Conferring with writers is one of the most difficult yet important jobs of a writing teacher. The absolute best book I’ve ever read on conferring (and I’ve read a lot) is How’s It Going?: A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers. This book is a quick read and will absolutely transform your outlook on conferences. You might also want to read Getting Writing Conferences Right. This article discusses types of conferences and the importance of developing writing independence before successfully implementing conferences.
Below you’ll find the best tips I’ve learned along my ten year journey as a writing teacher and avid reader of books about conferring…
I conference with individuals and up to five students at a time during a twenty minute block of independent writing/reading time. But how do you get to all your individual students during a twenty minute block of silent writing/reading time?!?
You keep the conferences short and to the point! A conference should last no more than five minutes. You should be able to meet with up to four students during a twenty minute block. This means that if you have a class of thirty-two you should have a conference with each individual every eight days.
So what do you talk about? And how do you track these conferences and follow up on at later dates? Read on my teacher friends…
The first thing you do at the start of a conference is give a compliment or praise the student. In order to do this you have to do some research about what you notice the writer/reader has been doing lately. Post-its tracking thinking or reading lists can be great tools to see what the student has been doing. Also, developing a monthly reading & writing goals can help you find topics to praise and conference about. You can say things like, “I notice your goal is to build your reading stamina and over the last few days you have definitely been working hard to find just right books and keep your eyes on the page during our independent reading time.” Or “I notice your writing goal is to reread your writing multiple times and I’ve seen you doing that a lot the past few days!”
Ask Specific Questions
It is an excellent idea to have a list of conference questions on a chart for all to see so students know what to expect and the teacher can refer to it for help too! Here is a list of questions you can ask your students during a conference:
- What’s going well?
- What’s hard?
- What goals are you working toward as a reader/writer?
- Tell me about some strategies you have been using today…
- How were you feeling while reading/writing this part?
- How do you know this book is just right?
- Why did you choose this topic to write about?
- How did you choose this topic to write about?
- What connections can you make with the characters?
- What predictions do you have for the rest of the story?
- What do you think the author’s purpose is?
- What is your purpose for writing this?
Once you’ve asked a question listen intently! If a student pauses urge them to continue talking, you can ask more leading questions like, tell me more, what else and uh-huh. You want to use what the student says to decide on the next skill or strategy you think the student could benefit from while listening. This is hard because you have to listen and think quick on your feet all at the same time! Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not sure what to say, you can never go wrong with praising, asking questions and listening:)
Teach ONE Skill
Keep feedback simple and focused! Sometimes I tend to want to teach many things all at once but that is just overwhelming for the student and for me to keep track of. I like to stick to suggesting a new goal for the future or remediating any misconceptions you heard from the student while they talked about the skills they were working on. But remember to compliment before you teach! Here is a list of examples:
- I noticed you have been writing fast and furious without stopping to think, which shows you have excellent stamina, let’s work on organizing by using this fancy paragraph symbol.
- I noticed you have done an excellent job discussing with your writing partner but you seem stuck now that it is time to put your ideas on the page. Let’s me show you a stamina trick…I’ll draw a line half way down the page and your job is to fill the page with messy, not so great writing (it’s okay, all writers sound bad at first) and when I come back we’ll see if you’ve gotten there!
- I noticed you do an awesome job summarizing after you read, let’s work on figuring out author’s purpose together…
- I notice you love to read comic books, have you ever read My Weird School series or Wayside School?
There are lots of ways to track your conferences with students. You can hand write your notes or use the many electronic tools and apps available such as Evernote, Microsoft OneNote or Notability. But the best way I’ve found to track conferences is by having students self-assess their work. I like to have a section of the journal dedicated to goal setting, where students track the skills they are working on and when they have successfully mastered the skill.
Don’t Be Too Hard On Yourself
Conferencing takes lots of time, patience and practice! It is very difficult to interrupt a perfectly happy reader/writer to conference but it is also extremely important to meet with your students about their progress and work. Just remember we all make mistakes and like any craft mistakes help us learn!