Conferring: The Heart of Learning

What exactly is conferring?

Conferring is a strategic conversation between you and one student.  In the beginning, you are always the listener as you look for things your student already does well, recent growth, and new areas to grow. Once you have this information, your roles switch, and you teach your student one strategy or skill to work on next. In this post, I discuss conferring with readers, but conferring is a strategy all teachers should use to individualize and accelerate learning.

How will you know what to do?

Step 1: Go to one student, and ask what they’re thinking. It sounds like a no-brainer, but some teachers will schedule kids to come to their desks for reading conferences. The movement of students ends up disrupting the concentration of other readers, and the set meeting-time limits original thinking for both the student and the teacher.  Seriously, I sit right next to them and say, “So, what are you thinking?”

Step 2:  Listen, and point out something they do well. Listen to your student read a page from their book. Point out one or two things they did well while you were listening. Many teachers will skip listening to reading at the middle level, but I can’t stress how important it is to get your kids comfortable reading one on one with you. If you, as their mentor, read and think aloud regularly, students will understand that the heart of real reading means slowing down to process ideas, noticing breaks in comprehension, and using fix-ups. Once this is the norm, you’ll glean so much data from a one-minute reading. Even at the middle level, we have kids who do not yet have phonological awareness. We also have students who think reading means decoding words and nothing more. If you don’t hear them read, you won’t be able to teach them at their reading level.

Step 3:  Choose a strategy or skill, and teach it. Choose a strategy or skill to teach, or ask your student to tell you something they want help with. Teach only one strategy.  Directly teach what this strategy is and how it helps readers. Model the strategy, and have the child practice with you. (Think one-on-one, wicked fast gradual release.)

Step 4: End with the good, a goal, and log it all. Leave on a good note. Then remind your student of the new strategy (At this point, I conferring notesalways refer to this strategy as their next goal, and I write it on a post it for them to keep in their novel.)

Next, log the important parts of the conversation. (I always record the title and page of the book my student is reading, what strategies they’re using, what instruction is needed, and what I taught during the conference.) I use a binder with a page for each student. The front of the page is for conference notes and the back of the page is for book titles. I also have a checklist of twenty strategies and skills readers need, so I date each strategy when I observe it to make my conference note-taking easier.

SIX TIPS I CONSTANTLY REMIND MYSELF:
  • Carry your current novel or book journal with you, so you can show how you use reading strategies, when applicable. journal
  • Record what each student is reading. It helps track how often the child finishes or ditches books (The most common reason people ditch books is that they aren’t thinking while reading. You’ll figure out which thinking strategy will book titleshelp the child connect fastest by having them read aloud to you.)
  • Once in awhile, instead of doing one-on-one conferences, record reading behaviors. Note whether the student is easily distracted, constantly checking the time, recording their thinking, or pausing to think…
  • Once in awhile, ask students to reflect on post-its versus in their notebooks, and keep their ideas alongside your conferring notes.self reflection
  • Keep a running list of strategies and skills each student needs or has mastered. Here’s a checklist to use so that you can decide whole class needs and small group needs.
  • Do whatever you can to make your note-taking efficient. If I handed my binder to another teacher, it would take them awhile to understand what I wrote. That’s fine. Your notes are for you- so you can pick up where you left off after each encounter, so you know where to go next, and so you can track growth. Notes don’t need to be neat and tidy, but they do need to be logged.

Truly, whether I’ve had 140 students or 40 students, conferring has been the heart of my teaching for 15 years. If I didn’t touch base with each student in this way, I wouldn’t have a direct line to each one of them. Each year I learn more about how to confer. Each year I tweak parts I thought were steadfast.

I’m determined to make conferring a part of everyday learning for our students. In my work as a reading specialist, every single one of my kids, every single year will tell me they’ve only fake read for the past few years. Too often, I wonder: If only my own teachers had met with me briefly, one on one, way back in the 70’s and 80’s?  If only I would have that direct line to what I could do to understand reading? The impact this one practice has on motivation, engagement, connection, and understanding? Indisputable.

Interested in learning more? Here are a few resources worth your time:

Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop In workshops with teachers, Patrick Allen encountered a long list of “counterfeit beliefs” teachers hold about conferring. Some of these include: “I don’t have time. I don’t know what questions to ask, It’s too hard, I don’t know what to write in my notes, I don’t even take notes, I don’t know how to go deep. .  .” Allen argues that the benefits of conferring outweigh the effort it takes to do it well. He shows you how to overcome your perceived obstacles to make conferring possible.

How’s It Going?: A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers One-on-one talks with our students during offer opportunities to zero in on what each student needs. As Lead Staff Developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Carl Anderson has provided hundreds of teachers with the information and confidence they need to make these complex conferences an effective part of classroom practice. Although his book is focused on writers, the process for conferring remains. Carl Anderson is one of my go-to educators. I promise you can’t go wrong with him.

If you have tips or your own or questions to ask, please comment or email.

For more on how I why I use signposts with readers, read Three Things I Learned by Doing My Own Signpost Assignment and Evolving Understandings: Dig Deep with Signposts.

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