Accountable talk

Maximising the benefits of classroom talk goes beyond just organising for talk opportunities. The quality of the talk is important. Accountable talk refers to the type of talk that moves learning forward. Wolf, Crossen and Resnick (2006) describe three aspects of accountable talk:

  1. Accountability to the learning community
  2. Accountability to accurate knowledge
  3. Accountability to rigorous thinking.

A focus on accountability to the learning community ensures that talk participants make efforts to help others in the group understand. Helping others to understand involves paraphrasing, re-phrasing, using examples, active listening and building upon the contributions of others.

A focus on accountability to accurate knowledge highlights the importance of including correct information in a discussion. Finally, a focus on the accountability to rigorous thinking promotes logical thinking, reasoning and the ability to explain thinking.

The reasons and protocols for accountable talk can be made explicit to students, and talk can be presented to students as a tool for learning. In order for groups of students to engage in talk that is accountable and conducive to learning, all group members need to follow the social protocols for classroom discussions.

Supporting EAL/D learners to participate in accountable talk

For some EAL/D learners, learning about accountable talk involves first learning about the social protocols and body language that demonstrate active listening. For example, maintaining eye contact and asking questions are required to demonstrate engagement and learning in Australian schools, while in some cultures eye contact with elders or speakers is considered rude or asking questions can be disrespectful. Students may need time and practice to become comfortable with new ways of interacting. Therefore, it is important to explain the reason for the social protocols that determine the ground rules in class, to teach strategies for carrying them out, and to allow opportunities for practice and feedback. EAL/D students who might be unfamiliar with the idea of active participation, or lack the linguistic resources to participate fully might be able to contribute their opinions in very simple ways, such as indicating agreement or disagreement with thumbs up or thumbs down.

How to interact in a talk situation can be established through the development of ‘ground rules’ for talk. Ground rules set out the parameters of how interactions take place, what to do if there is disagreement, how to respectfully challenge and how to reach an agreement.

Sample ground rules:   

  • We will look at the speaker to show we are listening.
  • We will use our facial expression and body language to show we are listening.
  • We will contribute at least one idea to the group discussion.
  • We will each ask one question during the group discussion.
  • We will build upon what the group members say.
  • We will ask clarifying questions if we are confused.
  • We will thank each other for talk contributions.
  • We will use polite ways to challenge speakers with whom we do not agree.
Differentiating ground rules for EAL/D learners

It is important to differentiate the ground rules for talking so that EAL/D learners are provided with extra support to become active members of the learning community. Established ground rules should be revisited or renegotiated with the class when new students arrive during the year.

Differentiated ground rules for EAL/D students might need to be very clear and specific to scaffold the students into the social protocols required for accountable talk. These could include:

  • I will nod or shrug my shoulders to show whether I understand the discussion.
  • I will choose one question from my question cards to ask.
  • I will say, “Excuse me, but I disagree because…” when I don’t agree.

Possible ideas for developing EAL/D learners’ skills to participate in accountable talk include:

  • using drama activities or games to allow students to practise eye contact (such as  ‘wink murder’ or ‘silent ball’), facial expressions, turn-taking and body language in a safe environment
  • allocating time to allow students to prepare (and possibly to note down) their ideas or questions
  • providing examples and sentence starters for questioning, thanking and challenging other speakers, for example:
    • Questioning: Could you please explain …? What if …?
    • Thanking: Thank you for … I really liked …
    • Challenging: Have you thought about …? I wonder if …
  • providing ways for students to express their opinions in non-verbal ways, such as through a ‘four corners’ activity, with the teacher subsequently supporting them to explain their reasoning
  • developing accountable home language talk. Students working in same language pairs can generate their ideas and questions in a shared language. They can plan how to communicate these clearly to the class through English.

Accountable talk requires higher order thinking skills and reasonably high levels of language and literacy knowledge. EAL/D students who are still in the process of learning and speaking in English may not be ready to demonstrate this level of rigour especially when learning about new content. Investigating a topic over a period of time can help students gradually develop confidence in their own ideas as they learn new language features. For example:

  • students help each other develop a research topic and questions and then refine their ideas with the teacher
  • students investigate a topic they are interested in by conducting short interviews with five people they know, recording the conversation and transcribing the recordings (the data) which they bring to class. If students carry out the interviews in their home language, they can translate the key data
  • in class, teachers teach the language features (such as demonstrating the language of facts vs. opinions, contention statements, statistics) according to the genre (such as oral presentation using slides, writing a report)
  • students study the data and create a text that demonstrates the language features of accountable talk.

Because students generate their own questions and engage closely with their data over a period of time, they come to know their material best which also means they are likely to feel more confident about addressing questions and disagreements from their peers.

For more information about accountable talk and EAL/D students, see: Teaching EAL/D learners about accountable talk

Links to the Victorian Curriculum - English

Understand differences between the language of opinion and feeling and the language of factual reporting or recording (VCELA305)

Understand how to move beyond making bare assertions and take account of differing perspectives and points of view (VCELA335)

Links to the Victorian Curriculum - English as an Additional Language (EAL)

See the Communication and Cultural and Plurilingual Awareness strands under Speaking and Listening in the EAL curriculum


Wolf, M.K., Crossen, A. C. and Resnick, L.B. (2006) Accountable talk in reading comprehension discussion. CSE Technical Report, 670. Los Angeles. Learning and Research Development Centre, University of Pittsburgh.