10 Strategies for Reading and Writing Conferences to Try This School Year

Meet. Question. Listen. Grow.

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In my recent posts, I have declared my two main goals for this upcoming school year are building empathy and prioritizing reading. I want to focus on helping my students try to be better people who dislike reading less. Perhaps, I can also help them call themselves readers as they travel through the school year in my classroom. A way to access this love of reading is through conferencing in both realms of reading and writing. While I have used conferences in the past, this year I want to be extremely purposeful with conferences. I did mentor text warmups this past year, and I want to continue to keep my mentor text routine. I love using mentor texts to empower writers. However, I want to start class each day with independent reading. This will force me to put conferences at the beginning of class; it will become the most important thing we do each day. In order to make reading a priority, I have to show them that it matters. 

Conferences may be the link that has been missing in my classroom in terms of assessment and aide in teaching the role of empathy in reading. Simply, the lost art of making sure we are talking to our students needs to be at the forefront of our conversations. This isn’t about content. This isn’t about benchmarks. This isn’t about data. It is about talking to people about reading. The conference IS the assessment or how we are grading students because we are involved with their relationship with reading. I love the quote that Carl Anderson inserted into his text 

The word assessment...derives from the Latin word assidere, meaning to sit alongside. -Peter Johnston, 1997
— (Anderson 66).

As teachers, we sit alongside our students to assess them...or do we? How often am I sitting alone with my flair pens grading papers? How often am I staying up late during the week when we are watching some TV show and I also have my stack of papers in my lap? I am not sitting next to students at all when I am doing the most assessing their work. I need to get better at practicing the mantra: The most powerful assessment takes place in the classroom when the students are in it. In turn, I am taking less paper home and students are getting better feedback.

The two books I am referencing in this post are:

Anderson, Carl. A Teacher's Guide to Writing Conferences. Edited by Katie Wood Ray, Heinemann, 2018.

Serravallo, Jennifer. A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences: Grades K-8. Edited by Katie Wood Ray, Heinemann, 2019.

Both of these texts provide step-by-step resources for conferences in the ELA classroom. Elementary though high school teachers could benefit from these books.

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The Ten Conference Strategies I Am Trying This Year

1. FOCUS ON ONE THING AT A TIME

When I meet with students, I need to focus on one thing at a time...not 6 or 7. Carl Anderson in A Teacher's Guide to Writing Conferences tells us: “It’s important that you teach students about one aspect of writing in each conference” (Anderson 6). He goes on to mention that this one aspect could be focused on the writing process, craft technique, or grammar/mechanics (Anderson 6). I feel like I have done this in the past where I am trying to fit in 4-5 different talking points for students in one conference under the guise I am trying to be efficient. Then, the conference ends up taking too long, and I get discouraged looking at my list of 37. An aspect to work on in my conferences (also when I am grading papers) is to promote mastery with limited feedback. I want to take Anderson’s advice to be specific in both reading and writing conferences. How often am I trying to talk about 8 things in a reading conference? More often than not, if I am doing most of the talking, my students are no longer part of the process.

Action Steps:

  • Focus on one thing with writing conferences: Process, craft/technique, grammar/mechanics

  • Focus on one thing with reading conferences: Type of conference, skill or strategy

2. MAKE A PLAN FOR CONFERRING EACH DAY

Both reading and writing conferences need a plan! In A Teacher's Guide to Writing Conferences. it states, “To use the precious time you have for conferring, make a plan for who you will confer with each day…” (Anderson 27). Here is the form I made for this upcoming school year to incorporate more hop-checks throughout the week, but keep track of how I conferenced with on a weekly basis. Anderson’s book gives a few different examples of a tracking form, and so does Serravallo’s book offers great choices. I want to keep this simple. The focus should be on talking to the student, not necessarily writing down everything they are saying to me. I want to set a goal of having conferences with all students, and then get into a habit of analyzing what I am writing down while meeting with them. My plan is to highlight the ones I plan to meet with each day on the form. At the end of the week, I need to evaluate how many conferences I completed that week, and also evaluate my conferencing skills with students in terms of quality and efficiency. 

Action Steps:

  • Use my new tracking from to keep record of conferences

  • Highlight at the end of each class who I am talking to TOMORROW so I am planning and working ahead in the moment

  • Aim for 2-3 conferences a day

3. DEVELOP HABITUAL RESPONSES

Patterns come through all the time when I am grading a stack of papers. Can anybody cue the collective need for elaboration of evidence and clear organizational structure? While I know what to put on paper, I need to translate that into what I am saying to give feedback in conference form. Anderson states, “Experienced writing teachers recognize many patterns of approximation when they confer with student writers, and they know what to teach in response to each of these patterns” (Anderson 70). A Teacher's Guide to Writing Conferences then goes on to list teaching points for rehearsal patterns, drafting and revising patterns, editing patterns, publishing patterns, focus patterns, structural patterns, detail patterns, voice patterns, and convention patterns. I want to look at these to see how other teachers are modeling feedback. 

Action Steps:

  • Create a 1/2 inch binder with conferencing resources so I can keep goal sheets, planning sheets, and resources from the text

  • Keep a list of common patterns or responses nearby as I am getting used to the habit of conferencing

  • Create workshops or lessons about those patterns that develop the most in conferences to meet entire class needs

4. START WITH ASSESSMENT CONFERENCES

When starting a reading program for the new school year, I want to focus on the reading assessment conference. Serravallo states, “When I’m working with a student in an Assessment Conference, I use a conversational tone and learn about the student through prompts and questions connected to each goal category. I may choose to look at student work samples, ask students to self-reflect, and/or provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate their skills” (Serravallo 14). I always start with a survey, but this doesn’t necessarily prepare me or them to be able to create a goal. The goal needs to come from them. I want them to handwrite this goal so they can keep it in their writing binders throughout the year.

Action Steps:

  • Start the year with an assessment conference

  • For reading conferences, use observations about book selections, reading habits, and classwork for assessment

  • For writing conferences, use writing samples and observations to help with assessment

5. HELP STUDENTS PREPARE FOR GOAL SETTING

Students need to have a say in their goals. On page 16 in A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences, Serravallo provides a table that aligns questions with each goal. While many teachers have a natural way to ask conversations regarding what students are reading, I was immediately excited about this table because it helps provide language that is focused on each goal. 

Action Steps:

  • Help students reflect on their reading journey by creating a reading timeline

  • Get student feedback in order to create meaningful goals

  • Look at the table in the reading text before I have goal conferences

6. CONDUCT GOAL SETTING CONFERENCES

We have to create goals and then follow up on them. I know goal setting is difficult because the school year gets crazy. However, the use of goal setting particularly in the reading conference has to have follow-through because it is one that can slip through the cracks. I am constantly touching their writing during assessment, but reading assessment takes observation. It is hard to observe 35 students at one time. In  A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences Serravallo recommends “...offering students some time to reflect regularly on their reading, their thinking, and their writing about reading, especially before you plan to meet with them in a Goal Setting Conference” (Serravallo 32). My plan is to have them self-reflect and keep these goals and reflections in their class binders. 

I have to be responsible when it comes to the mid-year check-in as well. Pernille Ripp got me thinking during NerdCampMI in June of this year that I need to be checking in on their goals at least three times a year. I love her post on her blog “Helping Students Set Better Reading Goals” to help guide teachers with mid-year check-ins. If in January we are not making progress, we need to provide more intervention. I love the idea of the main goal being student self-selected. While students meet with the teacher in a goal conference, they can also ask for help making goals from their teacher. We use the NWEA MAP test as well that can provide some information regarding high-stakes testing and goals. While I cringe at the idea of incorporating this data in with their reading goals, I think it is important for our students to be empowered by information. 

Action Steps:

  • Students self-reflect and create a beginning of the year goal

  • Students do a mid-year check-in

  • Students can use their self-assessment and other methods of assessment to help create goals

7. IDENTIFY SKILLS. TEACH STRATEGIES. 

The text, A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences, creates steps for addressing the hierarchy of goal, skill, and strategies: “Strategies, like a recipe, offer students a broken-down, step-by-step procedure that makes the invisible work of reading actionable and visible. Strategies are introduced and practiced, and then eventually they fade away as the student develops automatically” (Serravallo 36). The strategies are at the heart of reading instruction, but they should be addressing a clear skill we want our young readers and writers to obtain to reach a goal. Serravallo goes on to break down that when students create goals, we then look at the skills we are showing them to help. Those skills are broken down into strategies (36). The three different levels are good reminders regarding priorities when creating lesson plans or having individual conferences.

Action Steps:

  • Be knowledgable and mindful of goals, skills, and strategies

  • Be purposeful in lesson planning what skills you are planning to teach

8. GUIDED INQUIRY

In both types of conferences, the students should do most of the talking. This is also a working point for me because when students stop talking, it is easy for me to take over the conversation. In A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences Serravallo states,“It’s inquiry because you are asking questions and looking for students to reflect, respond, and draw conclusions, but you are guiding them to see what goals would benefit them” (Serravallo 40). The goal is to get students talking. 

Action Steps:

  • Practice reflection on how often you are talking and how often students are talking in conferences

  • Invite other colleagues to observe your conferencing with students to get feedback

9. WORK IN SMALL GROUPS

I can’t be a afraid to pull groups of students for conferences. In fact, this may be a way to make some conferences more efficient and build community because I can help students have conferences with each other. Serravallo explains: “In a Strategy Lesson, you set a small group of students up to work on a strategy, just like with a Coaching Conference. But now, instead of coaching only one student, you will keep all of the students in the group working independently while you coach them individually” (Serravallo 74). I am still working out the logistics of how this will work for coaching lessons in my room. I like how Serravallo talks strategy with a couple of students, but with a 58 minute block, I am concerned how this quick meeting will work with the balance of trying to meet with students each week. 

Action Steps:

  • Try small group conference ONE time a week to start 

  • Focus on one strategy in that group

10. VARY THE TYPES OF CONFERENCES

Jennifer Serravallo explores multiple times of conferences. This brings this post full circle because with each type of conference, there is a specific focus. “She offers many types of conferences such as assessment, goal-setting, compliment, coaching, research-compliment-teach, strategy lessons, and partnership and book club conferences” in order to reach students (100-101). I love the idea of compliment conferences at least once a marking period. How often am I meeting with kids to tell them how awesome they are doing? There are definite benefits for knowing your purpose for conferencing and focusing in on that one area. 

Action Steps:

  • Work compliment conferences in at least once a marking period

  • Keep the focus to one talking item per conference

  • Try book club conferencing at least one time this year


Writing Mindset Reflection: How will you work conferences into your routines this school year? Did any of the action steps resonate with you to try this year?