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Accountable Talk in the classroom

Updated: Apr 15, 2022

Increase the impact of talk in the classroom through a very simple system referred to as 'accountable talk'. We all want our pupils to be more confident when speaking in the classroom and we all know how important discourse is as a means of learning and assimilating new ideas. But pupils need routines and structures to help them get the most from their talk. Some pupils (because of everything they have experienced to date) means that they are more skilled than others when it comes to classroom talk, but all pupils can benefit from being taught explicit structures and this is particularly of benefit to those who struggle with discourse.

Accountable talk is designed to increase pupils' skills in four areas:

* Active listening

* Clarifying

* Stating opinions

* Respectful disagreement

Teachers can model, advise and support pupils using these four categories as a framework. They can provide feedback on success and next steps. They can focus in on developing one aspect within a lesson, e.g. clarifying ideas, or they can use all four categories in the same lesson. Having the framework is useful for teaching assistants working with small groups. Pupils can reflect on their use of talk using these four categories.

Teachers can start by introducing phrases from the focus category that they want to hear pupils use in the lessons. The phrases selected should be relevant to the activity being undertaken and the content being discussed. These can be displayed on a screen at the front of the classroom and copies placed near to where pupils are working. As pupils become more familiar with the phrases, more and more choice can be introduced.

To help with the phrases you might use, download this fabulous resource.

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Background knowledge for talk

For any discussion to be successful, pupils have to have something to talk about! They need knowledge to help talk about the subject and preferably to have started to form ideas and opinions that can then be shared and discussed with others. They can gain content knowledge to support talk through a variety of means:

  • First-hand experiences

  • Practical tasks and handling physical objects / artefacts

  • Reading non-fiction texts on the subject

  • Watching video clips

  • Watching news reports / reading news reports

  • Direct teaching by the teacher / tutorials / lectures

  • Podcasts and listening to audio interviews

  • Research activities

  • Examining photographs and images.

Whatever the methods used, pupils need to build background knowledge before starting discussions. This is particularly important for more reticent speakers, for less confident pupils and lower ability pupils. Everyone needs to have something to contribute. Pupils will feel more confident if they feel knowledgeable about the topic of discussion.

It is also useful to consider how the question and prompts for discussion are framed. Pupils need to know that there isn't always one right answer! They need help to think about agreement and disagreement in 'degrees'. To what extent do you agree or disagree? Is there another way of looking at the problem? If we made this change, would the impact be the same on everyone? In what circumstances might this be the right thing to do?

Talk / thinking structures to promote better quality talk

It also helps if pupils have a structure to support talk, e.g. ‘Should pupils wear school uniform’ may be supported by PMI (Plus – what are the plus points; Minus – what are the negatives; Interesting – what is perhaps not a plus or a minus but is an interesting point). Using a structure such as this alongside ACCOUNTABLE TALK is a recipe for success.

For a limited time period a free set of resources can be downloaded by completing the form at the end of this blog.

Completing the form gives you free access to a great collection of advice on different talk structures that you might try with your class and a host of templates and recording grids to help pupils to prepare for talk activities. Download this while the offer is still available!

Pause for thinking

It can be difficult to listen and think at the same time. Resulting in pupils not really listening to each other.

It can be difficult to think and talk at the same time! Resulting in poor communication or discussion of irrelevant points!

It is useful to build some pauses into discussion activities allowing pupils to have ime for quiet reflection on the points raised, review any notes they made prior to the discussion activity and think about what they want to say next. Pauses often give time for pupils to reconsider their view point. A useful restarting point can be 'I used to think...but now I think...' This gives pupils an ideal opportunity to change their minds or show that they accept the views of others. 'I still think...but I accept that...' 'I still think..., but I realise that...' 'On reflection, I think...' 'On reflection, a question I have is...'

Pupils often think that they have to stick to the same viewpoint that they started with. Pupils need to see that scholars often changes their minds when presented with new information or fresh evidence. It is a fine balance to know when to be swayed by others and when to stick to your original stance!

A quick pause can also be useful if discussions are becoming heated!

One person might be tasked with summarising the discussion so far and this can also help the group to think and reflect before restarting the conversation. A group graphic organiser can sometimes be useful to record key words / decisions / ideas / questions that have been raised during discussion. Try handing out flipchart paper. As pupils become more skilled at recording their points, they might choose their method of recording. If just starting out, allocate a structure for recording and provide guidance before starting the discussion as to how it should be completed.

Pauses can be whole class directed - or you can design a 'reflection card that is issued to a particular group. Copy the images below.

Keeping the talk flowing

Open ended questions can be used to keep the conversation flowing.

As well as a main topic of discussion or talk question, the teacher may provide supplementary questions (either to the whole class or on paper strips that can be given individual groups). This can sometimes help groups who are flagging. Re-start thinking and dialogue.

'What do you think...'

'How do you know...'

'What is the most important point someone has raised?'

'What is the most surprising point someone has raised?'

'What has been said that has made you think differently?'

'What points have most surprised you?'

'Do you have any evidence to back up your ideas / conclusions / points?'

'How can you be sure...'

'Are there other reasons...'

'Would you rather... or ...'

'What if someone were to suggest that...'

'Would you disagree with someone who said...'

'What would be the consequences of ...'

'Supposing someone said...'

'What other reasons can you think of that would support your view.'

The teacher may raise the supplementary question and say that they will return to the table in a few minutes to hear their answer.

The teacher may also introduce new evidence or new information to help groups keep talking. It is useful to have graph, table, quote or image. Give the information in a size format that the whole group can look at it together. When you give out individual sheets it tends to close down discussion rather than opening it up, but make sure all the group can easily see the new information that has been introduced.

Some teachers make excellent use of talk chips. All the pupils in the group are given a certain amount of counters at the beginning. Each time they make a contribution, they place their counter into the large pot in the middle. It is useful if the pupils in the group have different coloured counters. You are hoping as you circulate the room to see very mixed pots in the middle! If not, you can intervene and remind pupils about phrases that might help others to join in, e.g. 'Name...what is your view on this?' 'Sandra, do you agree or have a different view point?' 'Norman, what information did you find on...', 'Karl, you started to talk about...earlier. Can you say more about this now?'

You can also talk to the whole class about the mix of coloured counters. This might help some pupils to reflect on their actions and consider if they are dominating the conversation! It also helps some pupils to think about if the point they are going to make is relevant and worth raising!

Some teachers find 'jigsaw' groups works very well for ensuring everyone joins in. Each of the pupils have read / watched something different (on the same topic) and then when they join together as a mixed group, each person has something different to contribute. For lower ability pupils it is useful if they have read and discussed their piece of the puzzle in a group that all have the same information pack before joining the mixed group.

Developing critical talk

It is useful to provide a structure to encourage critical thought and reasoning. Ideally, this needs to be modelled and explicitly taught. Start slowly with just a few prompts, and extend this as pupils become more confident.

For an argument or idea:

  1. Listing the reasons.

  2. Prioritising the reasons.

  3. What is the evidence and how do you know?

  4. Citing evidence to back up reasons, e.g. quotes, statistics, references to texts.

  5. What does the evidence mean?

  6. Considering the weight of evidence to back up a point (amount, relevance, breadth, reliability, date).

  7. Considering any counter claims.

  8. Considering consequences. They might also consider opportunities / risks / drawbacks.

  9. Asking what is 'right'. What assumptions are they making?

  10. Considering if the investigation and discussion has been wide ranging enough / deep enough.

  11. Do they have unanswered questions? Sometimes you have to make a decision based on the information you have (and know that perhaps a better solution might exist if more investigation was carried out) and sometimes you have to pursue the additional information before coming to a conclusion. It is important for pupils to consider that sometimes decisions have to be made even though they might not have all the facts - and consider the consequences of doing so.

DeBono's 6 thinking hats can be a useful framework for helping consider an issue. It can help with breadth as well as depth. There are lots of resources and further information easily available on the internet if you are interested in DeBono's thinking hats. They are not a miracle cure in themselves can be a handy structure to get pupils thinking with a little more breadth.

Logistical issues

  • It is useful for pupils to know how the conclusions of their discussions will be used.

  • It is useful for pupils to know the time allocated for the development of background knowledge.

  • It is useful to explore with pupils what you hope they will get out of talking to each other.

  • Indicate timings.

It is advisable when conducting talk activities in the classroom to select carefully from pairs, triads and groups of 4. For groups larger than 4, talk activities need to be very highly structured and usually have a 'talk leader' such as the teacher. If your classroom is set out in groups of 6, consider swapping the classroom layout to mixed ability groups of 4.

It is well worth investing in Kegan Cooperative Learning structures. There are books available from the Kagan company.

Perfect Paperback: 528 pages

Publisher: Kagan Cooperative Learning; Workbook edition (30 Jun. 2015)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1933445408

ISBN-13: 978-1933445403

Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 3.2 x 27.3 cm

Quite expensive but well worth it for anyone serious about cooperative learning.


For the class to become better at talk activities - encourage them to self and peer reflect on the 4 accountable talk elements and give feedback and set targets for the next talk activity. Run short talk tasks to enable pupils to practice particular techniques before the next major talk activity.

I hope this post will encourage you to put more structure into your talk activities and that from that you will see a definite boost in the quality of talk!

Reading CPD Discount link plus do contact me for whole school discounts if you would like all your school to have access.



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