperative learning.

Cooperative learning is a successful teaching strategy in which small teams of students with differing ability levels use a variety of learning activities to improve their understanding of a subject. Each member of a team is responsible for learning what is taught and also for helping teammates learn, thus creating an atmosphere of achievement (Balkcom,1992) and interdependence. The comprehension process is accelerated when structures are in place that promote this level of dialogue (Bucalos & Lingo, 2005).

Many educators have heard of or may even be using varying forms of cooperative learning to promote student engagement. Cooperative learning incorporates many forms of student engagement; one of these is structured conversations. When teachers do most of the talking and when most interactions occur between a few students and the teacher, the students who are not involved in the conversation have tacit permission to disengage. And because they are not engaged, they become bored and often off task.  Students who are not encouraged to communicate frequently will not learn to communicate well. On the other hand, when students take part in paired or group discussions, they are involved and engaged in their own learning (Nash, 2009), and learning increases.

Students require explicit instruction to learn to participate meaningfully in structured conversation. When deciding to implement structured conversation into the class routine, the teacher should plan to provide explicit instruction on conversational techniques for the first two weeks of the school year (or longer), followed by refresher mini-lessons throughout the academic school year. Further, the teacher must provide the students with consistent positive verbal reinforcement throughout their learning day to reinforce effective structured conversation techniques. Structured conversations provide students with an opportunity to process information and develop communication skills (Nash, 2009).

Cooperative Structures That Support Structured Conversations

The cooperative learning structures listed below are examples of evidence-based structures that have been shown to positively influence student learning and engagement in an inclusive classroom.

Numbered Heads Together (Kagan & Kagan, 2009a)

Numbered Heads Together maximizes team cooperation and peer tutoring. Teams of four number off, one through four. Each teammate has an assigned number. The teacher poses a higher-order thinking question to the class. The teams stand up and work together to answer the question and ensure that all members can adequately explain the team’s answer. Once the team has agreed that all members can explain their thinking, the team sits down. When all the teams are seated, the teacher randomly calls out a number, and the student assigned to that number explains his or her team’s answer. Students can respond using response cards, individual chalkboards, or orally. Numbered Heads Together increases individual and team accountability along with teamwork.

RallyRobin (Kagan & Kagan, 2009b)

RallyRobin involves partner responses within a team of four. The team is asked to turn to a team member to partner in order to provide a response to teacher-directed problems or questions. The teacher poses a problem for which there are several correct responses or solutions, and provides think time.  Students take turns with their partners to state responses or solutions. This structure may be implemented in different variations; however, the goal is to teach students how to engage in structured conversation.

Timed Pair Activity (Nash, 2009)

In Timed Pair Activity, the teacher gives the students a list of topics and asks them to pick a topic to discuss. The students are paired and given a set length of time to discuss the topic. This is an opportunity for the teacher to observe the conversation and to circulate around the room listening to all of the student pairs.

Teaching students to participate in structured conversation can help the teacher to regain lost instructional time and assist the students in facilitating their own learning while teaching them how to invest in their academic future.  Students who are taught to participate in structured conversations will be able to generalize this skill to every aspect of their lives.

Additional Resources

  • The College of William and Mary Training and Technical Assistance Center newsletter article Cooperative Learning Techniques for Active Student Engagement (Davis-Perry, 2014) provides additional methods to enhance active learning for all students.talkingaboutteaching
  • Caring and Control Create a Safe, Positive Classroom
    Retrieved from the IRIS Resource Locator
    Description: This is a video of a third-grade teacher who taught and implemented structures with in her classroom to assist with classroom management and learning.  Jim Knight conducted an observation of the teacher’s classroom and they meet to discuss what he observed and to provide feedback. For more information regarding this video, please refer to Susan Jones’ article in this Link Lines edition, Video Introduction: Building Positive Classroom Relationships to Engage Students.
  • The College of William and Mary Training and Technical Assistance Center newsletter article Cooperative Learning in Inclusive Classrooms: Students Who Work Together, Learn Together (Emerson, 2013) provides additional methods to enhance active learning for all students.


Balkcom, S. (1992). Cooperative learning (ED/OERI Issue Number1). Retrieved from

Bucalos, A. L., & Lingo, A. S. (2005). Filling the potholes in the road to inclusion: Successful research-based strategies for intermediate and middle school students with mild   disabilities. TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, 1(4) Article 1. Retrieved from

Kagan, S., & Kagan, M. (2009). Kagan cooperative learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing.

Nash, R. (2009). The active classroom: Practical strategies for involving students in the learning process. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


Laying the Foundation for Standards-based Data-driven Specially Designed Instruction

Specially designed instruction (SDI) provides students with disabilities (SWD) the opportunity to make progress in the general education curriculum (IDEA, 2004). A student’s Individualized Educational Program (IEP) is supposed to provide the roadmap for special and general educators. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for special educators to become overwhelmed with the simultaneous demands of IEP development, scheduling IEP meetings, and standardized testing in the spring.

The problem with the spring timing of the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) assessments and IEP development for the next school year is that the IEP is frequently developed without the benefit of student outcome data on the SOL assessment. Any disconnect between IEP goal development and student performance on the SOL assessment can lead to an instructional gap that limits opportunities for SWD to make progress in the general education curriculum. While new IEP goals must be based on a student’s individual needs and other student progress monitoring measures, there must be a connection to the grade-level general education curriculum, as measured by the SOL assessment during assessment years.

Although teachers know whether a given student passed or failed an SOL assessment before designing instruction, they may not know that they can analyze skill performance more in-depth in the Student Detail by Question (SDBQ) report.  That is, the SDBQ report provides details within the reporting categories on the SOL Test Blueprints that may be used to guide more targeted standards-based IEP goal development and SDI.  These targets, in turn, may provide students a more realistic opportunity to make progress in the general education curriculum.

To illustrate, a sixth-grade student performed well on questions relating to synonyms, context clues, and a lower-level question requiring him to apply knowledge of affixes (see Figure 1). However, when presented with medium-level questions requiring application of knowledge of word relationships and affixes, he did not respond correctly. These results suggest that SDI focused on word analysis strategies may be appropriate. If this student is to successfully move through middle and high school, effective word analysis is critical.

Figure 1. Grade 6 Reading SDBQ Report:  Use Word Analysis Strategies and Word Reference Materials


(Virginia Department of Education [VDOE], 2017)

The same sixth-grade student was successful with fictional text on medium-level questions focused on characterization, author’s organizational pattern, and plot development, but struggled with lower-level questions about how story elements impact plot development and the use of implied information and textual support to make inferences (see Figure 2). This suggests that the student may benefit from SDI focused on comprehension strategies in fictional texts, with specific attention to story elements, plot development, and inferencing.


Figure 2. Grade 6 Reading SDBQ Report: Demonstrate Comprehension of Fictional Texts


(VDOE, 2017)

In comprehending nonfiction texts, the same sixth-grade student was successful with medium-level questions related to an author’s organizational pattern, cause and effect, and drawing conclusions on explicit information using textual support (see Figure 3). The student’s success with an author’s organizational pattern in both fiction and nonfiction texts suggests that this is an area of strength across genres and that similar structures might be used to support areas of weakness. The missed question about the use of text structures to categorize information implies a possible gap in knowledge worth consideration for Tier 1 instruction with possible connections to specific SDI. Additionally, the missed question about comparison relationships suggests that the student lacks strategies for analyzing nonfiction texts. This information should be considered when setting goals and designing instruction for this student during his seventh-grade year.

Figure 3. Grade 6 Reading SDBQ Report:  Demonstrate Comprehension of Nonfiction Texts


(VDOE, 2017)

When SDBQ reports are available for SWD in specific content areas, they should be fully analyzed for connections to IEP goals and SDI for the upcoming school year. Teachers should seek out all available skill-specific data rather than relying solely on SOL pass rates. Additional sources of skill-specific data are noted in Strategic and Specially Designed Instruction: Leveraging Data Sources to Ensure General Curriculum Access (Buyrn, 2016). Every missed question on an SOL assessment does not necessarily indicate a need for specific SDI, but it provides data worth consideration and further investigation as special and general educators plan a course for the upcoming school year.

The SDBQ can also uncover areas of focus for Tier 1 instruction. An effective program for SWD includes Tier 1 instruction informed by previous outcome data from all students and individualized goals and SDI that align with the general education curriculum.  If special educators uncover gaps between students’ IEP goals and the standards-based assessment data in the fall, they should adjust those goals and ensure that SDI rises to the level of need and expectation so that teachers and students can hit the ground running. If standards-based goals are well aligned with both student need and targeted SDI, ongoing formative assessment and progress monitoring measures will help chart a course for success across the school year.

Teachers interested in effective classroom assessment strategies may wish to access the IRIS Center Modules Classroom Assessment (Part 1):  An Introduction to Monitoring Academic Achievement in the Classroom (2004) and Classroom Assessment (Part 2): Evaluating Reading Progress (2005). Ongoing formative assessment practices aligned with summative assessment measures l provide a connected and strategic instructional foundation for SWD. These modules provide specific practices and models that will help teachers make these vital connections.


Buyrn, C. A. (2017, February). Strategic and specially designed instruction:  Leveraging data sources to ensure general curriculum access. Training and Technical Assistance Center at the College of William and Mary:  Link Lines Newsletter. Retrieved from

Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 20 U.S.C. §300. (2004). Retrieved from

The IRIS Center. (2004). Classroom assessment (part 1):  An introduction to monitoring academic achievement in the classroom. Retrieved from

The IRIS Center. (2005). Classroom assessment (part 2):  Evaluating reading progress. Retrieved from

Virginia Department of Education. (2017). Student detail by question report. Richmond, VA: Author.

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