Accountable and Academic Student Talk Stems

Students need explicit norms, processes, and models to participate in productive classroom talk
427 teachers like this strategy
Talking Moves Classroom Video

About This Strategy

Talk stems are sentence starters that structure and guide the expression of thinking. Student classroom talk is a critical aspect of successful learning, engagement and ownership, vocabulary acquisition, reading comprehension, writing development, and critical thinking. There is a strategic difference between "telling students to talk" and establishing a purpose and expectations for student discourse. Students need to know the purpose for each engagement and the behavioral and rigor expectations for their discussions. Additionally, students must be given repeated scaffolded opportunities to practice academic talk. Explore the resources to learn about the different types of student talk, which meet specific academic and vocabulary objectives, as well as a wide variety of differentiation strategies to support all students in engaging in meaningful academic and accountable talk opportunities.

Implementation Steps

20 minutes

1. Select/create a few sentence stems to meet content objectives. For example, for students to explain, justify, or defend their thinking:

  • I think this because....

  • My main reason for thinking this is....

  • The most important reason this is true is....

2. Test your sentence stems by formulating questions of your own to prompt student use of sentence stems.

  • Note these where you'll have them handy, such as in your lesson plan or lesson notes or on an anchor chart.

3. Always state a purpose for a student conversation. For example, "I want you to summarize what you just read and tell your partner." Make sure the sentence stems you provide for students matches the purpose of the talk.

4. The first time you use sentence stems, introduce and model using sentence stems with a peer or student. Part of this process includes modeling the acceptance of feedback.

  • Have students first observe and share what they noticed.

    • What did you see us doing?

    • What did you hear?

    • How do you think it felt for the person listening? For the person talking?

  • Have students practice with a partner, while you observe. Try not to intervene or help.

  • Debrief the strategy with students.

    • What worked?

    • What didn't work?

    • What can be done to improve our talk?

5. Create greater talk accountability by closing with a share out, asking students what their partner or another group member said.

6. Prior to the next accountable and/or academic talk, quickly review the previous reflection as well as the talk stems.

  • Continue using Step 4 until students are experienced using accountable talk stems.

  • Return to Step 4 at any point when students might be struggling. This often occurs when the rigor of the questions increases.

Talk Stems for Peer Feedback

Peer feedback stems guide students in giving and responding to feedback.

The student using talk stems to provide feedback is guided to select specific information or to dig into their thinking in order to fulfill the specificity of the sentence stem, thus upping the rigor of the learning experience.

The student who is responding to the feedback is provided with meaningful, timely feedback that allows them to revise their thinking and work, thus growing their understanding. Also, the student responding to feedback can use sentences stems to ask for greater specificity, examples, or to disagree, so that they can interpret and act on the feedback.

Accountability measures, revision time, and clear expectations significantly increase the impact of peer feedback.

Implementation Steps

  1. Select/create a few sentence stems to meet feedback and content objectives such as the I Like, I Wish, I Wonder Peer Feedback Protocol. Remember to include stems for responding to feedback.
    • For example, students could give each other feedback on a presentation with: I like...., I wish...., and I wonder...., I liked that too, because ...., Could you tell me more about....? or, I respectfully disagree with...., because....
  2. Test your feedback sentence stems while looking at an example of student work. Things to consider:
    • Is the feedback task too broad or narrow? For example, students might benefit from separating feedback on writing mechanics from feedback on writing content.
    • Is the feedback-giving task directly related to the content/skills objective?
    • Will the results of the feedback be immediately actionable? Feedback gets stale if it isn't acted on immediately. The time to revise thinking and work is in the moment of the feedback.
    • Is the task worthy of peer feedback? This is variable depending on the grade level and skills being learned. Having students examine each other's writing for the use of a period at end of sentences is appropriate for first grade, but not as a solo task for third grade.
  3. Incorporate the feedback stems into the assignment documents, so that students do not have to shuffle papers or tabs to move from feedback stems to the work receiving feedback.
  4. Establish with students clarify and specificity on what appropriate feedback is and isn't. Display this information on an anchor chart and refer back to it proactively.
  5. Model giving and accepting feedback using feedback talk stems. Have students observe and share what they noticed:
    • Was the feedback clear?  
    • Was there enough information?
    • How do you think it felt for the person getting the feedback? For the person giving the feedback? (Was it respectful? Was it helpful?)
  6. Have students practice with a partner while you observe. Try not to intervene or help.
  7. Debrief the strategy with students.
    • What worked?
    • What didn't work?
    • What can be done to improve our talk?
  8. Create greater accountability by closing with a share out, asking students what feedback they received, and then asking the student's partner why they gave that feedback. This is another opportunity for students to practice the feedback stems (both giving and receiving), and their use should also be modeled by the teacher in facilitating the conversation.
  9.  Prior to the next accountable and/or academic talk opportunity, quickly review the improvements as well as the talk stems.
    • Continue using Steps 4, 5, and 6 until students are rooted in the process.
    • Return to these steps at any point when students might be struggling with appropriate and helpful feedback.

Accountable Talk for Culturally Responsive Learning

Tenaya Rhinehardt
CRTL Master Teacher
  1. Allow students to practice using accountable discourse over a major question about a current issue in the news or even a big idea based on a concept being taught in class at the time. 

    • Whatever you choose, be sure it’s thought provoking, relatable and important to your students, and stimulating.

  2. Based on where you are in your curriculum, provide a short multicultural reading passage, a small excerpt from a book, a Ted Talk video, or an article for your students. 

    • Try to consider and choose material that is inclusive of all cultures and backgrounds represented in your classroom. 

    • Allow them to choose 3-5 short answer response questions that could be answered using these resources.  

    • Provide multicultural readings and/or videos for your students, or allow students to choose what they would like to read according to their culture.          

Special Education Modification

Nedra MassenburgDEMO
Special Education Specialist

 Classroom talk between students is a critical aspect of successful learning, engagement and ownership, vocabulary acquisition, reading comprehension, writing development, and critical thinking.   Explicitly modeling academic talk helps students with disabilities be more active and engaged participants in class discussions. 

Accountable academic classroom talk between students requires developed verbal communication, and executive functioning skills (task initiation, prioritization, working memory, impulse control etc.).  In order to support students with disabilities who have difficulty in these areas consider the following modifications:


  1. Provide the topic ahead of time and allow students to write out their thoughts or questions using provided academic sentence stems before starting the whole class or partner discussion.  During the discussion, repeatedly ask students to refer to what they have written as their pre-work to use as a resource. 
  2. Use or modify handouts/graphic organizers that will visually remind students of what accountable academic talk looks and sounds like. See the "Accountable Talk Visual" in the resource section below for more information. 
  3. Consider allowing extra time at the end of partner or class discussions for students with disabilities to synthesize information learned during accountable talk.  

  4. If multiple teachers are present in a setting, consider having one teacher work in a small group of students with disabilities to provide them more scaffolded modeling and more frequent feedback on their accountable academic talk.

EL Modification

Shannon Coyle
English Learner Specialist

Using Accountable and Academic Talk Stems is an excellent way to support language development in English learners and their peers, as ALL learners are academic language learners. This strategy supports listening and speaking skills by creating robust opportunities to practice academic talk alongside native English speaking peers. Learners are also guided in the socio-cultural norms of academic discussion. 

English learners engaging with this strategy need to listen to and process what their peers are saying, and respond verbally, using appropriate academic structures and vocabulary. English learners are also asked to observe local cultural conventions of academic discussion such as looking at the speaker. In order to support English Learners consider the following modifications:


  1. Preview the talk stems you will be using. Consider partnering with English learners’ language specialist to support their use in ESL class.
  2. Use visual representations alongside talk stems. For instance, use stick figures facing each other for “look at my partner”.

  3. Post talk stems and social conventions posters on walls in addition to student sheets. Reference the posters when learners are stuck. See the "Tools to Engaging ALL Students in Competent Academic Interaction" resource in the resource section below for more information.

  4. When modeling talk, consider using classwide choral practice of stems and responses. This is especially supportive of learners at lower levels of proficiency who are working on pronunciation. See the "Modeling Academic Talk" video in the resource section below for more information.

  5. Ensure English learners understand the content they are talking about through formative assessment and address misunderstanding before asking learners to engage in academic talk. Consider having learners at lower levels of proficiency write all their contributions in advance and read when working with partners. 

  6. Explicitly teach or pre-teach content-specific vocabulary learners should use and/or will hear during academic talk. Have learners keep their vocabulary sheets or banks with them during talk time.

Questions to Consider

  1. Can you build on existing classroom talk protocols to put this strategy in place?

  2. What are some ways to support students, and yourself, in remembering to use productive classroom talk?

  3. Are there ways to integrate this strategy into ongoing vocabulary instruction and practice?

Related Lessons

  1. Explore the Avoiding Plagiarism and Citing Sources lesson by 7th grade Science BetterLesson Master teacher Mariana Garcia Serrano for an example of students using accountable talk stems to define plagiarism, recognize examples of plagiarism and paraphrasing, while developing references using an internet citation generator.
  2. Explore the Cells 'R Us Exhibition lesson by 7th grade Science BetterLesson Master teacher Mariana Garcia Serrano to see students using academic talk stems to explain the cell's structure and function. 
  3. Explore the Explore Unit Fractions lesson by 4th grade Math BetterLesson Master teacher Kara Nelson to see how students use accountable talk stems to show and explain how many unit fractions are in a whole.