Empowering Students and Encouraging SEL Practices with Accountable Talk

Empowering Students and Encouraging SEL Practices with Accountable Talk

Odette Falone

“To expand on Andrew’s point, I think…”  This was what I heard out of the mouth of an 8-year-old student in my colleague’s third grade class, during a discussion about healthy snacks being served in the cafeteria.  You can imagine how impressed I was to witness students engaging in a discussion using this kind of language, and the words came so easily to this student.  My eyes opened wide and I beamed with pride over a student that was not even my own, and when I looked over at my colleague, she winked and whispered, “Accountable talk!”

So What Exactly is Accountable Talk?

The field of education is full of buzzwords, and “accountable talk” has become one of them.  So what exactly is it, and how will using it benefit our students?  Accountable talk allows students to engage in productive conversations that promote learning.  Simply defined, accountable talk is the type of discussion that moves learning forward.  Of course, accountable talk will sound different in each classroom and grade level, but through practice, all students will accept accountability to the classroom setting and its learning community, the accuracy of the information, and the action of critical thinking.

The benefits of promoting accountable talk in the classroom are endless, but it is especially powerful when working in small group settings and any time you would like students to take an active role in their own learning.  Some benefits of accountable talk include:

  • It requires students to actively listen to what their classmates are saying.
  • It provides opportunities for healthy debate.
  • It develops strong public speaking skills.
  • It promotes higher-order thinking.
  • It supports students who are more reluctant to participate.

As with most new strategies and skills, accountable talk skills need to be explicitly taught, modeled, and practiced.  Excited about the concepts, but not sure where to start?   Follow these next steps, and your students will be accountable talk masters in no time!

Preparedness is the Key to Success!

Preparation is an important step in terms of introducing accountable talk to students.  Familiarize yourself with the language used with accountable talk and begin to intertwine into your teaching.  Some examples include:

  • “Would someone like to add to what ___ said?”
  • “Do you agree or disagree with ___ and why?”
  • “Can you repeat what ___ said in your own words?”
  • “How did you arrive at that answer?”

As you begin to use this type of language, create accountable talk anchor charts or bulletin board displays that you and your students can reference as you speak.  Point to the specific statement or sentence starter that you are using and think aloud about why you chose to use that particular phrase.

While some of the language used in these kinds of conversations might not come naturally to most of your students at first, the use of sentence sticks or accountable talk stems can be an effective way to promote the practice.  Repetitive use of these tools will eventually lead to a higher level of confidence.  Eventually, you’ll find that students no longer need the tools that they once relied on so heavily.

Introduce and Set Norms

Once you’re ready to officially introduce accountable talk to your students, it’s vital that you set a strong set of ground rules for when these conversations take place.  These guidelines will help your students successfully engage in accountable talk.  To incorporate even more accountability, offer some suggestions for norms when participating in an academic conversation, and ask students to offer some of their own ideas.  You can refer to this list of ground rules each time you plan on engaging in accountable talk and remind students of their importance.  Prompt students to brainstorm acceptable norms by asking them the following questions:

  • What kind of body language shows that you’re paying attention when someone is speaking?
  • How will we avoid multiple overlapping conversations?
  • How will we clarify our thinking?

Practice, Practice, Practice!

As with most activities, mastery of accountable talk will not happen overnight.  The first few times you begin to engage in these academic conversations, you will most likely be the one doing most of the talking, and that’s just fine!  Modeling of accountable talk is a very important piece of the puzzle, and students will need that guided practice to get started.  The key is to slowly release the responsibility to the students, and provide them with the tools they need to access the proper structure and vocabulary.   If you’re looking for unique ways to develop a student-centered classroom and practice accountable talk, try the following: 

  • Fishbowl Activity:  Provide a small group of students with a topic to engage in an academic discussion using accountable talk.  Place them at the center of the room and ask them to carry out the conversation as if no one is watching.  The rest of your class will observe and take notes about what is working and what isn’t.  When done, discuss takeaways.
  • Small-group Conversation Recordings:  As students are engaging in discussions, record small bits, 5-10 minute segments, of their conversations and play them back later.  You can pause and point out where you hear accountable talk and when it should have been used.

The Possibilities are Endless!

Accountable talk is a powerful tool in both the academic and professional setting.  As your students begin to feel comfortable with the norms and expectations, you’ll begin to see the value that it will have in their classroom discussions as well as their writing.  Let’s empower our students’ voices and hear them loud and clear!

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