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The Power of Accountable Talk

Author: Chappell Hughes - Mitchell Road Elementary School


The language of education is full of jargon and acronyms. For the most part, educators know the jargon and acronyms associated with PLCs, backward design, or growth mindset, but I’ve always had a strong aversion to jargon that complicates easy to attain core concepts woven into the fabric of teaching and learning. This sometimes leads to the creation of “something new” in attempts for publishers to make more money. I’m a true skeptic. However, there is a phrase that I learned in the years before the pandemic that was pretty powerful and basic at its core: Accountable Talk.

Pre-pandemic, my school embarked on a journey to encourage our students to own their learning. We had reached a point where our teachers were excelling at providing the learning--watching them teach was energizing, but it seemed our students were stuck and engagement was on the decline. So, we turned to a jargon phrase that was like most “new” ideas, not a new one at all, but rather one that we had forgotten about--Accountable Talk. We’ve all heard the idea that the one doing the most talking in the classroom is the one doing the most learning.

Accountable Talk has become a way to ensure that students’ voices are heard and students are taking ownership of their learning in the classroom.

Since getting “back to normal” we found that accountable talk is needed more than ever and not only that, we have found that we are starting back at square one.

Another way of thinking about accountable talk is simply student talk. It is a way of speaking and interacting that allows all students to participate in meaningful discussions. It encourages students to share ideas and respond to peers’ ideas in a respectful way.

Why does talking matter? Fisher, Frey, and Almarode state in their book, Student Learning Communities, “Students need to try new knowledge on for size if they are to take possession of concepts and apply them to new and novel situations.”

As educators, we must provide learning opportunities that transfer the use of academic language from the teacher to students. Student talk in the classroom becomes accountable when the conversation is focused, students are processing their own thinking, students are interacting with their peers around the content of the lesson, and students begin to use academic language.

Establishing a Foundation for Accountable Talk

On the most basic level, accountable talk looks like meaningful conversation. Students as young as kindergarten can be taught how to have accountable talk in their classroom, but, in order to set a foundation, there are concepts that are key to success with accountable talk (my school settled on six to guide our understanding):

  1. Students speak to each other using complex thinking around the standard or teaching point. They use reasoning behind thinking, and they give evidence.

  2. Active listening is being used by students. This looks like: eye contact, knee to knee or shoulder to shoulder, and responses that reflect understanding of the conversation.

  3. Every child has a part (no turns, no outs, no hogs, no logs). This means even when it’s not my turn, I’m still participating by actively listening and acknowledging the speaker, and when we are finished with our turn we aren’t “out” of discussion. Also, there aren’t students who “hog” the conversation or students who sit there like “logs” without participating at all.

  4. Students acknowledge understanding and learning that others share (like “I agree with you, I disagree, head nodding, thumbs up, etc).

  5. Students question themselves and each other.

  6. Students understand the key learning for the day (Learning Target), and evaluate their own learning and progress towards learning (I get this, I still have questions, I need some help, I can teach this to others).

Getting Started with Accountable Talk

In order for young students especially, and really any student post-pandemic, to have meaningful accountable talk, teachers can use specific scaffolding to introduce and maintain an atmosphere of productive talk. It’s important for teachers to begin modeling their own thinking aloud so that students understand what it’s like to have a starting point for sharing their own thinking. When teachers think aloud, they are vocalizing the internal thinking they employ when engaged in areas of learning, which motivates next steps in conversation or action. Students often feel as though they must come to a conversation or an answer with everything already worked out; however, the value in talk is solidifying or revising thinking.

This is an example of a second grade math lesson where a teacher models her own thinking for her students before having them do the same thing with a peer.

Mini Lessons

Mini Lessons on accountable talk provide an avenue for how students come to understand why accountable talk is important and how it will be used in class.

Possible mini lessons topics:

  • How to turn and talk (knee to knee/no hogs, no logs)

  • How I can listen to what the speaker is saying and how I should think about that (Can I say more about that? Do I agree?)

  • How to disagree in a polite way

  • How to acknowledge that we all may have different thoughts about something, and, even if I do not agree with what you are saying, I will think about it

  • How to introduce and elaborate on related topics so that I can build on ideas of classmates

Sentence Stems

Another way for teachers to promote accountable talk is by using sentence stems. Sentence stems provide support for students learning how to reference texts or others’ ideas, disagree respectfully, and then arrive at new ideas. They are a scaffold to help students access accountable talk as a new way of learning.

Examples of sentences stems that could be put on an anchor chart, student notebook, or table tent:

  • Based on what I read, I think…

  • What do you mean by…

  • I want to add to what_____said…

  • An example of _____ is…

  • I agree/disagree because…

  • I used to think____but now I’m thinking…

  • That gave me a new idea…

  • I learned that…

Accountable Talk poster in a 3rd grade classroom.

Moving Forward

The beauty of accountable talk is that it does much of the heavy lifting for teachers. Students are processing their own learning, and it solidifies new learning in their minds. Students also learn from and connect to others through this kind of talk. As we continue to move forward from the isolation of the pandemic, student talk will prove more valuable and effective than ever at connection and learning. I challenge you to find areas in your day to include student talk. Simple scaffolding for accountable talk can get kids thinking and talking deeply about their learning.

Fisher, Douglas, Student Learning Communities, ASCD, 2021 About the Author:

Chappell Hughes is an elementary Instructional Coach at Mitchell Road Elementary School in Greenville, SC. At Mitchell Road, she works alongside teachers and students to create meaningful learning opportunities and improve student learning outcomes. Connect with Chappell on Twitter @chaphughesmres or through email




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