How to Set Up Cooperative Learning Structures

The beginning of the year is a crucial time to get your routines and expectations set and clear. Part of these routines should include cooperative learning structures. I once learned that primary teachers should be lecturing for, at most, 10 minutes before incorporating a partner discussion.

I don’t really want to do the math for how much our students should be talking during the year, but let’s agree that it’s a lot. Which makes me wonder how many minutes are wasted reteaching students expectations for these structures. It almost defeats the purpose. That’s what it felt like for me, anyways. That’s before I decided I was getting these fine-tuned the first week that I’m with students.

Because I’m already spending so much time focusing on community building within the classroom, I decided this would be the best opportunity to teach these cooperative learning structures. Things like turn and talks or students roaming and talking with other students. Thank goodness there’s time at the beginning of the school year to do this because it. takes. time.

There are 5 things that a student MUST know before taking part in a cooperative learning structure.

  1. Finding a partner
  2. Determining who speaks first
  3. How long to speak
  4. How to end the conversation
  5. Expectations after a conversation ends

Let me do a deep dive into each of these steps so there’s no room for error when I need this in the midst of a lesson. I’m going to focus on the common turn and talk, because that’s the structure I use most often.

1. Finding a partner

Turn and talks generally happen on the carpet and the quickest part of them is turning. So, I explicitly show students where they will find their partner. It sounds something like this,

“If you sit in the red row *points to everyone in the red row*, your talking partner will be in the yellow row, which is right next to you *points to everyone in the yellow row*.”

I show each row their partners and have students point to their partner, that way I can see who knows and who needs an extra reminder.

Then, I show them how they will turn to find their partner. I usually take two people who will be partners and model how they will turn to face one another. I snap my fingers and say they should be turned that fast. After that, we practice. I say, “Turn!” and snap. The expectation is that all students will turn in unison to their partner and show that they’re ready to talk.

We practice until they have it perfect. 

*This is an excellent time to add classroom incentives, such as a marble jar. Students can quickly earn rewards together and it’s pretty motivating for them.

2. Determining who speak first

If you want to avoid arguments or awkward silences, predetermining partners is a good way to make sure the conversation starts smoothly. On the carpet, I usually give A and B partners. It sounds like this,

“Partner A is closest to the wall. Partner B is closest to the board. Partner A will speak first, then partner B will go.”

If you want to spice it up, “Whoever has ___” is a fun way to determine partners. I like to go with whoever has shorter/longer hair or something of the sort.

After explaining who speaks first, I double check by having certain partners raise their hands.

3. How long to speak

Having visual timers is an excellent tool for cooperative learning structures. I give a time limit on students speaking, that way everyone has a chance to speak. The best timer is a continuous one based on a number. For example, a timer that gives 2 sections 30 seconds. Once the first section’s time is up, the second section’s timer begins.

I model what this looks like to speak with the timer going and what to do when the timer is up. I also model what it looks like if I see the timer is running out and I’m not finished speaking. To start, I give 10 seconds on the clock and give a quick prompt. Then, student A shares, the timer goes off, and then student B shares. We practice this a few times.

4. How to end the conversation

I definitely want to avoid awkward silences or interruptions if I can, so I always teach students a celebration to say to their partner when the timer is up. To start, I usually go with “Thank you for sharing!” along with giving a high-five.

I give another prompt, and we go through steps 1-4.

5. Expectations after a conversation ends

Guess what students will do after they talk to a partner? They’ll talk to a friend about something random, or they’ll play, or they’ll walk around. Unless they know what’s expected of them afterwards.

Because there’s a timer, it won’t take long for me to jump back in, so I teach that once a student has ended their conversation, they turn and face me with their voices off. We practice and I give class incentives as well as individual praise. 

“Wow! Thomas turned so fast, his eyes were right on me, and he was silent. That was perfect!”


There’s a lot of set up that goes along with a productive cooperative learning structure. It will be lots of work upfront, but the payoff will be so worth it. Teaching structures with fun get-to-know-me questions will be exciting for students and allow them to feel more comfortable speaking with their partner.

If you’d like some prompts, I have a large set of would you rather questions that would be great for both community building and prompts while teaching these structures. Just click the image below!


  1. […] I began by implementing cooperative learning structures into my classroom. Cooperative learning is a mix of learning and chatting! With cooperative learning, we go beyond the “everyone raising their hand and one person answering” type learning (which is fine, but doesn’t always work with a chatty group). Instead, you incorporate styles of question answering like four corners or numbered heads. This requires students to be engaged, active participants in the lesson. Cooperative learning can happen with students seated at their desks or moving around, to exert more energy. To set up cooperative learning in your classroom, check out this blog post. […]

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