Background Research on student-led small-group learning in schools going back nearly four decades has documented many types of student participation that promote learning. Less is known about how the teacher can foster effective groupwork behaviours.

Aims This paper reviews research that explores the role of the teacher in promoting learning in small groups. The focus is on how students can learn from their peers during small-group work, how teachers can prepare students for collaborative group work, and the role of teacher discourse and classroom norms in small-group dialogue.

Method Studies selected for review focused on student-led small-group contexts for learning in which students were expected to collaborate, reported data from systematic observations of group work, and linked observational data to teacher practices and student learning outcomes.

Results and conclusions This review uncovered multiple dimensions of the teacher's role in fostering beneficial group dialogue, including preparing students for collaborative work, forming groups, structuring the group-work task, and influencing student interaction through teachers' discourse with small groups and with the class. Common threads through the research are the importance of students explaining their thinking, and teacher strategies and practices that may promote student elaboration of ideas.