Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Conferring: Improving Conversations with Readers

“There is something lasting about sitting down next to a child and having a conversation as fellow readers.” Patrick Allen p. xv

Today is Part II of a cyber bookchat about Conferring by Patrick Allen (#cyberPD).  Last week, the conversation began here as we discussed Part I:  “What Brings About a Good Conference Anyway?”.  You’ll want to visit the Part I posts at our Conferring Jog.  Today we are discussing Part II:  “What Are the Essential Components of Conferring?”.  Today’s conversation is hosted by Jill Fisch at My Primary Passion.  You’ll want to stop by to join the conversation.

The Importance of Conferring
It has been several years since I changed the structure of my Reader’s Workshop and moved away from a workboard (students at centers while I worked with groups) to using a structure similar to Writer’s Workshop. It just seemed to make sense that if I wanted my students to be readers they needed more time to read.  Reader’s Workshop allows more time for children to read independently, to enjoy books with friends, to talk together about books, to develop the strategies we are learning, and to grow their reading lives.   

The Structure of Reader’s Workshop:

  • Focus Lesson:  Each workshop begins with a focus lesson. 
  • Independent Reading:  Then students read (Allen calls it composing time) while I confer with readers and work with small groups.  During this time you will find students reading alone, with a partner, discussing books, thinking, learning, writing, etc..
  • Share:  Our workshop always ends with time to share and reflect.  

Reader’s Workshop not only gives me time to work alongside readers in a variety of contexts, but it gives me the opportunity to get to know them as readers.  There is no doubt that conferring is an important part of my Reader’s Workshop.  Reading Allen’s book has given me time to reflect on how significant this time really is for young readers, for learning, and for teaching.  Last week Mandy Robek shared all she has missed when she was not conferring, and I’m going to post this in my classroom as a reminder of the significant work occurring in these small moments.

Mandy said:

I have missed regularly conferring with students.  I have missed...
-"Purposeful conversations that provided me with meaningful instruction-rich in strategy, inquiry, vocabulary, and skills.
-"...conversations that stretched my thinking and monitored my understanding."
-"Purpose is uncovered during the reading conference,..."
-"Conferring helps me find out new things about the reader and provides an intimate opportunity for a shared "coming to know"
-"Conferring helps me uncover a reader's learning in a manageable, thoughtful way while leading to documentable data..."

Allen shares his reasons for conferring (p. 34).  Reading his book has given me an opportunity to really think about the importance of conferring.  Time to confer provides opportunities to:

  • Establish a trusting relationship with the student
  • Get to know each reader
  • Reinforce and/or extend focus lesson conversations (differentiate)
  • Learn what the reader is “thinking”, wondering, “discovering” p. 99
  • Record progress over time
  • Address specific needs that are more targeted to the reader
  • Teach at the edge of student learning
  • Empower the reader with new skills, strategies, and understandings
  • Shape the life of a reader
  • Smile, laugh, cry, wonder, discover, and learn from authors, characters, story events, and books together --- reader-to-reader

The Challenges of Conferring
Though I find conferring in Reader’s Workshop to be worthwhile, I do not find it to be easy.  For some reason, conferring in Reader’s Workshop is more challenging for me than conferring in Writer’s Workshop:

  • It is harder to stay consistent with time spent conferring in Reader’s Workshop
  • Reading work (more in the head) is not as concrete as writing work (more on paper)
  • In writing conferences I seem to be more comfortable letting students take the lead
  • It is easier for me to choose teaching points in Writer’s Workshop (perhaps because I keep more to the focus lesson conversations)
  • It is easier to name concepts, strategies, etc. in writing than in reading (again because work is concretely in front of us)
  • Writing conversations seem to be more forward thinking with goal setting, clear expectations
  • I seem to use reading conference more to find out about student thinking, but writing conference more to move writer forward

The Change
The reason I wanted to participate in this professional opportunity to discuss conferring is I wanted the time to look – really look – at conferring in Reader’s Workshop.  What do I need to change to make it more effective?  How do I help readers move forward in these small snippets of time?  How do I help young readers to develop ownership of their reading and learning?  What can I learn from others to make conferring in Reader’s Workshop more effective?  What can I learn from writing conferences that would improve reading conferences?

When I worked as a literacy coach conferring with readers in classrooms was hard.  It was easy to make conferences about “the reading” and not about “the reader” because I lacked the knowledge of history.  I didn’t know the conversations shared, literature read, strategies taught, or learning discussed.  To me, conferring as a classroom teacher has the potential to be much more powerful for learners because I have the knowledge of history.  I know the conversations the community has had about reading.  I know the books we’ve read together.  I have seen the progress of the reader sitting beside me.  I know the strengths of the reader.  I know where the reader needs support.  As a classroom teacher, it is much easier to have a conference that is about “the reader” and not the reading.  Still there are changes I need to make to make improve conferring in Reader’s Workshop.

The Plan

  • Change my conferring structure from listen, reflect, teach to listen, reflect, teach, PLAN.
  • Learn to let readers lead reading conferences (listen more).
  • Never, never, never compromise conferring time.
  • Be more explicit in plan, purpose, goal setting part of reading conference.  This is the time Allen calls (the P in RIP) plan, progress, purpose.  (pp. 102-104)
  • End the conference with an intentional plan.  p. 102

The Take-Aways

  • Teaching doesn’t always come from telling it often comes as we name what readers are doing. 
  • “When a student leaves a conference, I want her to have something in mind that may help her remember, understand, extend meaning, or make her reading experience memorable.” p. 104
  • “Keep the conference and teaching short enough to accomplish something important, meaningful, and applicable.” p. 129
  • “We want to think carefully about the language we use with readers from the moment we sit down beside them.  And we also have to remember that often that language comes from the student.”  p. 137
  • “The reader is better served if his voice, his thinking, fills the airspace during a conference.”  P. 148

Still Pondering:

  • While I have found a recording system that works well for me, I’m wondering about adding a student-recording component.  Katie DiCesare’s post, School Shopping: Blank Books, has given me more to think about here.
  • Like many in this #cyberPD group, I am wondering about switching from my notebook to recording conferences using an application that would allow me to take pictures, use audio to record student conversations, and continue to record observations. 
  • This year I plan to record more conferences to look closely at who is doing most of the talking, the true structure of the conference, the power of the teaching points, the types of conversations I’m having, patterns, trends, etc..
  • I also want to compare the conversations I have with different types of readers.  I want to be sure that my readers needing the most support are having high level conversations about books, reading, and thinking.  


  1. Great reflections! As Katie and I have been planning for our workshop, there's been much focus on where we've been and where we're going. You do that so seamlessly here. In all the posts I've read so far, we are focusing on similar things: listening, how we document, and goal setting. So happy to be thinking with people about this crucial part of workshop.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Cathy! I love how you've already started to outline a plan for yourself. I'll need to do that soon! Your description of Reader's Workshop time is very similar to what I have started (and need to work on) in my classroom. Making conferring a non-negotiable part of that time will be key! You also mentioned how we need to focus on teaching the readER not the readING, which I think is so important! Looking forward to continued learning with you!
    ~Laura :)

  3. Hi Cathy,

    Thank you for sharing these reflections.
    I ,too, have been thinking about conferring and reading activities lately - I feel I need to change something about it as a process.
    I really value your blog entry.

  4. Cathy~
    I so enjoy hearing your thoughts and reflections. I have had the privilege of watching you reflect-teach & plan for a few years and there is no doubt all the changes and take-aways will be reflected in your room. Your dedication to kids and teaching is admirable.
    I love the quote you shared-
    The reader is better served if his voice, his thinking, fills the airspace during a conference.”
    This rings true to me and is something I need to change.
    Katie's post has me rethinking the blank books. I pondered this thought when I was reading Ann Marie's book. I am still thinking about them, but more I am thinking about what goes in them and what comes from them.

    I love reading the thoughts of so many, I can feel myself growing. Thanks for the cyber bookchat!

  5. You weren't kidding when you said you were going to hang something of mine up in your room. It looks great on your blog as I reread it. ;) I love your honest reflection and looking for ways to improve conferring within your workshop. I think your own book could help you find those focal points and as Patrick shares always thinking about the mini lesson focus to see what children are doing individually. I loved your take aways from this section, all important thoughts for us to remember as we confer. Your post really shows we are constantly evolving in this profession, thanks for sharing.

  6. Cathy,
    You wrote, "I seem to use reading conference more to find out about student thinking, but writing conference more to move writer forward ." This is an idea I have wrestled with for a long time. Seeing the product of writing is a lot easier than seeing the product of reading, but I think that the only way we really can move readers forward is to get to know their thinking. I have been thinking that maybe what I need to do is become better at looking for the more subtle products of reading. Not sure what these are yet, but one I think I will watch carefully this year is the conversations between kids about their reading.
    Thanks for sharing,

  7. Cathy - Your post gives me lots to think about. I think we are all setting goals for conferring with students in the fall, and I'm grabbing ideas from Patrick's book and everyone else.

    Thanks for sharing your thinking!

  8. Cathy - Your post gives me lots to think about. I think we are all setting goals for conferring with students in the fall, and I'm grabbing ideas from Patrick's book and everyone else.

    Thanks for sharing your thinking!

  9. Cathy,

    First of all, I would love to hear more details about the independent reading time of your Reader's Workshop. I am always playing with how this works and as we both know it can look very different at the end of the year from how it looked at the beginning of the year.

    I also appreciate the reminder to teach the reader not the reading. For some reason, this is so much more difficult for me to do in reading. When conferring during Writer's Workshop, I find it much easier to teach the writer not the writing. During reading, that is not the case. I am not sure if it is because I enjoy the storyline of most books or because of how I was taught as a child. It is definitely something that I need to work on during the upcoming year. Thanks.

  10. Hi Cathy,
    Yikes! Friday night and between gearing up for football and out of town company, I still haven't responded to people's posts. Sorry to be so slow!

    I could so identify with your comments about the differences in conferring with kids as a literacy coach, and conferring with them as a classroom teacher. I'm really looking forward to being back in my own classroom, where I can teach readers as opposed to scratching the surface of the reading.

    I really like how you organize your posts- summarizing and planning for action, then your take aways and the things you are still thinking about. You inspire me- the last two weeks I have gone back and looked at my notes and done some regrouping after reading your posts. Thanks so much.

  11. Cathy,

    Great insights! Two of your thoughts resonated with me. First of all, being a reading specialist (resource teacher), I feel that struggle that you mentioned: not knowing the history, not knowing the conversations that already took place in the classroom, not always feeling apart of the literacy community . . . I do my best to create that environment in my small classroom. Thank you for sharing the different perspectives.

    Also, your very last ponder: "I also want to compare the conversations I have with different types of readers. I want to be sure that my readers needing the most support are having high level conversations about books, reading, and thinking." So smart! I've heard and read this before many times, but sometimes I need it posted on a big sign in front of me! Thank you for the reminder!!!

    Thank you for sharing,

  12. As someone who has never conferred with readers one on one, I was wondering if the reading conference would be more of a challenge than the writing one. Writing seems more cut and dry than a reading conference. I look forward to hearing your thinking as you explore this more.