In this second blog for the Talk Rich Teaching project Naomi Flynn reflects on how schools are working with the principles of Joint Productive Activity and Instructional Conversation.

Last year while I was in the US observing the practice of teachers using The Enduring Principles of Learning, I wrote a blog for NALDIC on my developing thoughts about the importance of small group teaching. Just like their UK counterparts, some of the US teachers found changing from whole class to small group a challenge. But where teachers had become braver and adapted their practice to include some organisation in small groups, lessons were rich with opportunities for talk and children were actively engaged in deeper levels of reading comprehension or using more advanced vocabulary as they orally rehearsed sentences for their writing.

In this second blog for the Talk Rich Teaching project, I continue that reflection in the UK context. I talk about how the teachers in our project schools are planning for more small group conversation and why this shift is so valuable for their multilingual learners.

Joint Productive Activity and Instructional Conversation

In our first blog I explained that we had decided to focus first on the Enduring Principles of Joint Productive Activity and Instructional Conversation. However, each of them requires a shift in mindset for how the classroom works; not least because practice in English classrooms in recent years has become more whole-class oriented. To recap, Joint Productive Activity (JPA) is enacted when the teacher and a small group of children collaborate in talking, reading or writing towards a learning outcome; importantly, the teacher does not float, and the conversation should last a minimum of 10 minutes. Instructional Conversation (IC) describes how the teacher manages the dialogue in the small group. Conversation is goal-oriented towards the intended learning outcome and involves the teacher listening and adjusting their questioning to encourage children to articulate their views as their thinking deepens. You can read some transcript extracts of teachers doing exactly this in my NALDIC blog. The teachers involved in the Talk Rich Teaching project have been watching videos of these same teachers in action at our professional development meetings.

Making Small Group Teaching Work

For our Year 1 project teachers (5 – 6-year-olds) the use of small groups was already part of normal practice for at least some lessons in the week, so the teachers in these two classes have been working on the kind of conversation they have in their small groups. Therefore, both our teachers have been intentionally holding back, where previously they might have talked more, and they are hearing their children (all of whom are multilingual) talk in more extended sentences and using vocabulary that is more complex than their teachers might have expected.

Our Year 4 teachers (8 – 9 year-olds) have worked the small group activities into their whole class practice by designing opportunities for small groups within whole class activity. So far, I have observed this taking place differently in each class. One teacher plans for all of his children to work for 10 minutes in groups of up to four on a problem solving task in a maths lesson, while he moves around and facilitates the conversation by clarifying and attending to misconceptions. The other teacher, also trialling this approach in mathematics, groups children by attainment and commits herself to supporting extended conversation with one or two groups while the rest of the class work independently. Each teacher is now working the same approach into English lessons and both are commenting on the benefits of the greater depth of reading comprehension that the small group conversations encourage.

The first two months have been helpful in giving us insights into what is practical within the confines of how schools want to organise their teaching, and they have given the teachers insight into what the potential benefits of small group teaching might be. We are clear that embedding The Enduring Principles of Learning needs to happen as a process of small-step changes over time which may lead to longer term gains. But, of course, we will not be sure of some of those gains until we see the post-intervention test scores for the pupils. While that is a way off, I want to spend some time reflecting on why small group activity benefits multilingual learners.

The Reasons Why Small Group Teaching Works for Multilingual Learners

There is a weight of evidence, over a long period of time, that learners develop both language use and higher understanding of curriculum content through socially constructive activity with peers and with their teachers. Drawing on the work of Vygotsky (1978), the benefits of talk-rich social interaction and small group cooperation  have been well-mapped by giants in the field of dialogic teaching such as Robin Alexander (2004) (see updates to his original work at ) and Neil Mercer (2007). Stuart Scott’s Collaborative Learning website highlights the importance of this work alongside earlier influences in the oracy field.  Furthermore, there is evidence that small group tuition supports learning to read  (see for example Education Endowment Foundation, 2021; Foorman & Torgesen, 2001) and that this is important specifically for English language learners’ reading development (August et al., 2014).

Taking Kagen’s(1995) teacher-accessible summary there are features of small group teaching that explicitly benefit language learning.  We know, for example, that language learners benefit from multiple exposures to vocabulary in different contexts and this is much more likely to happen in small group than in whole class exchanges. Moreover, we know that language learners benefit from feedback on their language use, from listening to the target language spoken by proficient language users and  from opportunities to use talk for meaningful purposes (Lucas et al., 2008).  The small group supports the potential for far more exchanges of the sort described in the previous sentence than whole class teaching does.  Finally, Kagen explains that the type of talk in small group is more likely to be ‘identity congruent’. By this he means that talk will be peer-oriented and conversational rather than classroom-formal.

“ In 20 minutes of whole class, one-at-a-time interaction, a student is lucky to get one feedback opportunity; in the same 20 minutes of cooperative interaction (small group teaching), the student might receive half a dozen feedback opportunities – all in a natural context and easy to assimilate” (1995, p. 4)

Kagen argues that conversation in a small group is by its nature collaborative and leads to co-production of meaning and understanding. Peers and adults in the group will be sensitive to what group members are understanding and they will repeat or rephrase to clarify and to reinforce. Small group members are likely to be working on a task in real time so that their conversation has a concrete point of reference. Collaborative talk in a group is feedback rich; language learners will get multiple opportunities for feedback on their language use through the responses of the group members. So, this begs the question……

Why is so much teaching in primary schools at whole class level?

As I have got to know the staff in the three experimental schools better, our conversations about the small group teaching quickly emerged as important in our quest to see whether the EPL can transfer to our English settings. While teachers can see the benefits of small group teaching, my professional development focus on this seems to be a little at odds with other school-based practices. Practitioners I have spoken with explain that the requirements for the maths mastery approach to learning in mathematic lessons have changed their teaching to mixed ability grouping and whole class teaching in the past few years. In this approach the teacher is very much the orchestrator of classroom learning, and this has perhaps increased teacher talk. They also name the development of teaching ‘reading fluency’ as a reason for the move away from guided group reading. Reading fluency is characterised by strategies such as choral reading and shared reading which may also have contributed to a more teacher-led pedagogy that prizes whole class over the group. Last, and by no means least, the social distancing required by the COVID pandemic has had a profound effect on how teachers might group their learners for reasons that are unrelated to what might work well in normal circumstances. We are genuinely interested in a conversation around how learning is organised in English classrooms at the moment, and welcome comments from practitioners and researchers who want to contribute to this. Email me on

As we move forward, we’ll be focussing on how we can develop Joint Productive Activity and Instructional Conversation alongside others of The Enduring Principles. In all three schools we will be working with their existing initiatives such as Let’s Talk and Voice 21 and considering how the EPL might map onto the talk-based work already in progress. In the meantime, our training school – a setting with 95% multilingual learners that has been working with the EPL since 2019 – continues to develop their oracy practice in exciting new ways. More of them in our next blog.



Alexander, R. (2004). Towards Dialogic Teaching. Diagolos.

August, D., McCardle, P., & Shanahan, T. (2014). Developing literacy in English language learners: Findings from a review of the experimental research. School Psychology Review, 43(4), 490-498.

Education Endowment Foundation, E. (2021). Small Group Tuition (Education Evidence Teaching and Learning Toolkit, Issue. E. E. Foundation.

Foorman, B. R., & Torgesen, J. (2001). Critical Elements of Classroom and Small-Group Instruction Promote Reading Success in All Children. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 16(4), 203-212.

Kagen, S. (1995). We Can Talk: Cooperative learning in the elementary ESL classroom’. ERIC Digest Reproduction, 1-6. Retrieved 20.02.22, from

Lucas, T., Villegas, A. M., & Freedson-Gonzalez, M. (2008). Linguistically Responsive Teacher Education:Preparing Classroom Teachers to Teach English Language Learners. Journal of Teacher Education, 59(4), 361-373.

Mercer, N. (2007). Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking: A Sociocultural Approach. Routledge.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society : the development of higher psychological processes (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.). Harvard University Press.