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Accountable Talk in the Classroom: Educators Make Shifts to Encourage Instructional Discourse

By: Alicia Wetherbee, Amanda Lynch, Kathy Flaherty, Monique Golden, and Jasmine Rudd


This investigation examined the impact of teacher-modeled instructional discourse on student accountable talk within content areas of our K-2 classrooms and library media. It made use of explicit instruction and modeling to encourage accountable talk across grade levels and settings. Teachers noted how student engagement and understanding increased when the conversational flow was less teacher directed and multi-directional between and among students as well as between teacher and students during learning. During the course of this research participating teachers used self-assessment and group reflection to inform instruction as well as careful planning, rich literature, modeling, and sentence stems throughout their lessons in reading and language arts. Through a gradual release model, the students became more independent in their conversations. As the research continued, they incorporated student discourse opportunities into other content areas such as math, writing, science, and social studies. A major finding in our research was the importance and value in providing time for student academic discourse to think critically and obtain new learning.

Breaking the Initiate, Response, Evaluate, Pattern: Let Them Talk!

Traditionally, discussion in the classroom is comprised of teacher initiation, student response, and ending in teacher evaluation which perpetuates the Initiate, Response, Evaluate (IRE) pattern (Mehan, 1979).  In contrast, accountable talk within the classroom is significant because students are expected to participate in purposeful interchanges in which meaning can be developed, strengthened, revised, and extended. With the shifts in Common Core students need to share and articulate their thinking as well as listen to their peers. By incorporating accountable talk in the primary grades, we are creating a foundation for future rigorous learning and everyday social interactions. Oftentimes, classrooms have more teacher talk than student talk, however, students can become independent thinkers and thoughtful responders through opportunities to engage in discourse. Accountable talk is an opportunity for educators to make shifts in their instructional discourse patterns to impact academic gains and student learning.

Literature Review

Oral Language

The seminal work on the functions of language in the classroom (Cazden, John, & Hymes 1972) launched a new direction for inquiry into language and literacy learning. Historically socialization and language acquisition had been considered separate entities. Then Vygotsky’s notion of instructional oral scaffolds played a critical role in the development of theory and research on language and literacy learning. Through dialogue and associated nonverbal interactions, teachers provide assistance to learners by modeling higher levels of conceptual and communicative competence within their zone of proximal development (ZPD). Scaffolding strategies like directive and supportive techniques provide assistance to students in attaining higher levels of language and literacy learning. Directive scaffolds parallel the direct instruction or skills-emphasis model of instruction (Pressley, 1998; Pressley & McCormick, 1995). Direct teaching is a straightforward, explicit teaching technique. Supportive scaffolds are learner-centered instruction that value learning as a search for understanding, provide opportunities for responsive feedback, and view the educational process as occurring within a community of learners (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking 1999). Supportive scaffolds mirror Vygotskian theory that holds to the idea that what learners are able to do today with assistance within their ZPD, they will be able to do tomorrow independently (Vygotsky, 1962).

Collaborative Instructional Approaches

The basic form for instructional conversations integrates listening, speaking, reading, and writing as tools of inquiry. Instructional conversations, when organized by thematic units, include activation of background knowledge (Goldenberg & Patthey-Chavez, 1995), and support development of new educational concepts. Through collaborative conversations, students invest in their own learning, seeking out challenging concepts in order to “form, express, and exchange ideas in speech and writing” (Tharp & Gallimore, 1998, p. 23). Over the past three decades, there has been much research done on how peers influence one another’s learning. Teachers can allow for peer learning by using many different approaches such as cooperative reading and writing groups, conservation groups, questioning the author, and literature discussions (Webb & Palincsar, 1996).

Student Centered Instruction

According to Cuban (1984) in his book Teaching at the Turn of the Century, student-centered instruction existed in two forms. A practical form existed in one-room classrooms where students were permitted to work cooperatively, and there was tolerance of student movement due to conditions such as the lack of materials and an intuitively flexible teacher. Educational reform brought about by the work of people like John Dewey, Edward Sheldon and Francis Parker was responsible for the second form where the child was the focus of instruction. The label “object teaching” concentrated upon the experiences of children included language in order to develop their powers of reasoning.

In a more current study, Eliciting Student Thinking in Elementary School Mathematics Classrooms, Franke (2007) and colleagues examined details of teacher practice that support students as they attempt to make their mathematical thinking explicit. They did this by looking at the types of questions teachers ask and the responses students gave. The types of questions included general questions, specific questions, probing sequence of specific questions, and leading questions. By encouraging students to think out loud, teachers can use what they learn to inform their teaching and students can help each other by sharing strategies. Through description, explanation, and justification of one’s thinking, students are able to internalize principles or discover areas of misunderstanding. Teachers can also help other students by revoicing the student shared strategy. In the conclusion of the report, Franke (2007) and colleagues noted that asking follow-up questions is necessary but not sufficient to insure that students articulate complete and correct strategies.

Social Organization

Integrating accountable talk into classroom discourse is related to the social organization of the classroom. Based on the original work of Mitzel (1960, as cited by Dunkin & Biddle, 1974) a model of teacher effectiveness was necessary in order to capture the interactions between teaching and learning. The traditional conception of the classroom indicates that the role of the teacher is at the front of the class, while the responsibility of the student is to answer when called upon by the teacher. This traditional structure and organization of the classroom assumes that the classroom life is simply made up of the teacher being the questioner and students answering those questions (Mehan, 1979). Students want to participate and be accountable for their own learning. When students are involved in student centered classrooms, the social organization of the classroom includes organizing their course of study and deciding the length of their study (Mehan, 1979). Therefore students and teachers are interconnected through verbal and nonverbal discourse such as hand raising to speak or a head nod to acknowledge who speaks next (Byers & Byers, 1972; Erikson & Shultz, 1977). Overall, “Teachers and students work in concert to create this organization” (Mehan, 1979, p. 10).

Initiation-Reply-Evaluation Pattern (IRE)

It is important to notice the patterns in teacher-student interactions in order to enhance accountable talk in the classroom. Teachers can reflect on their own discourse practices to inform themselves as to how information is delivered to and practiced by students. In a seminal study on classroom discourse, Mehan (1979) suggested that the classroom interaction was lost in the Flander’s system of tabulation; therefore, Mehan (1979) observed interaction between the student and teacher through initiations, replies, and evaluations (IRE) during the opening and conducting of the lesson. The initiations produced an answer and immediately after a reply, Mehan (1979) found that the teachers positively or negatively evaluated the reply of the student. His findings suggest that evaluation plays a significant role in instructional discourse. Students, alongside teachers, must be accountable to the learning community, accountable to accurate knowledge, and accountable to rigorous thinking. This type of accountability will not happen if students simply participate in the initiate-reply-evaluate sequence of a traditional classroom.

Discourse in Peer Led Discussions

Eeds and Wells (1989) conducted a different study with multiple groups that focused on the students and their conversations with peers, rather than the questions put forth by the educator in scheduled small groups. “According to Vygotsky, the internal development processes that are necessary for learning are only able to develop when children are interacting with people in their environment and in cooperation with their peers” (as cited in Eeds & Wells, 1989, p. 6). Using novice teachers, heterogeneous literature study groups, and various texts, researchers in each group were able to observe the transformation as students shifted away from the traditional IRE pattern and became an integral part of a group discussion centered on a particular text. Students took risks and openly shared their reactions the literature evoked while reading.

Clearly, formats which go beyond traditional question/response interaction and allow students to initiate talk or engage in more autonomous talk are necessary if students are to learn how to do certain things with words—make polite requests, show interest, explain their needs, decide what to talk about, or change topics.” (Knutson, 2001, p. 1141).

Suggestive Feedback

“There is no assumptions that there is one single correct answer or one single way to apply a strategy” (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983, p. 37). A variation in response is expected and should be encouraged. Rather than providing corrective feedback in which the teacher gives the correct answer or strategy when a student fails, a teacher should provide suggestive feedback. In this model, a teacher would praise the student for applying parts of the strategy correctly and encourages the student to examine other strategies that could be used to attack the problem. This type of feedback would help students to learn how to successfully apply multiple strategies to the same problem, which would allow the students to learn that every answer can be found in a variety of ways. Through monitored and student initiated conversations, the students were praised and the teacher modeled another question (Palincsar & Brown, 1986). Providing students with suggestive feedback and times to participate in conversations allows students to become more active participants so they can construct meaning and improve their understanding.

Guided Practice

Guided practice works together with reciprocal teaching in that the teacher and students are working together with the single goal of understanding the text. Through using guided practice and a gradual release of responsibility, the teacher is able to explicitly teach reading strategies and appropriate ways to independently apply such strategies. As time goes on, the teacher slowly steps back and allows the students to practice these strategies with guidance and support. This element is also the most critical stage (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983). Finally, the students are expected to use these strategies independently across multiple texts. An element of guided practice is similar to reciprocal teaching in that the students are taking on the role of the teacher, but the teacher is still there to switch roles and to monitor student progress and provide guidance.


Our study is informed by the above research and in particular connects to the work of Eeds and Wells (1989) as it monitors the interactions between students with their peers and students with the teacher. The use of accountable talk in a group discussion across content areas may lead to the fading of the teacher as the only facilitator and eventually allowing students to manage their own discussions with meaningful and relevant contributions. This allows students to take ownership of their learning and be accountable to their community, acquire accurate knowledge and rigorous thinking.  This study seeks to examine how teachers can create a culture in which student discussion drives the learning.  More specifically our research questions include:

  1. How do selected interventions impact student accountable talk?
  2. How can we incorporate student accountable across content areas?


This qualitative study considered what happened when teachers planned for and provided explicit modeling and instruction of accountable talk. The intervention consisted of increasingly integrating accountable talk across content areas such as reading, writing, math, science, and social studies throughout the day. Teachers planned for this discourse to occur in the lessons where talk moves, as described by Wolf, Crosson, & Resnick (2006) were modeled in the areas of accountability to the learning community, accountability to accurate knowledge, and accountability to rigorous thinking. The components that were measured were teacher perspective on integration of accountable talk and student use of conversation starters. Baseline data was collected and additional data was analyzed to measure growth over time.

Research Subjects

Opportunistic or emergent sampling was employed to select the participants; this involved about 360 students spanning three grade levels including kindergarten, first grade, and second grade as well as library media.  Participants were drawn from five different schools representing urban and suburban contexts. Teachers served in the role of participant observers in their respective classes and in one instance the researcher transitioned from participant observer to solely an observer when a student teacher assumed responsibility for her classroom (table 1).

Table 1

Students at the primary level were chosen to be the sample because of the shifts in the Common Core and the importance of speaking and listening to prepare students for college and career readiness. As teachers of children at the primary level, our goal was discover ways to establish a foundation for accountable talk. Students were expected to elaborate, justify, clarify, and support ideas with relevant details and examples from text, personal, or real world experiences across all content areas.  

Data Collection Process and Analysis

Baseline Data. Before starting our research, we wanted to complete a self-assessment to get baseline data in order to determine what areas we needed to work on. In order to do this, we tallied each time we allowed for accountable talk during the academic day by reflecting on our anecdotal notes. Researchers met weekly and conducted ongoing analysis of the effective implementation of talk move or strategies in which we would modify our understandings and identify patterns across classrooms.

To ensure data collection consistency across classrooms, researchers discussed and clarified the strategy for prompting to ensure that teachers were only tallying when they had to prompt students based on their behavior. Additionally, more categories of talk moves emerged in our ongoing analysis as we discovered students using other talk move stems that might not be on our tally sheet but still required rigorous thinking.  We collected data using various forms throughout the eight weeks. Data sources included anecdotal notes, talk moves and strategies checklist.

Anecdotal Notes Template. Our instrument to obtain information was primarily the field notes (see Figure 1) recorded by each researcher individually. We created the field notes organizer based on our two focus questions. When the researcher was a participant observer, they made small notes on post-its to keep track of their reflections during the teaching and then transferred those thoughts onto the field notes in a more extensive reflection at the end of the school day in all content areas. Some researchers became non-participants throughout the study, therefore these researchers kept field notes through the duration of the lessons that provided opportunities for accountable talk. Anecdotal notes were also taken when reviewing checklist data. These notes were analyzed in order to recognize any themes within the study.

Math Observations:
Reading Observations:
Writing Observations:
Science/Social Studies Observations:

Figure1: Anecdotal Notes Template

Talk Moves Checklist. A Talk Moves checklist (See Figure 2) was adapted from Accountable Talk in Reading Comprehension Instruction, (Wolf, Crosson, & Resnick, 2006). The Talk Moves checklist recorded the teacher/student accountability to the learning community, accountability to accurate knowledge, and accountability to rigorous thinking during the lesson. This checklist provided researchers with specific sentence stems for teacher linking and student responses.

Strategies Checklist. A strategies checklist (See Figure 3) was compiled from ideas and concepts that were found in research articles that support best practice. The checklist was designed to track teaching strategies used by the researchers, such as, planning, wait time, visuals, pairing for success, monitoring for accountable talk, and teacher prompting. These strategies were tallied based on number of times used in each subject area.

Plan-ning Wait Time

(10-15 sec)


(Anchor Charts)

Pairing for Success Monitoring for Accountable Talk Teacher Prompting





Figure 3: Strategies Checklist

Preliminary Findings

After selecting our topic it was important to determine our baseline data. This data would provide the researchers with valuable information as far as the areas in which to increase instruction and to promote accountable talk. In order to do this, the researchers tallied each time they provided an opportunity for accountable talk. They also took anecdotal notes on anything they noticed or found relevant while teaching. We discovered how little we actually allowed for students to be discussing their thoughts and learning. Through this individual and group self-assessment, it was noted that accountable talk does not come naturally into a lesson.  According to the baseline data, accountable talk was included solely during interactive read alouds. We, as teachers, were only asking for rigorous thinking during guided reading groups or in the literacy block. Across all classrooms in this study, accountable talk did not occur in other content areas as it was not planned for in the lessons.

Turn and talk is one activity that has been included in the literacy block in the k-2 classrooms of this study. Turn and talk was used but behaviors and how to talk were not explicitly modeled or discussed. The teachers stayed in the teaching chair and listened from afar and would have students individually share what they had shared with their partner. As the teachers observed this activity, it was noted that some students quickly turned to the person next to them while others were unwilling to turn and talk to the person next to them. The teachers also noticed that students didn’t always understand what they were being asked to discuss or just were off task.

Data showed there was very little time set aside for the students to turn and talk to a partner or to work with their peers to gain understanding of a text. The average time allotted for the reading mini lesson was approximately 25 minutes. During the mini lessons teachers spent about twenty minutes or more talking. This means that for at least 50% of the lesson the students were sitting passively and were not fully engaged in their learning. The teacher did not ask students to support their ideas with evidence based on the text. Instead a question was posed and a student was called on to answer. In a typical lesson, only six to seven students were called upon. This perpetuated the initiate, reply, and evaluate (IRE) pattern of teacher and student interactions. We were clearly stuck in the pattern of asking a question of students in the whole group setting and responding to that student directly to confirm that their answer was correct or incorrect. We were not using teacher linking or teacher moves to help students talk to each other or helping students develop their own thinking. In general, teachers were dominating the talk in the classroom. Much of the time spent with students consisted of students listening to instruction, evaluation, and redirection. Because we were not purposely planning accountable talk, we were constantly falling back into the IRE pattern. While there were anchor charts posted and referred to in the classroom, they did not always encompass expectations or sentence stems for student discourse. It really became another decoration on the wall.

The importance of this preliminary data set the stage for the rest of the study. In our ongoing and formal analysis of the data, there were individual findings as well as five key findings across contexts.  


This study took place in 5 separate classrooms spanning grades k-2.  Three suburban and two urban settings were included in this study.  It is important to note that there were four grade level classrooms and a library media specialist that serviced students across grades k-2.  While each of the classrooms were in different districts, there were some similarities in the level of support, structure of content area lessons, and individual student needs in the classroom (see table 2).


Over the course of the eight week study, consistent themes were found in the triangulation of data across settings. The first theme was that gradual release of responsibility gave the teachers a framework in which to purposefully plan for accountable talk across all content areas. The lesson plan made use of the original framework of “I do”, “we do”, and “you do”. We then incorporated “you do together” component as part of the gradual release of responsibility in the workshop model. The “you do together” aspect of the lesson incorporated the accountable talk between the students before they engaged in independent practice. This purposeful planning made accountable talk an imperative part of the lesson development and implementation. As we made the time for accountable talk, the student participation increased which was documented on the talk moves checklist. It was also noticed in the field notes and strategy checklist results that fewer behaviors needed to be addressed and students asked fewer questions during the independent practice as their partner talk was facilitated by teachers before they worked on their own.

Furthermore, teachers reflected that it was apparent that when they did not purposefully plan for accountable talk as there was limited student participation during the lesson. All teachers across settings commented that it was very easy to fall back into the IRE pattern of questioning when the “you do together” was not a part of the lesson plan or when the teacher felt pressed for time in the curriculum.

Alongside purposefully planning the integration of accountable talk in the workshop model or read aloud format, teachers reflected on the importance of selecting rich literature to facilitate discourse.  Choosing a rich text led teachers to purposefully plan more thoughtful questions.  Using literature that lends itself to deeper discussions, allowed the academic discourse to be more powerful because it provided opportunities for students to share various perspectives and opinions.  Thus, student engagement increased as they explored their own positions and had consistent opportunities to respond to others’ thinking through linking statements.   

The second theme across contexts was that explicit modeling was a necessary scaffold to support accountable talk in their classroom.  Students needed to see conversational behaviors and sentence stems modeled in order to appropriately engage in meaningful discourse. When students were able to see how the conversations should look and sound by teacher modeling of the appropriate behaviors and sentence stems, these behaviors transferred into the student conversations throughout all content areas. This transfer of application into other content areas was attributed to explicitly teaching students not only how to be a speaker, but how to respond as a listener.  This fostered student accountability to the community as they were building on one another’s ideas. Students became active listeners to the speaker in order to respond to their ideas with sentence stems such as “I agree/disagree with __because__” or “I agree with what you said, but I want to add that ____.”

Alongside explicit modeling, the teachers utilized anchor charts to support student learning and referred to them across content areas. The more that we incorporated anchor charts and referred to them throughout the lesson as well as during the day, the more the students used them in their conversations. Students would often look at the behavioral expectations and sentence stems posted to frame their academic discourse. When anchor charts were not provided during turn and talk conversations, students were rarely on topic and the conversations were short lived. In contrast, when anchor charts were provided it was noted in the field notes that the conversations stayed on topic as students asked clarifying questions or extended one another’s thinking. We attributed this positive change to explicit modeling and to the use of a visual reminder of the expected sentence stems provided on the anchor chart.

Also as we became accountable to the community by linking ideas, the students followed suit and increased their linking of ideas. It appears that this occurred because students were hearing the linking of ideas modeled by the teachers in the prompts and questions posed, and they were also provided with sentence stems on the anchor charts for use in conversations with peers.

The anchor chart not only held benefits for students, but were also held advantages for the teachers.  We had the talk moves checklist close by during whole and small group lessons. These sentence stems and questions guided us to be accountable to the community, accountable for accurate knowledge, and rigorous thinking of students. It was observed by all teachers that the more we used the sentence stems on our mini anchor charts, the more comfortable we felt using them. As the weeks progressed, the talk move sentence stems became a part of our teacher discourse and didn’t feel as forced or unnatural.

Overall, the gradual release of responsibility, anchor charts, and explicit modeling of behaviors and sentence stems enhanced student discourse in the classroom. However, it is important to note that daily reflection of one’s practice aided the teachers in the implementation of accountable talk across content areas. Collecting data through the anecdotal notes and talk moves checklist was helpful in allowing time to concentrate on what the teacher was doing in the classroom and its impact on the students. Taking that time each day to reflect and generate ideas on how to improve for the next day was beneficial to teaching and learning, as it often times surrounded the idea that everything needed to be purposefully planned and modeled frequently.  

Summary Findings

In our ongoing and formal analysis of the data we found the following five key findings across all contexts:  

  • Social discourse doesn’t just happen
  • Gradual release of responsibility allows students to build independence through facilitating accountable talk
  • Effective strategies can be used not only to teach content but student discourse
  • Conscious planning is integral in providing authentic opportunities for student discourse
  • Accountable talk builds a community of trust and responsibility for accurate knowledge and rigorous thinking
First Realization: Student Discourse Doesn’t “Just Happen”

As the researchers looked closely at the common core speaking and listening standards, discussions centered on our common findings in the primary grades. As a whole, we found that students do not come into a grade level just knowing how to respectfully have academic discourse. From the very beginning they need lots of explicit modeling ranging from how to start, continue, and end conversations.  The physical set-up of the classroom, the use of  strategies such as teacher modeling, fish bowl activities, and videotaping so students can see what good academic discourse looks like and sounds like are some of the effective ways to support student discourse. In order to build student confidence it was critical that all students’ thoughts were validated. As teacher researchers did this, their students felt safe in discussing their ideas.

Second Realization: Gradual Release of Responsibility

One theme that was found across contexts through ongoing analysis and triangulation of the data sources is that gradual release of responsibility allowed the students to build independence through facilitating accountable talk.  When purposefully planning for lessons the teacher researchers followed the gradual release of responsibility where the teacher models their thinking to solve or work through a concept (“I do”). Then the students actively participate in the thinking and conceptual understanding alongside the teacher (“we do”). The teacher then incorporated partner work where students practiced the skill/concept, but the teacher became the facilitator and listened into conversations (“you do together”). This is where many anchor charts were used to encourage accountable talk and sentence stems to support academic discourse. Finally, the students were sent off to independently practice (“you do”).

Organizing and structuring lessons with the gradual release of responsibility in mind aided teacher researchers to have a foundation and a conscious space to include accountable talk across content areas.  As the teacher researchers gradually released responsibility it was noticed in the weekly ongoing analysis that prompting for student behavior decreased as the explicit modeling through the gradual release increased. Teacher researchers were able to facilitate and check for understanding during the “you do together” which allowed the teacher researchers to identify students who needed more support before the independent practices.  Therefore, students felt more confident about the content before working independently since they had the “you do together” with teacher facilitation to ensure success before they were on their own.  Alongside fostering independence in students, the gradual release of responsibility embedded accountable talk in the lessons.  This allowed students more exposure and practice with academic discourse.  Students were actively engaged in the “you do together” portion of the lesson which gave them more opportunities to explore and explain their thinking to a peer.  As students became more comfortable with academic discourse through the gradual release, they learned how to respond to and respect multiple perspectives that may be similar or different than their own.  This fostered the importance that everyone’s voice is important and each idea is valued.  Overall the gradual release of responsibility gave teacher researchers a framework to make accountable talk a priority in the classroom, which in turn gave students the opportunity to take ownership of their learning.

Third Realization: Effective Strategies

While the strategies the teacher researchers used during the research were not new, all agreed they were important to the success of encouraging academic discourse among the students.  As the study progressed, it was found that anchor charts and visuals were necessary to help reinforce behaviors conducive to rich conversations.  Depending on the grade level, the charts were designed to meet the needs of the students with lots of visuals at the kindergarten level and an increasing amount of text as the grade level went up.  It was also found that displaying the sentence stems around the room and even putting them in the middle of a table while the students met, encouraged them to begin their conversations and respond to their group members.  To encourage all students to participate and have enough time to think about their responses, wait time was another strategy on which the teacher researchers focused.  One of the most important things we needed to do was to plan for the academic conversations to occur.  Choosing the right book that lends itself to higher order questions during the reading lesson and planning where to stop to allow for the students to pair and share was key. Finally, teacher prompting for the behaviors being encouraged as well as monitoring for accountable talk was a shift the teacher researchers had to consciously focus on in order to bring about the changes they were hoping to elicit in themselves as teachers and in their students.

Fourth Realization: Conscious Planning and Self-Assessment

The fourth realization researchers made was the conscious planning for student discourse and self-assessment.  A tip all researchers found to be helpful is to be purposeful in your pairing of partnerships. We suggest that teachers use their knowledge of students to pair them up into partners. Depending on the activity, teachers might consider partnering students at different levels, while other activities might call for partnering students at the same level.  Plan ahead and have these groupings in mind before teaching. Planning this ahead of time will also help with behavior management.  Make discourse a priority in your planning. If you don’t plan for it, it will not occur or will not occur as smoothly.  Start with a content area with which you are comfortable. The classroom teachers found the language arts block to be the best area to start. Slowly, the researchers introduced accountable talk in the other content areas.  Do not let the IRE pattern sneak up on you! It’s very easy to slip back into this pattern. Self-assessing through the use of checklists and anecdotal notes allowed all researchers the ability to reflect daily and guide future purposeful planning for student discourse.  Celebrate your successes often and use what didn’t go so well as a learning tool.

Fifth Realization: Community of Trust and Responsibility

It is important to understand that accountable talk provides many benefits to the teacher and the learners, including the culture of respectful and responsible students. The use of polite sentence stems and the frequent practice of respectful dialogue help to shape the community created in the classroom. This community becomes filled with students that take ownership of their learning and are not afraid to take risks in the classroom. Students feel more comfortable trying a new concept or expressing themselves publicly. They have more to contribute to the classroom discussion and want to share their thoughts and ideas with peers. By allowing for this type of student dialogue, students are learning how to agree and respectfully disagree with varying viewpoints.

In order for this community to flourish, we suggest that teachers listen more attentively to their students. The students have a voice and what they have to say is important. As teachers, we pride ourselves on what we are able to communicate to our students, but it is unlikely that we listen to everything they want to share. Since all aspects of accountable talk should be modeled, it is critical to keep in mind that modeling the listening component is just as important as the sharing.


Incorporating accountable talk across content areas in k-2 classrooms supported the teacher in moving away from the IRE pattern. This in turn developed students who were more engaged and willing to take ownership of their own learning. Across all classrooms, students and teachers made progress in adapting and internalizing accountable talk across content areas. As teacher talk moves increased in linking ideas, ensuring accountability for accurate knowledge, providing information, and asking questions that invite rigorous thinking, student talk moves increased as well. The more the teacher used visual charts, sentence stems, and explicit modeling of academic discourse, teacher prompting for on task behaviors decreased over the eight week period. Purposeful planning was integral to our success in promoting accountable in our classrooms. Preparation of higher order questioning resulted in meaningful student-led conversations. Additionally, we attribute our successful implementation of accountable talk in our classrooms to the presence of wait time paired with less teacher talk.  Overall, strategies such as planning, wait time, visuals, pairing for success, monitoring, and explicit modeling alongside talk moves (sentence stems) enhanced student discourse.  Because this research project demanded a major shift which involved decreasing the amount of teacher talk and increasing the amount of student talk, the weekly group meetings helped to support these shifts. As we openly shared our successes and failures we were able to give each other ideas from week-to-week. In the end, we considered the time we had to reflect and collaborate was key to the success of our work.  


In light of the results of this study we have the following recommendations for educators to incorporate accountable talk in the classroom. It is important to be cognizant of the amount of teacher talk versus student talk that is occurring in your classroom. For example, check the clock at the beginning and end of your teacher talk. Are you allowing students to discover concepts through peer discussions? We suggest that teachers make accountable talk a priority by embedding it into the lessons. Diligently planning for accountable talk and including the steps of gradual release of responsibility (I do, we do, you do together, and you do) is crucial to success. This will provide a framework for your thinking and will make accountable talk manageable in the classroom. We encourage teachers to willingly give up control in order to let your students lead the conversation and build on each other’s ideas. This will take time and patience from both the teacher and students. Take one subject at a time and choose a content area you are most comfortable in to begin. As you begin, realize teachers have a role in accountable talk as a facilitator. It is beneficial to have the talk moves chart readily available to be mindful of the ways in which we can guide and support students in student-led conversations. To enhance student discourse, post sentence stems around the room and refer to them before, during, and after lessons. Anchor charts with sentence stems are to be actively used as teaching tools and are not merely decorations. At the conclusion of your day, reflect upon your own teaching. This can be done by having literacy coaches observe your teaching, or perhaps by videotaping or audio taping your lessons for your personal review. Opportunities for group self-reflection are key to your success, so if possible, work with your grade level team and plan weekly times to share insights and ideas. The strongest environment for developing accountable talk in the classroom is a school-wide initiative with supports in place to model and guide teachers through the process. This will promote common language and expectations vertically across all the grade levels. Schools should be places of rich learning and rich talk.


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About the Authors:


Kathleen Flaherty recently retired from Hop Brook Elementary School in Naugatuck where she taught library media and reading.  She received her bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education in 2006 and her Masters in Reading and Language Arts in 2013 from Central Connecticut State University.  She now lives in Maryville Tennessee where she plans to continue her career as a teacher of reading.

Monique Golden second grade teacher in East Hartford, CT. I have been teaching in the district since January 2013. I have taught in grades 1, 2 and 5. I received my Master’s degree in reading and language arts at CCSU in 2014.  I enjoy teaching students the joys that come from reading! 

Amanda Lynch graduated with her degree in education in 2009 from Central Connecticut State University. She completed her masters in Reading at Central Connecticut in 2015. She currently teaches kindergarten in Plainville and has been there for the past 5 years.

Jasmine Rudd currently teaches second grade in Gwinnett County, Georgia. She received her Masters degree in Reading and Language Arts at CCSU. She is also in the process of going back to school to further her education and better serve students in her community.

Alicia Wetherbee is currently a K-5 reading consultant in the Manchester Public School System. Previously she taught first, second, and fourth grade.  Alicia graduated with her Masters in Remedial Reading from CCSU and is currently enrolled in CCSU’s doctoral program for educational leadership.

Structural Possibilities of Informational Texts

by Lynne R. Dorfman and Rose Cappelli

Writing is used across the day to make thinking visible and deepen understanding of complex concepts. It is a way for students to think, reflect on their learning, and find the best way to organize their thoughts in order to be able to share them effectively with others. When we write we often are trying to incorporate new

learning into existing schema. The process of planning, drafting, revising, editing, and rewriting gives our students the time they need to accommodate new knowledge, classifying it in a way that will help their brain remember, store, and retrieve it. Authors help their readers do all these things by intentionally choosing the appropriate organizational structures to frame their writing. Writers and readers co-construct knowledge, discovering the writing and reading processes that work for them to create and comprehend informational texts.

A Rationale for Informational Writing Across the Curriculum

In their book Pathways to the Common Core Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman discuss this process as well as the importance of being able to use it across the day.

“…not only will they [writers] need to do all this within a writing workshop,

where the focus is on developing skills as writers, but they’ll also have to

transfer these skills to the content areas doing this work on the run, quickly,

in the service of discipline-based learning. (p. 143).

We use informational writing across the curriculum to answer essential questions or offer an explanation, as well as to examine events and processes that affect our lives. Informational writing is much more than creating animal or state reports. In the age of Common Core, our thinking must evolve to include new approaches for delivering information that a target audience wants to read. The Common Core recognizes the need for a writing process, but also challenges writers to look beyond the ordinary and find opportunities for experimenting with new organizational scaffolds.

Common Core Writing Anchor 5 states:

Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach. (CCSS 2010, 18)

Today through the use of the internet we have information at our fingertips. Print is everywhere. But what makes it interesting? What makes a reader want to look further? Writers need to find unique ways of presenting information that will invite participation and transaction with text.

Organizational Scaffolds in Informational Writing

By introducing different scaffolds throughout a semester or school year, teachers can help students make informed decisions about what organizational global structure (scaffold) would work best for any given piece. Within the informational text students may also make use of many organizational patterns such as problem/solution, cause/effect, compare/contrast, time sequencing, and definition/description. These patterns can change from one paragraph to the next.

“The Common Core asks teachers and students to turn informational texts – their own and those written by others – inside out so as to study the designs that undergird the texts, noting the parts and the ways that the different parts have been brought together.” (Calkins et. al, 147).  By using a mentor text and engaging in a close read, students can discover how an author puts a text together. It’s like watching a building being raised and seeing the underlying structure that supports the walls, windows, doors, and roof. The organizational scaffold that students can discover will inform their decisions about how they organize their writing in a meaningful, logical way.

The Repeated Introductory Phrase

“When I was young in the mountains…” is the dependent clause that begins many pages of author Cynthia Rylant’s children’s book, also the title of her well known memoir.  After the first read to simply enjoy the wonderful words and images that appear in this text, a reader will notice that this clause only starts a sentence that begins a new vignette.  Each slice of life – whether it is about Grandfather returning from a day in the coal mines; dinner and a trip to the outhouse; walking to the swimming hole; or pumping water, heating it, and taking a bath – each tiny story begins with this phrase. Readers can understand that the writer is sending a clear message to expect a new facet of life in Appalachia.

Rylant uses a repeated refrain in her book In November. Consider these words:

In November, some birds move away and some birds stay. The air is

full of good-byes and well-wishes. The birds who are leaving look very serious.

We are often too quick to introduce students to a scaffold and have them try it out without first reflecting on the author’s intended purpose. We find students writing their versions of Rylant’s text using the repeated introductory phrase to begin each sentence. Instead, if we spend time examining the text with students, we can help them discover that Rylant only uses the phrase “In November…” to introduce a new idea. The sentences that do not use the phrase provide details. This text helps students understand that it’s not about the number of ideas in a text, but rather how each idea is developed through elaboration – examples, description, explanations, and anecdotes.

The repeated introductory phrase is a scaffold that is used by many authors. In Up North at the Cabin, Marsha Wilson Chall strings together a series of vignettes that reveal something about herself through her childhood memories of summers spent on a lake.

Up north at the cabin, I am a smart angler. Grandpa tries pink spinners,

leeches, and dragonflies – but I know what fish like. I bait my hook with

peanut-butter-and-worm sandwiches, then jig my line and wait.

Eileen Spinelli moves the reader through an autumn day in I Know It’s Autumn. With each new time period we read, “I know it’s autumn when…”

In both Miss Moore Thought Otherwise by Jan Pinborough and The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins, picture book biographies, the authors use a repeated sentence or variation of it to show the forward thinking of the women – Anne Caroll Moore and Kate Sessions.

Unique Constructions Can Be Imitated

How to Be by Lisa Brown presents a unique scaffold that can be used at all grade levels across the curriculum. Students will discover that the text is written like an essay or poem of advice. Each sentence begins with a verb that illustrates a unique quality about the subject. A similar scaffold can be found in “Things to Do If You Are a Pencil” by Elaine Magliaro and “Things to Do If You Are the Sun” by Bobbi Katz. These poems can be found in Falling Down the Page: A Book of List Poems edited by Georgia Heard.

Taylor, a first grade student, initially wrote a “How to Be” piece about herself and was able to transfer the use of the scaffold to write about whales in a science unit later that same year.

“How to Be Taylor”

  • Eat ice-cream.
  • Play with your dolls.
  • Like to watch Cartoon Network.
  • Pretend to be able to see animals underwater.
  • Float on your back.
  • That’s how to be Taylor!


“How to Be a Whale”

  • Eat krill.
  • Play, jump, and leap in the water.
  • Behave like an acrobat.
  • Communicate with clicks.
  • Migrate to look for food.
  • That’s how to be a whale!

You can see that Taylor was able to find the right verb to communicate her ideas and understanding about whales. From her writing we can learn what she thinks is important about whales (and about herself).

Questions to Focus the Reader

All good research uses a central or essential question that peaks the curiosity of the researcher. A question scaffold will help students find out what they want to know about instead of finding the answers to questions their teachers may pose. There are several variations to a question scaffold. Susan Stockdale uses a basic question-answer scaffold around a central theme in her book Nature’s Paintbrush: The Patterns and Colors Around You. Her first question, “Have you ever noticed the patterns and colors on plants and animals?” serves as an introduction for her text. In subsequent pages she asks a related question and provides a concise answer.

In Looking Closely Inside the Garden, Frank Serafini uses a series of close-up photographs of nature to help students imagine what they are seeing. His central question, What do you see? Is followed by two possibilities that peak curiosity.

Look very closely.

What do you see?

A stained glass window?

A jigsaw puzzle?

The final question, What could it be? is followed by the answer and a detailed explanation on the following page. In this example the answer is a monarch butterfly. Steve Jenkins uses the question format in his book Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do. This book explores unusual physical animal characteristics. Each question is posed in a letter format and answered in first person prose by the animal:

Dear sun bear:

Why is your tongue so long?

I love to eat ants and termites. With my long tongue, I can reach into their nests

and slurp them up.

This interesting pairing of photography, art, and informational writing in both Serafini’s and Jenkins’ books provides a new approach that is highly motivating for students who consider themselves artists and appreciate an additional lens to add to their writing endeavors. Like scientists, students can pose questions and observe the world around them to notice something extraordinary.

In one fifth grade classroom students were examining books by Sneed B. Collard III in preparation for an author visit. In thinking about the kind of structure Collard uses to deliver information, the students discovered that in many of Collard’s books there is an underlying question that leads to a general observation and focus. For example, in Leaving Home, Collard explores how the young of different animal species leave the parents.

Sooner or later, we all leave home.

Some of us walk.

Some of us crawl.

Some of us fly.

And some of us swim.

The book continues in this manner, and on each page there is a paragraph that gives an example of an animal that behaves in that manner accompanied by a detailed explanation. He uses this same structure in some of his other books such as Teeth, Wings, and Animals Asleep. The students also looked at books by other authors who use this type of structure including Melissa Stewart’s A Place for Birds, A Place for Butterflies, and A Place for Frogs and Dianna Hutts Aston’s A Seed Is Sleepy, An Egg Is Quiet, and A Butterfly Is Patient.

The students decided that perhaps they could use these books as mentor texts and create a class book that uses the same structure. As Collard did in Leaving Home, they wanted to explore something that was common to all animals. The subject of food came up, and through discussion they agreed that their research would focus on what and how animals eat. First, they did a lot of reading in books and on the internet. Some had a particular animal in mind, while others were more open in their approach. The students discovered that some animals eat alone, while others eat in groups and that some animals swallow their food, while others chew. They discussed all of their findings in small groups as well as whole group, then each student decided on what page they would write for their class book, All Animals Eat, imitating the structure of Collard’s Leaving Home – a general statement with an example and a paragraph of explanation.

One of the fifth grade Common Core State Standards for informational writing asks students to provide a general observation and focus for a topic, develop it with facts and ideas, and provide a conclusion (20). Without realizing it, this fifth grade class was working towards meeting that important standard.

Persona Writing: Delivering Information Through Many Voices

Sometimes an author chooses to organize an informational text in the many voices of an era – a particular time and place of importance or interest. Persona writing can establish an intimacy with the reader almost immediately. In Colonial Voices: Hear Them Speak, Kay Winters offers a collection of poems in the many voices of the Boston colonists that lived during the time of the American Revolution. She did not choose to represent famous people. Instead, her voices represent ordinary people and their various occupations written as first person accounts – the clockmaker, the tavern keeper, the milliner, etc. From her poems we get an inside view of both Loyalist and Patriot perspectives. Winters includes additional information about the various occupations as historical notes at the back of her book. She repeats this structure in other books such as Voices of Ancient Egypt and Voices from the Oregon Trail. Students may notice that often authors will repeat an organizational structure that works well for them. When a writer discovers the best organizational scaffold for a text, he will also know that he has found a way to keep his topic fresh and unique for his readers.

Persona writing for informational texts can take many forms. Molly Bang writes in the voice of our sun in her book My Light, and G. Brian Karas writes in the voice of the ocean in Atlantic. Poets such as Douglas Florian and Joyce Sidman use this persona structure, too, to impart information in an interesting way. Students can find ways to use the scaffold in Turn of the Century: Eleven Centuries of Children and Change by Ellen Jackson. In this book Jackson writes in the persona of eleven children from centuries ranging from 1000 A.D. to 2000 A.D. She shows us a day in the life of different children and couples this short narrative with some facts about life during that century. For example, we learn that Alice, a ten-year-old chamber maid living in the year 1400, was not able to read or write. In the list of facts about the year 1400, we learn that girls as well as boys were sent out to work at an early age.

Persona writing can be used across the curriculum. Instead of writing the “traditional” president reports, students could imitate the organizational structure from Turn of the Century to write in the voice of the president they are researching. They might choose to write in the president’s voice as a child, a young adult, and as the nation’s president. The list of facts could represent key events that happened in the country or around the world during the time in which the president lived or lives. In science, students could become various plants or animals from the rainforest and describe their place in the ecosystem. The facts could include information about how serious the threat of extinction is for each plant or animal and detailed information about its actual size and location in the world.

Final Thoughts

By studying mentor texts students can gain proficiency and acquire a multitude of organizational scaffolds to help them synthesize information from complex texts and make it their own. The scaffold is like the glue that holds everything together. Scaffolds enable students to think and write about information and use their writing processes and what they know about good writing to convey their ideas to a target audience.

The Common Core State Standards brought attention to informational writing. The standards ask students to put forth the same energy and stylistic consideration for composing informational writing as they do for narrative writing. But as teachers, we can’t let standards be the focus of our writing instruction and practices.  In his book In the Best Interest of Students, Kelly Gallagher reminds us that in this climate of standards- based instruction, it is important to keep best practice in the foreground of writing instruction.

The teaching of writing should never be seen as an activity to be

“fit in” around the standards. Writing instruction should be a

nonnegotiable, core value in any classroom, and teachers should not

have to be concerned with fitting it in. The question, “How do you fit in

writing instruction around the new standards?” is the wrong question.

The correct question should be, “How do you fit in all of the standards

around your writing instruction?” (7)

Teaching students about organizational scaffolds can go a long way toward helping students deliver information to their readers in unique and powerful ways. This kind of teaching requires a shift in thinking away from using the five paragraph essay for every informational piece we write. Studying global structures will provide both choice and challenge, two ingredients for effective instruction and meaningful, lasting learning. When we create classroom environments that include high-quality mentor texts and allow students to participate in an inquiry approach, they can discover new ways to organize their writing across the content areas.

We know that students become better writers of nonfiction

because they try out new things and take responsible risks (try

or imitate the writing techniques in mentor texts that they are

capable of doing with a little practice and guidance). It is only

through risk taking and experimentation that our writers will

continue to grow and become better writers tomorrow than

they are today (Dorfman and Cappelli, 5).



Aston, D. H. (2006). An egg is quiet. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.


________________. (2011). A butterfly is patient. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books


________________. (2014). A seed is sleepy. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.


Bang, M. (2004). My light.  New York: Scholastic.


Brown, L. (2006). How to be. New York: HarperCollins.


Calkins, L., Ehrenworth, M., & Lehman, L. (2012). Pathways to the common core.

Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


Chall, M. W. (1992). Up north at the cabin. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc.


Collard III, S. B. (2001). Wings. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.


_______________. (2002). Leaving home. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books

for Young Readers.


_______________. (2004). Animals Asleep. New York: Houghton Mifflin Books for



_______________. (2008). Teeth. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.


Dorfman, L. R., & Cappelli, R. (2009). Nonfiction mentor texts: Teaching information

writing through children’s literature, K-8. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.


Gallagher, K. (2015). In the best interest of students: Staying true to what works in the

ELA classroom. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.


Hopkins, H. J. (2013). The tree lady: The true story of how one tree-loving woman

changed a city forever. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Jackson, E. (1998). Turn of the century: Eleven centuries of children and change.

Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.


Jenkins, S. (2014). Creature features: 25 animals explain why they look the way they

  1. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers.


Karas, G. B. (2002). Atlantic. New York: Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers.


Katz, B. (2009). “Things to do If you are the sun.” In Falling down the page: A book of

list poems, ed. Georgia Heard. New York: Roaring Book Press.


Magliaro, E. (2009). “Things to do if you are a pencil.” In Falling down the page: A book

of list poems, ed. Georgia Heard. New York: Roaring Book Press.


National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) & Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). (2010). Common core state standards for English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.

Washington, DC: NGA Center and CCSSO.


Pinborough, J. (2013). Miss moore thought otherwise: How anne carroll moore created

libraries for children. New York: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.


Rylant, C. (1993) When I was young in the mountains. New York: Puffin Books.


_____________. (2000). In november. New York: Harcourt, Inc.


Spinelli, E. (2004). I know it’s autumn. New York: Harper Collins.


Stewart, M. (2009). A place for birds. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.


_____________. (2010). A place for frogs. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.


_____________. (2011). A place for butterflies. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree.


Stockdale, S. (1999). Nature’s paintbrush: The patterns and colors around you. New

York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.


Winters, K. (2003). Voices of ancient egypt. Washington, DC: National Geographic.


__________.( 2008). Colonial voices: Hear them speak. New York: Penguin.


__________. (2014). Voices from the oregon trail. New York: Penguin.

About the authors:

Rose Cappelli is an independent literacy consultant. She is active in the Keystone State Reading Association and her local reading council.
Lynne R. Dorfman teaches graduate level courses at Arcadia University and works as an independent literacy consultant. She is active in her Alpha Delta Kappa chapter.
Both authors also work with the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project at West Chester University and are frequent presenters at conferences and workshops nationwide on literacy related topics. They are the authors of Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature K-6, Nonfiction Mentor Texts: Teaching Informational Writing Through Children’s Literature K-8, Poetry Mentor Texts: Making Reading and Writing Connections K-8, and a video, Writing with Mentors, all published by Stenhouse Publishers.  

Gravity and Renee: Ideas to Get Better Student Talk!

CARR’s Spring 2017 guest presenter, Gravity Goldberg, joins forces with co-author of “What Do I Teach Readers Tomorrow?”, Renee Houser, to share strategies with us for how to move “beyond blank stares”. Check out this post from their blog- and watch the video, too- you’ll be glad you did.


Developing Reflective Teaching Practices

I recently participated in an Instructional Coaching workshop hosted by CREC.  Part of the learning was developing reflective practices to improve instruction and ultimately student learning. One method to accomplish this was using video to help teachers focus on goals for instruction and student learning.  There was one excellent training video that could be used by teachers to reflect on their own practices, by coaches to foster conversations with colleagues, or by mentors who are training new teachers.  It is titled Using Video to Improve Practice:  Do It Yourself! and features Sarah Brown Wessling.

Here is the link for the video from the Teaching Channel: