Using Accountable Talk to Empower Students

Daphne Heflin
Daphne Heflin
Elementary school principal; Ed.S. in Educational Leadership and Administration
High school students sitting in a circle having a discussion.

What is Accountable Talk?

The term accountable talk defines itself in a way. It includes talking. However, the significance and the impact on students and their learning is not perceptible by the term alone. Accountable talk involves meaningful conversations that promote learning because students are required to speak, listen, explain, confirm, extend, clarify, justify, and verbalize thoughts and opinions related to the text or subject at hand.

It involves student collaboration, student-teacher collaboration, and/or student-administrator collaboration. Students work together after being guided or given directions by the teacher or after reading an assigned or self-selected text. Students must be taught the productive way of using accountable talk, which requires modeling by the teacher or others. As students initially learn to hold productive, meaningful conversations related to a topic, question cue cards or anchor charts are often helpful. The charts and cards display sentence starters and sentence frames to scaffold students until independence is reached.

What are the Benefits of Accountable Talk?

Accountable talk empowers students because it gives students autonomy, requires higher-order thinking, requires the practice of speaking and listening, and requires collaboration — all of which are skills required inside and outside of schools not only by students but by successful community members as well. Students are essentially becoming empowered to become successful adults.

Empowering students is one of the greatest benefits of accountable talk, but there are other embedded benefits as well. Students who are withdrawn or shy have the opportunity to work in a small group or to work one-on-one with another student or teacher thus affording them time, space, and comfort to talk and listen more openly.

Most children young and old typically enjoy being around their peers; accountable talk addresses that age-appropriate need and desire; students are not stifled from their friends or from talking. They are encouraged to talk and are held accountable in ways that promote learning and enhance the whole child.

After being properly trained in accountable talk, students are able to practice higher-order thinking. There’s a difference between, “I like …” and “I agree with…because….” The second statement here requires the formation of opinions along with connections to the other student and to the topic, task, or text being discussed; therefore, higher levels of thinking and processing are required, thus learning occurs.

Ways to Empower Students Using Accountable Talk

Accountable talk can be employed by both teachers and administrators, which leads to student growth, learning, and ownership. As alluded to earlier, teachers can create assignments that require students to collaborate with either a partner or in a small group while having conversations about the given topic or text. Such assignments produce best results when there are clearly communicated expectations and outcomes.

When teachers assign accountable talk to student pairs or groups, they must set guidelines for the discussions. Guidelines are important to establish because they allow for all students to have equal opportunities to speak and listen and ensure students stay on topic and arrive at the desired outcomes. Games and strategies can be used to reinforce the guidelines and parameters, a few examples of which include:

  • Use a “magic” wand, stick, or microphone to prevent students from interrupting each other. Only the student with the object is allowed to talk. When another gets the object, he/she becomes the speaker. Students without the object act as listeners.
  • Use cards, chips, or cubes to ensure each child participates but doesn’t dominate. With this strategy, each child is given 3-4 cubes, cards, or chips. He/she may only speak if he/she has objects and he/she must use all of the objects given. This means each child will speak at least 3-4 times.
  • Use sentence starter cards or question stem cards to navigate the conversation in a certain direction. For example, if the teacher is working on clarifying responses in reading comprehension, give students cards that have clarifying sentence starters and clarifying questions.

Teachers might also use accountable talk during whole group instruction. In this scenario, the teacher might start the conversation by asking a question. Once a student responds, another student asks a clarifying question or connects to that which was said. The teacher may steer students in the direction of the intended outcomes by also asking clarifying questions or helping students connect to each other’s responses.

Administrators can help students reflect, make better decisions, and grow by using accountable talk as well. The strategy is very beneficial for guiding students toward positive outcomes in many situations; two particular topics of discussion “take the cake.” They are: academic growth and student behavior.

Administrators often identify students who are meeting or not meeting certain academic criteria. Once students are identified, accountable talk is a meaningful next step in gathering information and creating a space in which students reflect, respond, and take ownership.  Questions can be asked such as, “Explain your opinion about…and why do you feel that way?” or “I see that you have excellent scores in… but lower scores in…. Why might this be the case? What are your opinions and facts about…subject area or…standard?” These kinds of questions require students to reflect, explain, share thoughts and opinions, and justify, which cause growth, development, and empowerment. Accountable talks around academic performance also provide more information so administrators can triangulate it with the numbers shown on graphs, charts, etc.

Administrators can help students reflect and ultimately make better decisions regarding their behaviors by using accountable talks. Questions/sentence starters one might hear in such talks about behavior might include the following: “I see that you…Help me understand your thoughts about those actions.” “Talk to me about your problem solving in that situation. What were your thoughts and why?” “If you choose…how might that affect…?”

When a student is required to think critically about a topic, verbalize his/her thoughts, justify, clarify, explain, etc., the student shows ownership of those thoughts, and ownership is empowering. Also, when a student intently listens and is receptive and responsive to others’ thoughts and opinions, he/she makes connections and the students create a culture of accountability, which is also empowering. Accountable talk is not just noise; it is empowerment!

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