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Student Accountable Talk and Academic Conversations

Brittany Cufaude

Brittany Cufaude

Student Accountable Talk and Academic Conversations

Effect Size: .82; equivalent to two years of academic growth


“Reading and writing float on a sea of talk.” 

-James Britton, 1983

“As we analyze why many students are not learning what we are teaching, we must evaluate our own practice for evidence of student talk throughout the day. Oral language is the foundation of literacy, and as such, it requires focused attention in planning. Altering the ratio of teacher-to-student talk doesn’t just happen. Rather, it occurs through both believing in the importance of student talk and planning with a clear purpose and expectations. But before we discuss how to plan lessons that integrate purposeful academic talk, reading, and writing, we must be clear on our own understanding of exactly what academic oral discourse is.”

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2008


Effective and accountable student talk is arguably the most precious aspect of reading and writing development.  And yet, if we were to measure the ratio of teacher talk to student talk in our classroom, we would very likely find that we, the teacher, talk more than the students.  Or, in the cases where students may be talking more, we might also find that this discussion is less accountable, may not require the use of high-utility academic language, or may not effectively support high levels of language learning and cognitive processing.  In their white paper: “Teaching for Rigor: A Call for a Critical Instructional Shift,” Robert Marzano and Michael Toth underscore a crucial shift most teachers will need to make to effectuate widespread increases in student achievement: students must work harder than teachers. Additionally, students must engage in more effective and accountable academic discourse.  We need to subvert the ratio wherein teacher talk minutes outweigh student talk minutes. And we need support in how to make student talk minutes worth the time and effort. 

To simplify this process, there are five critical considerations in effective and accountable student talk:

  • Oral Output
  • Academic Conversations
  • Text- or Task-Based Discussions
  • Accountability in Processing, Speaking, and Idea Evaluation


1. Oral Output

Oral output is defined as the type of student talk that is highly teacher-prompted.  This student talk is produced with, for example, sentence frames: students are given the context for their words/ideas and a frame to structure their articulation. It limits the likelihood for co-construction and improvisation. This is also the type of talk that follows level-one comprehension questions.  This is a very important type of student talk, especially during instruction intended to build surface learning (the first of the three stages of learning), basic language skills, grammar corrections, and explicit vocabulary instruction. For example, language (also referred to as grammar) is primarily learned through conversation and auditorily recognizing correct and incorrect language patterns.  So, during a language lesson, teachers would be wise to include the targeted language pattern in the form of a sentence frame so that students can repeat and/or mimic the proper language use.  Moreover, during an effective and explicit vocabulary routine, it is ideal to use sentence frames to elicit specific word use.  Therefore, oral output holds an important space in literacy and language development.  Yet, effective and accountable student talk should not be limited to oral output. For example, in his research, Jeff Zwiers states:

“We calculated that paired conversations would enable the most talk per minute among our students: half of the class could talk concurrently. Yet most of the think-pair-shares that we observed were short and shallow. They offered students little chance to negotiate meaning or make decisions about the direction or depth of a conversation. Even when teachers gave students extra time in pairs, students didn’t automatically do the things proficient speakers and experts do to have powerful conversations. We predicted that equipping students with conversational skills would make meaningful academic conversations less of a rarity over time” (Zwiers, 2008). 

In other words, teachers should increase the number of minutes devoted to effective student talk. Yet, the most common student talk is pair shares, often prompted by sentence frames.  To maximize our impact on our student learning, we want to continue using sentence frames and turn-and-talks (especially during surface learning). Still, we also want to expand our accountable talk strategies to include effective academic conversation as well.


2. Academic Conversations

Unlike oral output, academic conversation requires improvisation, co-construction, a richer lexicon, deeper levels of analysis and understanding, as well as a myriad of academic conversation habits or protocols; these habits and protocols, as well as the context in which they are best used, must all be taught explicitly, monitored thoroughly, and practiced extensively. To further illustrate this, Jeff Zwiers states: “Academic conversations are back-and-forth dialogues in which students focus on a topic and explore it by building, challenging, and negotiating relevant ideas. They push students to think and learn in lasting ways” (Crawford and Zwiers, 2011). To foster rich academic conversation, Jeff Zwiers offers the following protocols:

To foster rich academic conversation, Jeff Zwiers offers the following protocols in this graphic.

(Zwiers, 2008).


3. Text- and/or Task-Based Discussions

Ultimately, effective and accountable student talk aims to increase students’ agency in texts, tasks, and writing.  This idea is so beautifully captured in James Britton’s quote wherein he states:  “Reading and writing float on a sea of talk.” Therefore, a critical aspect of effective student talk is that it is always text-and/or task-based.  For example, whether students are completing a sentence frame or engaged in a conversation, we want that talk to help students build meaning, increase understanding, and ultimately turn them back to text to enrich their discourse.  Furthermore, discourse is an essential pre-writing activity.  Speaking and listening are also vital to correct language/grammar use.  There are a variety of strategies to support text-and/or task-based student talk, including self-generated questions.  The following list provides a simple checklist of considerations to evaluate whether your student’s talk is text-and/or task-based:

  • Does the sentence frame include a word or syntax pattern from the text you are reading? (In the context of math or technical subjects, this can include words needed to complete or comprehend a task, solve a problem, or complete a process. Also, in science, the syntax structure is very predictably different than non-academic English. So, unpacking these language structures can be a powerful tool for students.)
  • Does the conversation guide students to explore, expand, process, and co-construct their understanding and analysis of the text or task? 
  • Does completing the sentence frame or engaging in this conversation require students to turn back to text or aid them in task completion/problem-solving?
  • Will this sentence frame or conversation support students in their writing?

4. Accountability in Processing and Speaking

It is difficult to make student talk accountable.  Sometimes student groups are quiet, and it can be difficult to empower them to say much at all.  Other times, groups are very chatty.  In either case, it is difficult to ensure every student is on task, using the targeted words or language, or turning back to text to support their reasoning.  The first consideration we want to make is, are our expectations appropriate for where students are in language proficiency.  For example, the chart below lists appropriate output levels depending on students’ English language proficiency.  Similar considerations should be made for all learners.

(Huynh, 2017).


Regardless of where students are in their language proficiency, student talk must be accountable if it will be an effective and sound use of precious instructional minutes. To make student talk accountable, teachers must structure student talk that always includes:

  1. A clear and relevant topic, as well as a sentence frame or conversation prompt and protocol
  2. Time for each student to silently form an idea/response before speaking
  3. Clarity on who will talk to who
  4. Clarity on who speaks first and who speaks second/third
    1. In effective conversations, eventually, the roles become improvisational, and there is less “turn taking.”
  5. Mystery around who will share publicly so that all students speak with the assumption tht they will be presenting their idea(s) whole-class


Below is a routine that will help teachers meet the primary goals of accountable talk in the context of a think-pair-share:

Accountable Think-Pair-Share Routine: Time – 3-10 minutes per turn-and-talk

  1. TEACHER provides students with a sentence frame or discussion prompt and protocol
  2. TEACHER ask every student to think/process the concept first (15 seconds to 1 minute)
  3. STUDENTS signal they have formed an idea by giving a thumbs up on their chest
  4. TEACHER indicates to students who the pairs are as well as who will speak first
    1. K-3 – assign peanut butters and jellies
    2. 3+ – assign “As and Bs” or a creative way to distinguish the roles within a partnership
  5. TEACHER walks around monitoring student discussion
  6. TEACHER has previously and privately selected who will share (pick one or two students)
  7. TEACHER approaches this/these team(s) and helps correct and misconceptions, vocabulary misuse, etc. 
  8. TEACHER tells the partnership they will present but does not say which of the two or three will stand and deliver.  TEACHER ask the partnership to share the statement/idea back and forth a couple of times before the whole-class share.
  9. TEACHER signals the end of the discussion and asks one or two students to share
  10. STUDENT stands and states: “engage”
  11. THE REST OF THE CLASS mimics: “engage”
  12. STUDENT states his or her comment/idea
  13. THE REST OF THE CLASS says, “Thank you for sharing!”

You can visit this link to access an accountable talk placemat that supports clarity in who is speaking to who in a group of four: Teachers are encouraged to use the Jeff Zwiers academic conversation prompts and protocols (above) to foster academic conversations in addition to sentence-frame scaffolded turn-and-talks.


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