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NYC Helpline: How To: Teach Literacy

Facilitating Accountable Talk in Your Classroom
Arlyne LeSchack

In addition to Reading Workshop and Writing Workshop, Accountable Talk is a cornerstone of the new curriculum adopted by New York City. What exactly is it and how can you get it going in your classroom? For the most part, we are used to teacher directed classrooms. This might be referred to as a "chalk and talk" model where the teacher does most of the talking and she spends the rest of the time writing on the board. In that kind of a classroom the students spend their time listening and copying.

Proponents of the new curriculum believe that children learn more from talking about what they're learning rather than just listening or copying down what the teacher has said. As I pointed out in my article last month in the workshop model students learn by doing -- in the same way that when you do a pottery workshop you learn by watching the teacher and then trying out the techniques yourself. Similarly in the reading and writing workshop, teachers model reading strategies or writing techniques and students try them out, first in active engagement right on the rug, and then independently. Accountable talk is a nice compliment to the workshop model of teaching.

The easiest way to get started with Accountable Talk is during your Read Aloud time. Choose a book with some potential for discussion and read it to yourself before you present it to your students. Use post-its to mark the spots where you want to stop reading and start the Accountable Talk. The first step is for students to come to the rug already set up with a partner. Then when you get to your previously marked passage, you just have to say "Turn and talk to your partner about...." You will continue with this turn and talk strategy even after you move on to other models of Accountable Talk.

Remember, Accountable Talk is classroom talk that is accountable to the learning; students have to be trained to not talk about other things. The most difficult form of Accountable Talk is the whole class discussion that is NOT lead by the teacher. If you study the dynamics of how discussions go in classrooms, the flow usually involves the teacher at every other point, meaning a student says something, the teacher responds and asks another student to respond, the teacher responds again and calls on another student, etc. Some people call this the "Twenty Question" technique in which the teacher is leading the discussion by throwing out question after question about the story to elicit separate responses from the students.

In the Accountable Talk class discussion model, the students are able to discuss a topic around what they are reading and studying; that may be selected by the teacher, but the students are carrying on the discussion with minimal interference from the teacher. She or he is merely acting as a facilitator and not really leading the discussion. Students, of course, need to be trained to listen to each other and untrained regarding raising their hands when they wish to speak. You will use the "Turn and Talk" model every day when you do your read aloud, whereas you can reserve the whole class discussions for a couple of times per week. The "Turn and Talk" is done during reading; the numbers of stops depend on the grade level of the students, with younger grades stopping fewer times. The whole class discussions happen after the reading is complete. The whole class discussion would be around a "big idea" or theory within the book or chapter. Perhaps on such a day, instead of turning and talking, students would use post-its to "stop and jot" down something interesting regarding the question.

The whole class discussions will be much harder to pull off than the "turn and talk" with a partner. You might want to start slowly, perhaps going from partners to small groups, two or three sets of partners having a discussion, and then finally to the whole class. Once the process is incorporated, you will be really pleased. Just as in the workshop model, with Accountable Talk your students are gradually taking responsibility for their own learning.

Please e-mail me if you have any questions.


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