Conferring is the key to personalized learning in Readers’ and Writers’ Workshop. A conference is a one-to-one instructional approach allowing the educator to accomplish three critical objectives:
- Research – Quickly assess the student.
- Decide – Decide what to teach the student.
- Teach – Teach the student by modeling and guiding practice.
Be sure to focus your conferring moves on the reader or writer rather than on the text or written product. Conferring research, decisions, and teaching center around skills, strategies, and understandings. Do not use conferring to “correct” student writing or reading. Instead, identify and model strategies to assist the student in revising writing or regulating reading independently. For example, you may decide to model a revision strategy using the child’s own writing draft. After reading the child’s writing and discussing his/her process, your research may lead you to the conclusion that the student needs to further develop descriptive writing techniques. Based on your decision, you might say, “I notice you use the word ‘said’ often before dialogue in your story. Watch me as I think of some ‘spicier,’ or more descriptive, words to introduce your dialogue in this part of the story. (Read the section aloud.) Hmm…I’m thinking this character is scared so she might be whispering this line as she’s hiding under the bed from the monster. I could use the words ‘she whispered’ before my quotations instead.” You can provide guided practice by having the student try it with another line. Provide coaching if necessary. Finally, specify what you would like the student to do as a result of your teaching in the conference. You might say, “Good writers engage their readers with spicy words that help them better visualize and understand the character and the story. From now on when you write, I want you to think about choosing descriptive words in some places to help the reader. Try this strategy throughout the rest of your piece.”
Research during a conference can take many forms. For reading conferences, observe the child reading to determine silent reading rate in a given section of text. Try listening in as a child reads aloud to gather information on oral reading fluency. Talk with the student after reading to determine the level of comprehension and application of strategies. For writing conferences, determine where the writer is in the writing process (pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing, etc.) by conversing over the child’s draft. Ask questions to uncover what is going well and where the student is facing challenges. Questions like, “How is it going?” or “What is giving you trouble?” will provide surprising amounts of data in the student’s own voice. Follow up with probing questions such as:
- What strategies have you been trying to help you improve your writing?
- How did that help you as a writer?
- Why did you make that decision as a writer?
It is critical to record conferring data in a manageable and accessible manner. As conferences progress, you will collect a great deal of data. Systematic tracking of this data, along with your related teaching decisions, will reflect trends, growth, and evidence to share with service providers, teammates, and parents. Use a conferring notebook, binder, spreadsheet, or Google Form to collect this data efficiently. Choose a grid, T-chart, sticky notes, or other comfortable approach that fits your note-taking style.
It is critical to decide upon one skill, strategy, technique, or literary element to teach during the conference. While you may uncover numerous areas of need, avoid the temptation to address these all. Prioritize and select just one that will grow the student’s confidence, alleviate immediate roadblocks, support basic skill development, provide a highly transferable tool for success, or challenge the student with more sophisticated thinking. Conferring decisions for readers might include the following:
- Concepts about print (K-1)
- Decoding strategies
- Vocabulary strategies
- Fluency strategies
- Comprehension strategies
- Text Selection strategies
- Dispositional strategies (reading behaviors)
- Characteristics of the genre/series
- Understanding of character development, theme, plot, or setting
Conferring decisions for writers might include the following:
- Developing outlines
- Revision craft
- Strengthening language
- Developing voice
- Bringing dialogue to life
- Developing audience
- Strategies for editing
- Growing genre-specific tools and techniques
- Mirroring an author’s craft
Be sure the student appreciates why you have made the decision to teach the selected strategy! Teach the student by clearly articulating the learning goal and explicitly modeling the strategy. Provide guided practice to ensure the student can apply the strategy to authentic reading or writing.
It is imperative to model and practice conferring norms early in the year. Provide explicit instruction to ensure students understand that conferences allow the teacher to:
- Get to know each and every reader/writer
- Personalize the learning for every student
- Solve learning problems together with each student
What are conference starters?
Gather a set of “go-to” openers to kick off powerful conferences. Openers provide an opportunity to develop deep conversation while also provide important data about a reader or writer. Here are some ideas for conference openers for before, during, and after reading/writing:
- Tell me how you chose this book.
- Why did you decide to write about this topic?
- Let’s take a look at what you’ve been reading for the last few weeks. What can you tell me?
- Let’s take a look at what you’ve been writing. What can you tell me?
- What’s happening in the story so far? What are you noticing?
- Where are you in the writing process? What are you noticing about your writing?
- What do you do when you get stuck on a word?
- What do you do when are having a tough time…?
- Can you take me to a place where…?
- How do you get back into the story from yesterday?
- What are you noticing about the characters? Tell me about their feelings…actions…change...
- How has your thinking changed?
- How has your writing changed?
- Would you recommend this book to another reader? Why or why not?
- What did you learn about yourself as a reader?
- What did you learn about yourself as a writer?
- Can you retell or summarize what happened in the story?
- What changes to your writing are you most interested in making?
Conferring happens while students are reading or writing independently. Consider developing a rotational schedule of conferences once you get to know the students in your class. Each conference will likely last 5-7 minutes and you should confer with each student at least once every two weeks. Plan to confer frequently with high-need students but ensure conference opportunities for all students, particularly those who may be high achieving. All students need personalized learning!
Where do conference occur?
Decide whether you will move to student reading/writing spots for conferences or have students come to you at a table or quiet area of the room. Joining students where their reading or writing takes place reduces distraction, preserves continuity, and decreases wasted time. However, large class sizes, challenging classroom spaces, or student desire for privacy may lend to a designated conference spot in the room. When considering conference locations, be sure you can position yourself beside the student at eye level if possible. This facilitates quiet, personalized conversation and shared views of text. Model the talk and timing of a conference in your whole-class mini lessons.
Well-established routines are key to successful conferring management. In order for you to maintain focus and keep conferences concise, the other students in the class must be able to self-regulate. Build self-reliance by establishing clear guidelines and explicit models for independent reading and writing behaviors. These models and guidelines should address conversation volume around the room during independent reading/writing and strategies for solving typical reading/writing problems (e.g. What if I need a new book? What if don’t understand a task or procedure?) Be sure to build in strategic management strategies to safeguard conferring and strengthen independence while also creating opportunities for students to signal for help when needed. For example, David Ginsberg, in his article titled Teaching Tenacity and Teamwork (Education Week Teacher, 2013), offers a strategy involving a red and green plastic cup for each student. As Ginsberg describes, students place a green cup outside to indicate smooth sailing and a red cup to quietly indicate the need for help in between or after conferences.
Conferring is complex and labor-intensive but few instructional approaches will yield greater reward. An elementary school teacher in Swampscott, MA summed it up well in relaying a story, shared with her at parent-teacher conferences, of a boy who told his mom how well the teacher knew him as a reader. The child? A first grader!