Academic Conversations at Brophy Elementary School

Two years ago, when the data team at Brophy Elementary School in Framingham, Massachusetts, began searching for ways to improve students' oral language skills, some members suggested a great resource-Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings (Stenhouse, 2011). Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford's book identifies five core communication skills to help students hold productive academic conversations across the content areas: elaborating and clarifying, supporting ideas with evidence, building on and/or challenging ideas, paraphrasing, and synthesizing.

"It's really a rich approach, making sure students have complex language skills at all levels," says Sara Hamerla, English language learner (ELL) coach for eight elementary schools in Framingham.

In recent years the percentage of students with limited English proficiency has accelerated at Brophy. Today, more than 60 percent of students are non-native speakers.

Although ELL students needed the most support with oral language, Brophy's data team realized that strengthening classroom discourse could help all children. By having focused academic conversations, students expand their vocabulary knowledge, learn how to transfer skills from one subject to another, and develop stamina for reading and writing.

"Oral language is a cornerstone on which we build our literacy and learning throughout life. Unfortunately, oral language is rarely taught in depth after third grade," Zwiers and Crawford write in Academic Conversations. "In many classrooms, talking activities are used in limited ways, often just to check learning of facts and procedures rather than to teach or deepen understandings."

By practicing strategies such as think-pair-share and answering with memorized sentence stems, students can learn to ask insightful questions, negotiate meaning, and critically evaluate evidence. They can also learn to keep track of what they are hearing, describe a speaker's points in their own words, and elaborate on ideas.

"Take a look at a typical standards list and highlight the verbs that ask students to do something," the authors suggest. "You might see terms such as evaluate, distinguish, outline, summarizes, analyze, and hypothesize. Most of these are actually thinking skills that are often best developed in conversation. Moreover, some of these skills need to be developed in conversation, and if we remove this avenue, we weaken students' chances for academic success."

Active Listening

With the needs of their students in mind, the Brophy data team members read Academic Conversations and then decided to introduce the recommended skills to the faculty over time so they could get familiar with the approach without feeling overwhelmed. Brophy principal Frank Rothwell encouraged implementation of the Academic Conversations strategies as a schoolwide initiative.

In addition to the recommended skills, the Brophy team introduced another oral language skill-active listening-because they realized that many students did not know how to participate in both ends of a conversation.

"The idea is that we wanted to explicitly teach students how to be active listeners instead of just passive recipients of information," says Judy Flynn, a Brophy teacher who works with English language learners. "For example, they could show they were listening by nodding their heads or making eye contact or saying 'Hmm' or 'Oh, really?' It seems silly at first, but we take for granted that students know how to do this."

Brophy's data team also modified the order of the core conversational skills to better align with students' developmental paths. They started by modeling good academic conversations, explaining why they are important, and using anchor charts to identify important concepts such as staying on topic and taking turns talking and listening. Then they moved on to active listening, paraphrasing/retelling, elaborating, supporting ideas with examples, and finally synthesizing.

"It has changed our teaching dramatically," Flynn says. "Instead of being teacher directed, we have switched to being student directed. The teacher is responsible for creating a rich prompt, and then the students do all the work. They're having a conversation with each other, back and forth, challenging each other, building on what each other has said, using evidence from the text they're working on or have connected to prior learning. The likelihood that a classroom will be silent is very small. You would absolutely see either pairs or trios of students having a dialogue about the topic."

Flynn and Hamerla developed sample lesson plans to guide teachers and a conversational analysis protocol to help them listen to the language their students are producing. Teachers use the protocol to plan interventions and subsequent lessons, depending on students' needs. Many have also accepted Hamerla's offer to plan lessons together and coteach until they gain confidence in the procedures.

After a successful first year using Academic Conversations at Brophy, Flynn and Hamerla decided to share the techniques with teachers throughout the school district. They developed a two-credit graduate course through Framingham State University, with Academic Conversations as the "cornerstone." Hosting the course after school hours at Brophy, they have attracted teachers from a wide range of disciplines.

"It was very exciting because not only were teachers from the core academic areas interested, but we also had a PE teacher, a school social worker, and an art teacher participating in the first course," Hamerla says. "We found it was really pertinent across all areas. The PE teacher was so excited because with the new emphasis on the Common Core State Standards, we all need to be on board and even specialist teachers are contributing to literacy learning. This is a way they can be involved. It's been really exciting to see how those academic conversations have been applied in different settings."

Analyzing the Discourse

Last school year, Hamerla obtained consent from parents to research the progress of students at Brophy. She videotaped their classroom conversations once a month and then transcribed and analyzed them. She says she noted big improvements in the quality of their dialogues. For example, students were better able to use "cohesion devices," which are transitions that link ideas in academic discourse. Common cohesion devices in school include likewise to compare, conversely to contrast, consequently to express cause and effect, and furthermore to add ideas and evidence. Zwiers and Crawford suggest many ways to help students practice cohesion devices, such as a pro-con activity in which one partner assumes the role of the "director" who names the topic and announces the "pro" or "con" side, which prompts the partner (the "speaker") to think of related points to express.

Other observations showed Hamerla that the students' academic conversations needed more refinement. Teachers began sharing and practicing "talk moves" to help students understand how to extend a conversation. For example, they might respond to and clarify a peer's statement by adding "So what you're saying is . . . " or "Something else that goes along with this is . . . "

"At the beginning of my study I noticed that students were unable to synthesize their conversations," Hamerla says. "At the end they would just stop talking and be like, 'We're done.' We taught them to synthesize and complete the conversation with a conclusion and some sort of agreement: 'So in conclusion, we both believe. . . ,' or, 'Based on our conversation we can decide that . . . ' It was the sentence starters we provided that really taught them to take this to the next level."

Students have become so proficient at using the skills that they frequently ask to use them throughout the school day-for example, by holding academic conversations about the characters in fiction they are reading. To extend their fluency, Assistant Principal Sara Cummins introduced Topic Tuesdays. On those days, students are asked to have an academic conversation about the chosen theme with whomever they sit with at lunch. Teachers provide scaffolding for English language learners, such as providing word banks and sentence frames that the children can use and refer to during conversations.

Reaching Beyond the Classroom

To help families understand the changes happening in their children's classrooms, Brophy's teacher leaders have hosted meetings with the parent-teacher organization and with parents of bilingual students. Staff members also send home examples of sentence starters that parents can use to extend conversations and encourage their children to elaborate. If a child offers a limited response to the standard question, "How was school today?" the parent could say, "I'd like you to add on to that because your teacher told me you were working on . . . " Or if someone in the family makes a statement, parents could ask another child to expand on it by saying, "I agree/disagree because . . . ," or, "An example of this is . . . "

"Parents are really excited and are thankful for concrete strategies they can do at home," Flynn says.

Hamerla, Flynn, and their colleagues have continued to refine their adaptation of Academic Conversations every year. This past school year they conducted a schoolwide survey of teachers to measure reported changes in teaching and learning. The data team members also conducted a learning walkthrough where they moved in and out of classrooms and asked students to articulate their thinking and reasoning using multiple means of expression.

Teachers have reported good progress in students' oral language skills, particularly for those who have been practicing the Academic Conversations techniques for two years. But they also mention the need for more instructional coaching to help them know how to continue refining students' skills.

"Academic Conversations has been a portal" to greater language development, one teacher says. "Young students in first and second grade have developed listening and speaking skills faster because they were explicitly taught. We need constant coaching to maintain our stamina as teachers and perpetuate this amazing lifelong learning approach!"

"My students very much enjoy academic conversations but still have difficulty with some of the more advanced skills," says a kindergarten teacher. "Some of them are still struggling with just social conversations. So we will get there . . . just not quite yet."

Hamerla and Flynn say they are most eager to see how well the children carry their skills to middle school, high school, and beyond.

"I can't wait to hear what they do when they interview for jobs in the future," Flynn says. "Our students are being trained as great conversationalists who can share their thinking and contribute to the dialogue."