Kristin and Jennifer have a deeply rooted personal philosophy that children don’t have to fall into the categories of either “good writers” or “not‑so‑good writers.” With their approachable and down-to-earth style, they provide the specific ideas and strategies to help us become more confident and successful when conferring with writers.
—Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, The 2 Sisters
If you’ve ever sat down to confer with a child and felt at a loss for what to say or how to help move him or her forward as a writer, this book is for you. If you are a strong teacher of writing but are not seeing results from your students, this book is for you.
Authors Kristin Ackerman and Jennifer McDonough have been teaching writing for several years and know that conferring can be a murky and messy process—perhaps the hardest component of writing instruction. Conferring with Young Writers is based on what Kristin and Jen call the “three Fs”: frequency, focus, and follow‑up. They’ve created a classroom management system that offers routine and structure for giving the most effective feedback in a writing conference.
This book will help writing teachers—and their students—learn to break down and utilize the qualities that enable good writing: elaboration, voice, structure, conventions, and focus.
If you are thinking about introducing peer conferences into your writing workshop, Mark Overmeyer has some advice for you! His new book, Let’s Talk! is full of ideas on how to make conferences more manageable and meaningful.
The Power of Peer Conferring
By Mark Overmeyer
Students should be encouraged to confer with one another about their writing. But if peer conferring is not carefully framed for students, some unintentional things may happen.
If your writers think that working with a peer is an opportunity to “be the teacher,” there may be some negative side effects. I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was a young child. Whenever I had the opportunity to work with a partner, I tended to be a bit bossy. And because I desperately wanted to “teach” something, I would make things up if I had nothing to offer. So, if asked to work with a peer in writing, I loved marking his or her paper up and giving it some kind of score or grade. My desire to be a teacher led me to take over the writing for another student, which, of course, did not help the writer at all.
Here are some tips for making peer conferences successful for all students:
Suggest that peers question and wonder rather than jump straight to giving advice.
Peers might be more successful at asking questions of one another than giving advice, especially early in a peer-conferring experience. After a writer shares, the reader might ask a few clarifying questions that can then nudge the writer to think of more details to add. I find that peers have more authentic wonderings because they often experience the world in the same way as their peers. They might ask better clarifying questions than an adult because they have less experience with filling in the blanks of a slightly confusing narrative.
Make the roles of reader/listener and writer clear.
The reader/listener can begin by praising the writer for something specifically accomplished, followed by suggestions. It is perhaps best to think of these offerings as “suggestions” rather than “teaching points,” because successful peer conferences require the writer to make final decisions about what to add, delete, or change based on peer suggestions. In a teacher-student conference, it is more likely that a teacher will actually require a writer to try something to improve the writing, because the teacher’s role includes helping the student to become a more flexible writer. In a peer conference, however, the writer has to make the final decision about what advice to take and what changes, if any, to make.
Let the writer take the lead.
Another way to increase the success of a peer conference is to ask the writer to begin by writing on a sticky note where he or she thinks support is needed. If the writer sets the agenda for the conference, he or she is more likely to receive helpful advice from the peer reader.
Focus on content, not grammar and mechanics.
One key to successful peer conferences is to ask students to focus on content rather than on conventions. All writers in your classroom have the advantage of having lived as long as their peers in your class. They have similar life experiences in the sense that fourth graders see the world through fourth-grade eyes, not through adult eyes. When the focus is on content and not on conventions, I no longer have to worry about grouping a “strong” writer with a “struggling” writer. These kinds of labels limit expectations for writers in general, but they can cause particular harm in a peer conference. When setting up peer conferences, I am careful about grouping students together for the purposes of supporting one another but not based on my assumptions about the levels of their writing. Remember what Carl Anderson says about writing conferences: they provide an opportunity for conversation. I firmly believe that all of my students can engage in meaningful conversations about their work if the focus is on content.
The biggest danger in allowing peers to provide advice on conventions is that students tend to take their friends’ advice, even if it is wrong. A peer may unknowingly “help” a fellow writer by correcting a mistake that wasn’t an error to begin with. Editing for conventions is the work of the writer, with the support of the teacher—not the work of his or her peers.
Make peer conferences a choice, not a requirement.
I believe in the power of peer conferences, but once they are established and students can meet with peers independently, I do not require students to confer for every piece of writing. My writers need to know that although it is okay to seek advice from a peer at any stage of the writing process, it is also okay to continue writing without seeking support. I find that, when given a choice, students work with peers in more meaningful and authentic ways because they aren’t doing so to please me or to meet the requirement on a checklist. They are meeting with a peer because they want to meet with another writer.
Debrief with students about the benefits and potential pitfalls of peer conferences.
If you want to know how peer conferences are working in your classroom, go directly to the source: ask your students. After a few rounds of peer conferences, you might gather your students and ask for their honest feedback about the opportunity to talk with their peers. Consider asking questions like, “What do you think about peer conferences? What is working? What might make it better?”
Make sure you encourage students to speak in positive terms, and do not allow them to name the peers they worked with as writing partners. This is why I suggest that you debrief after a few sessions of practicing peer conferences. If you debrief after only one opportunity for peers to work together, some students may feel singled out. They may interpret their partners’ comments as a negative reflection on them.
Students might be given a few language frames to help with this debrief:
“One thing that helps me as a writer is when the reader . . .”
“The kind of advice that helped me the most was when . . .”
“It would have been better if . . .”
When used effectively, peer conferences are a powerful tool for creating more independent, motivated writers in your classroom. An added benefit is that students tend to use more age-appropriate voice in their writing. When students confer only with me, my writing biases tend to bleed through: I love descriptive writing and the use of dialogue. I don’t know much about how to infuse humor. I struggle with passive voice, so sometimes I don’t even notice that writers are not using active verbs. Allowing peers to work together on their writing content lets them grow in ways I can’t provide as just one voice offering praise and advice.
We are excited to start a new blog series this month with Stenhouse author (A Place for Wonder with Georgia Heard) and first-grade teacher Jen McDonough. Jen will share stories and strategies from her classroom every couple of weeks, so be sure to check back often. We’ll start off the series with some ideas for streamlining writing conferences using the 3 F’s: frequency, focus, and follow-up.
Conferring with Young Writers
It can be overwhelming at times when we sit down with kids to talk about their writing. So much to say, so many different directions we can go. One thing I know for sure is that too much teaching in a conference leads to an overwhelmed writer. As I go about working with young writers now, I try to keep what I call the “3 Fs” in mind: frequency, focus, and follow-up. These three things have streamlined my writing conferences with kids and helped make them more successful. So, what are the “3 Fs”?
I am constantly trying to come up with ways to make sure I meet with my young writers more frequently. What I have found is that in order for me to do so, I have to make sure certain things are in place during writing workshop. Management has to be in place. The kids need to know what is expected of them during writing time. We create a class expectations chart together at the beginning of the year and leave it up all year long as a reference for anyone who might be off task. When the kids are on task, I can get working with small groups or individual students.
The classroom also has to be organized. The materials the children will need to get writing work done need to be organized and accessible. I want to spend my time working with writers, not helping kids find a new pencil if one breaks. Keeping conferences short and on point also helps me see more kids, which leads me to the second F.
It is important, when meeting with young writers, not to overwhelm them with too many suggestions about how to improve their writing. Teaching too many strategies at once can leave a child struggling to do any of them independently once I walk away. One way I focus my conferences is to think about the qualities of good writing: structure, conventions, focus, voice, and elaboration. No matter what genre the writer is working on, I can always go back to these qualities to help lift the level of the writing. Instead of teaching one strategy one day and then another the next time we meet, I can help the writer set goals using one of the qualities and work on that for a bit before moving on to something else. For example, a child can set a goal for trying to elaborate more, and I can teach strategies for doing that no matter what the writer is writing about the day we meet. By staying focused on quality for a while, the conferences are more focused, move quicker, and allow the student more practice before moving on to something else.
The third F I think about when it comes to conferring is follow-up. Using the idea of frequency, I want to see writers as often as possible. When I follow up with a writer, I am always sure to compliment what is going well since our last meeting and then quickly talk about the big goal the writer has set. I ask the child to show me places in the writing where goals are being met to hold him or her accountable for what is being taught. If it is not there, I know I need to go back and reteach the strategy. If the writer is making progress, we can move on to another strategy that will help the child reach his or her writing goal. It is important to follow up and make sure that the teaching is sticking and the child is growing as a writer.
By using the “3 Fs” as overarching goals for myself as I confer with young writers, I have found that I feel more confident. The writers in my classroom know what will happen when I sit down with them and therefore feel more comfortable to discuss and work on their writing pieces.
We just posted a preview clip from Mark Overmeyer’s upcoming video How Can I Support You? Strategies for Effective Writing Conferences. In his new video you can watch Mark as he conducts six individual writing conferences and one group conference with students in grades three and five. Mark describes how he uses conferences to meet the needs of all writers, including beginning English language learners, advanced students, and students who struggle to develop their ideas. A bonus section includes a peer conference with Mark’s comments about how to help students support each other.
We just a posted a clip from Patrick Allen’s new video, What Are You Thinking? The author of Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop takes you inside his classroom as he confers with nine different students over two days. Patrick demonstrates how to connect with readers, how to monitor their progress through individual records, and, perhaps most important, how to encourage children to love books and reading while honoring their individuality.
Let’s face it: conferring in reader’s workshop is hard work. Throughout What Are You Thinking? Patrick provides a strong model for navigating the open-ended possibilities that each reader brings to a reading conference.
In More Than Guided Reading, author Cathy Mere shares her journey as she moved from focusing on guided reading as the center of her reading program to placing children at the heart of literacy learning. In this week’s Quick Tip, Cathy talks about how individual conferences play a big role in creating independent readers.
One afternoon during reader’s workshop, I knelt down beside Katie to talk about the book she had chosen to read, The Big Kick by Beverley Randell. Even though I had read this story aloud a million times, I was having a hard time understanding her retelling. She didn’t quite seem to get the gist of what she was reading. The story is about Tom and his dad who, while out in the yard playing soccer, kick the ball over the fence and have to try to find it. Since Katie seemed to be having a hard time understanding the story, I wanted to try to determine what was making the reading challenging for her. Was she actually having trouble reading the story or just difficulty understanding it? I asked if she would read a page or two to me and took a running record as she read.
As I listened, I noticed that when she got to an unknown word she would stop and look at me. My prompts to “try it” produced only puzzled looks. She was uncertain about how to help herself. I thought that if I gave her some strategies to try, she might be able to read with more success. Unfortunately, because Katie was not attempting to read tricky words at all, I had little information to go on.Was she able to use meaning to help figure out unknown words? Was she using available picture cues? Was she looking at the word and thinking about what it might be?
There was no way for me to know the cues she was attending to. As I talked with Katie I said, “I notice that when you are reading and you come to a word you don’t know, you stop and look at me. I want you to try to figure out the word on your own. Let me show you something I think might help. When you are stuck, go back a little and reread; then, when you reach that hard word, try something that makes sense. You can use the picture and think about the story to help as well.” We practiced rereading and attempting to figure out the word when she was stuck. Then, since she was still having difficulty, I reread with her and let her try the word, lowering my voice as hers took over.We did this several times, with occasional prompts from me. I praised these attempts, even though she did not always produce the word in the text, because they did allow me to see what information Katie was using to read new text. I put her back on my schedule for the following day. I wanted to follow up quickly, to make attempting an unknown word something she does independently.
Conferences That Shape Independence
While focus lessons allow me to develop common conversations in our classroom community, conferences allow me to shape my instruction to individual students. Changing my schedule to allow time for conferences has not only helped me to carry focus-lesson conversations into the workshop and learn about my students as readers, it has also allowed me to address specific student needs.
The readers in our primary-level classrooms read at their own pace and often have different needs. Instead of working with Katie in a small group, where my attention is divided, in a conference I can focus on her, jumping in quickly when she needs support, prompting her responses as necessary, and praising her attempts at reading.My goal is to support Katie with what is next in her learning, helping her to use new strategies to read increasingly challenging text with understanding.
Having time within the day to meet individually with students has made it easier for me to address the specific needs of my students. In classes of twenty-five or more, students are often not in the same place at the same time. Not everyone is going to be reading a book that is good for asking questions when my focus lesson is about that strategy, not everyone is going to need to learn strategies for figuring out challenging vocabulary, not everyone is going to need to learn to check through a word (search visually), and not everyone is going to need help in monitoring their reading. Conferences allow me to tailor my instruction.
Guided Conferences: I teach students something they need to know about
reading and we try it together. I am there to provide immediate support. Conferences That Support the Teaching of the Focus Lesson: I follow up on my
teaching of a new strategy or understanding from the focus lesson. Conferences That Extend the Teaching of the Focus Lesson: I am able to teach
something that builds on the focus lesson and extends student learning. Conferences That Develop the Reader: In these conferences, often more conversational,
I help students to develop a reading life. Assessment Conferences: I am able to find out what the child knows and
understands about reading.
“Reading should be left somewhat organic. When I confer, I am having the opportunity to talk one-on-one with a reader. About what he is thinking, in the moment… and he is able to beguile me with his thoughts as a reader– holding my attention, interest, and devotion to his coming to know.”
In his most recent podcast (recorded during the CCIRA Conference in Denver), Patrick shared some stories about students coming to know and becoming empowered readers through conferring.
Once children know when they will be attending the conference and are prepared for the encounter, the conference can begin. The conference must be a focused event, so I follow a sequence of implementation procedures to help with this task. These procedures include the following:
■ I ask the student to tell me what he or she has been working on in independent reading. This is based on the tasks set at the previous conference. These tasks stem from each student’s ability to internalize the different strategies modeled in the whole-class settings.
■ Once the student has identified his or her goals, I ask a series of questions based on the goals. I may also ask the student to read part of the text to me to check his or her fluency, phrasing, and expression. If the student is unable to identify his or her reading goals, I remind the student what they were. At this stage, I usually end the conference because it’s obvious that the student is not prepared. I reschedule the conference for another day and make sure the student works on established goals during independent reading.
■ If the child is struggling with the set goals, I provide the appropriate scaffolds and make recommendations. I make sure I follow up with the child before the next conference so that I am not waiting an entire week to see whether the student has internalized the modeled strategies. This follow-up is not in the form of an additional conference, but more of an informal conversation. The conference with Jessica on pages 117–119 demonstrates this procedure.
■ If the child appears to have accomplished the set goals, I congratulate him or her and set new goals. I record these goals in a notebook or conference record sheet. I also have the student record his or her new goals.
■ If I find that I have several students struggling with specific strategies or goals, I call them together for small-group instruction. If I find that the majority of my students are struggling, I reintroduce the focus in a whole-class setting.
The following are two transcripts from conferences that demonstrate the previously described procedure. The first is with Jessica from Betty Mason’s second-grade class. This conference shows what I do when a child is struggling with his or her set goals. The second is with Kirk from Peter’s fifth-grade class. In this conference, Kirk has achieved his set goals, so I concentrate on other aspects of his reading.
Conference with Jessica in Grade 2
Focus: Selecting Texts That Are Comfortable Reads
Tony: Hi, Jessica. Would you like to tell me what you’ve been working on in your reading?
Jessica: Getting books that are right for me.
Tony: What do you mean, “books that are right”?
Jessica: Well, ones that I can read the words.
Tony: Do you think understanding what the words are saying is also important?
Tony: Did you find any?
Jessica: I got three of ’em.
Tony: That’s terrific. Would you like to read one of them to me?
Jessica begins reading a book about fish. Her reading of the text is slow and labored. She mispronounces many words. My running record reveals that this book is too hard for her. After she has read four pages, I stop her because she is struggling.
Tony: Jessica, I’m noticing that you are having problems with some of the words.
Jessica: Some of them are hard for me.
Tony: So do you find this is an easy book to read and understand?
Jessica: I can read some of it.
Tony: Do you understand it?
Jessica: Some bits.
Tony: That’s great if you can understand some of it. Is there another book in your book bag that’s a bit easier? Maybe a book where you can read nearly all of the words and understand what’s happening?
Jessica: Well, I think that they could be a bit hard.
Tony: Then why don’t you go back to the classroom library and find one that feels just right. Remember how we talked about using the chart to help you select comfortable texts?
I refer Jessica to the chart created in the whole-class mini-lesson. Refer to pages 93–94 in Chapter 6.
Tony: Do you think you can do that, Jessica? Or do you need more help? Maybe one of your friends can help you.
Jessica: I think I can do it.
Tony: That’s terrific, Jessica. I’d like you to do that for me, and after I’ve finished my next conference, I’m going to come over to see how it’s all going. Does that sound good?
I write down Jessica’s goals on her conference record sheet. I also write down the words: “I’m going to find something I can read and understand” on an index card and give it to Jessica. This is her record of her set goals. This is put into her book bag so that she has her own record of what she is going to be working on in her reading.
Tony: Okay, Jessica. I’ve written down in my notes that you are going to find a text that you can read and understand. I’ve written this on a card for you. It says, “I’m going to find something I can read and understand.” So can you tell me what you’re going to work on?
Jessica: Find something I know how to read.
Tony: And not only be able to read but also be able to . . .
Tony: Excellent. I’ll be over soon to check how you’re going.
At the end of my next conference, I go over to see how Jessica is doing. She has selected two books that appear easier. I congratulate her on her selections and ask her to find a few more. I tell her that when I meet with her next, I want her to bring one of her new selections to share at the conference. If Jessica had again struggled making appropriate selections, I would either have provided her with further support, or met with her in a small group with other children who were encountering the same problem.
Parent/teacher conferences can be stressful for both parties, but even more stressful to new teachers who are navigating this delicate relationship for the first time. In this week’s Quick Tip, the authors of Mentoring Beginning Teachers: Guiding, Reflecting, Coaching, offer some advice for veteran teachers on how to support new educators as they prepare for their first parents/teacher conference.
Newsletters, websites, and surveys are helpful, but face-to-face meetings serve as perhaps the most important communication venues. These might take the form of open houses, back-to –school nights, or parent/teacher conferences. Many schools host an open house for parents/guardians during the first weeks of school.
Jim Burke (2007) recommends preparing a handout, displaying student work, wearing professional attire, greeting parents upon their entrance, and emphasizing teacher availability for future conferences or email exchanges. He also gives parents index cards with questions similar to the survey questions suggested earlier. Mentors can help prepare beginning teachers for these occasions by describing the general procedures: who greets parents upon entering the building, how long parents usually stay in the classroom, whether teachers are expected to talk to the parents as a group or individually, what displays are usually provided, how many parents to expect, and where refreshments or other information (book fairs, etc.) are located. Beginning teachers will often feel more comfortable with a routine: greeting parents, introducing themselves, saying something positive about the student, giving a handout or index card, and inviting parents to circulate around the room. Mentors might role play situations with beginning teachers to help them feel more comfortable in this new situation.
Middle schools and high schools sometimes sponsor a back-to-school night in which parents adopt their child’s schedule and move from classroom to classroom, hearing a summary of each class for ten to fifteen minutes. Mentors and beginning teachers can jointly rehearse their own description of the course. Beginning teachers, who are often technologically adept, may wish to present a PowerPoint presentation, keeping the presentation organized and allowing the parents’ eyes to be directed to the screen rather than directly to the speaker. Since the session usually concludes with a question-and-answer time, mentors can help prepare beginning teachers with typical parental questions.
Of course, the most common encounter with parents is the parent/teacher conference. While beginning teachers are often acquainted with various school procedures in their past observational role as a student, they probably have not directly experienced parent/teacher conferences unless they themselves have children. Ellen Moir states, “Parent conferences require new teachers to be highly organized, articulate, tactful, and prepared to confer with parents about each student’s progress. This type of communication with parents can be awkward and difficult for beginning teachers. New teachers generally begin with the idea that parents are partners in the learning process, and they are not prepared for parents’ concerns or criticisms.” (1999, 21)
To assist new teachers in preparing for conferences, mentors can discuss the procedures and rehearse various encounters. Some teachers prepare folders with student work and use the time to explain the curriculum and show the student’s strengths and weaknesses (or “areas to work toward”) in the particular subject area. Other teachers create note cards with specific comments tailored to each student, allowing them to use the sandwich technique: saying something positive, presenting the student’s difficulties or challenges with the work, and concluding with ways the parents and teacher can work together for positive results. Yet others like to begin on a conversational note of talking about the student’s interests prior to talking about the student’s academic work.
Mentors working with student teachers might model the first conferences, then invite the student teacher to give added comments, and gradually move toward having the student teacher takes a leadership role in the conference. In a middle school or high school situation in which the student teacher is teaching various classes and the cooperating teacher has not yet turned over other classes, the student teacher can take a leadership role in the conferences with the parents of the students she is currently teaching. Th is initial experience will help the beginner feel more confident in future parent/teacher conferences.
Mentors can help make beginning teachers aware of the concerns that parents bring with them. Sidney Trubowitz and Maureen Picard Robins refer to “parents who themselves experienced schools as places of failure, parents whose family life is in disarray, parents with unrealistic expectations for their children, and parents whose cultural values are out of sync with those of the school” (2003, 80). Other parents may seem quiet-natured and remain silent during the conference, may be non-English speakers who require a translator, or may have little or no control over their children and frankly admit their deficiencies. For instance, a beginning teacher may be excited to see a parent at a parent/teacher conference in which a student has earned an A– in class, thinking that this will be an easy conference to negotiate, only to discover that the parent is angry that the student doesn’t have an A on the report card.
Veteran teachers will often remark that each conference time often contains a new surprise, so mentors might prepare beginning teachers that occasionally a parent may cry, become angry, or seem apathetic. Sometimes a parent takes a negative comment personally, presuming that if a child is not doing well, it must be the parent’s fault. Mentors can show how to reassure parents by discussing or role playing possible encounters, illustrating how to defuse a problematic situation. While this might make some beginning teachers even more nervous, usually new teachers prefer to feel prepared, even for unlikely events.
Mentors need to emphasize that just as classes need to be learner centered, so, too, parent/teacher conferences should be parent centered. Teachers can encourage parents to describe their child’s interests and goals, to ask questions, and to share their concerns. Questions such as “What would you like me to know about your son?” or “What questions would you like to ask about your daughter’s work?” might lead to fruitful conversations. Most important, though, is for teachers to ask, “What ideas do you have for how we can help your child improve as a student? How can we work toward this goal together?” To create a true parent/teacher partnership, the conference needs to conclude with a two-way action plan: for instance, with the parent providing a work space and specified time for homework and the teacher agreeing to inform the parent of progress or problems with homework completion.
Mentors can help beginning teachers realize that what they say during a conference is often less important than what they ask and how well they listen. Many schools have moved toward a student-led parent/teacher conference, which may not have been the beginning teacher’s experience in his own school years, his practicum, or his student teaching. In this instance, it’s helpful for mentors to explain the procedure and to prepare students to become leaders in the conference. If these conferences are interdisciplinary, the beginning teacher may not see some of the parents of her own students, so she may want to set up individual conferences at another time for parents of struggling students.
In the following conversation, interdisciplinary team members describe to their new colleague how they prepare for parent/teacher conferences:
Amanda: Since parent-teacher conferences are scheduled for next week, let’s talk about what we can do to prepare. For instance, Kevin, since you’re a new teacher, you might have questions for us.
Kevin: Well I’d like to hear you describe a typical conference and what I should do to prepare.
Betty: What were you planning to do to prepare?
Kevin: Frankly, I hadn’t thought about it. I just figured I’d answer the parents’ questions.
Betty: Well, the most common question is, “How is my son or daughter doing in your class?” How can you prepare for that question?
Kevin: I guess I should have my grade book with me so I can look up the grades and assignment
Sam: That’s helpful. Sometimes I make a note card for each student with one positive comment and one goal for improvement.
Kevin: Um, I could try that.
Amanda: Would you like to see us role play some conferences?
Kevin: That would be great!
Amanda: If we each role played being the teacher, Kevin could see our different conference styles, and then he could decide which way suits him.
Kevin: Super! Could you role play a typical conference and then some difficult ones, such as a student not doing the work or a student who is the class clown? Then maybe I could role play the teacher’s role and get in some practice.
Amanda: OK, let’s try it.
Sam: Let’s go for it!
Helping beginning teachers know what to expect during conferences will assist them in feeling more prepared and confident as they initiate parent/teacher partnerships.
Do you feel quilty because you think you don’t spend enough time with your students in conferences? Are you struggling with what questions to ask during a conference? Are you looking to learn how to confer well?