Is there a place for “paired retells” in my class?

When I started my CI journey, paired retells or “turn and talks” were a constant companion to the school day. I would present a new sentence in the story that we were creating, circle it repetitively by asking questions and making statements using language from that sentence, and then ask my students to turn to their partner and orally retell our story up to that moment.

Over the years, paired retells slowly dropped out of my practice. Terry Waltz famously declared paired retells to be the McDonald’s of language acquisition: not the best nutrition for growing minds. The high-quality teacher-created language of our stories, such as a phrase like “a mi me gustan los coches”, quickly turns into “Yo gusto coches, do you gusto?” in student-to-student conversation.

During a paired retell students give each other poor-quality input full of beginner mistakes… so why expose students to that?!! I was eager to make my classroom a more efficient laboratory where my students acquire language as quickly as possible, so I phased out the low-quality paired retells in favor of more high-quality input provided by me, the teacher.

If I am honest, I’ll also point out that paired retells had a place in my classroom management plan in those early days. I could keep my students quiet and on task listening for short stretches of time as long as they knew that they’d have time for chaotic conversation in just a few minutes. While “turn and talk” pauses were great during my first few years in the classroom, they became less necessary as I developed the class management skills to maintain a quiet, respectful class in which one person speaks and everyone else listens.

I kept thinking about what Terry had said. How much class time did we spend on student-to-student conversation? Each “turn & talk” was quick, between 30-60 seconds per instance. I timed it one day; on that day we spent nearly 20% of our class period on student-to-student conversation!

Wouldn’t my students acquire so much more if I could use those 10 minutes delivering more high-quality input instead of the low-quality input that they were currently giving each other?

Without the constant interruption of paired retells, we have gained more time to dive deeper into student interviews and learn more about the people in the classroom.

Non-CI teachers might think that students learn to talk by talking, which is intuitive but not really how language acquisition works. Talking is the result of already having acquired language. When we have less paired retells, we have more time to acquire language effectively. Ultimately, I credit my students’ incredible gains to the very efficient, effective use of class time described in the CI Master Class.

What, if anything, have we lost by dropping paired retells from my language acquisition toolbox?

Paired retells can be an empowering activity that leads students to recognize that they can speak more than they think. I remember having the same experience with fluency writes after taking five hours of CI German classes. A fluency write is another output activity that has a strong, positive impact on the learner’s self-image as a language learner. Don’t provide critical feedback; this isn’t the time or place. Instead let students bask in the pride that the language is now flowing out of them.

Paired retells can also function as a sort of accountability measure. If you interview one student for five minutes and then, in pairs, the rest of the class cannot spend 30 seconds talking about that interview, then you know something is wrong. It could be that the teacher was not comprehensible, that there was too much new vocab and too little repetition, or it could be that students simply were not engaging to understand. They were not doing their 50%. When students know that they’ll have to turn & talk in just a moment, it gives them an immediate reason to listen intently to the conversation.

I suspect that paired retells might also serve another purpose. Human conversations never naturally follow the “one person speaks, everyone else listens” rule. In a group of forty people, normally many small conversations develop. Otherwise, it is a presentation.

If you successfully follow the “one person speaks, everyone else listens” rule then some students may feel frustrated that they cannot always contribute their ideas to the whole class conversation; a “turn and talk” might give them more chance to be heard. If we want to mimic a true conversation in large group settings, perhaps “paired retell breaks” play a sociological function allowing everyone to claim some ownership of the whole class conversation. If played right, a very short “turn and talk” moment might lead to greater engagement in the whole class “conversation”.

Many CI teachers say that “blurting”, “talking out of turn”, and “side conversations” are their biggest classroom management issues. I wonder if frequent paired retells might help these teachers transform their talkative classes into more focused classes with an outlet for talkative students. The key is to clearly lay down a routine so that there is a clear time to talk to your pair, and a clear time to quietly engage with the whole group conversation.

Teaching can be like sailing in a storm; there are general principals to understand beforehand, but each teacher has to respond in the moment to the complex situation that each group of learners presents. I doubt that I myself will be including too many “turn & talk” moments in my future classes. I have so many other transition techniques that are good, input-based activities.

Yet, as I was discussing these thoughts about paired retells with experienced CI teacher Robert Harrell recently, he commented that not everything in an acquisition-based classroom is focused on acquisitionDeveloping a class culture in which all students feel seen and valued is a wise course of action.