Teaching Tips for Great Conferences
With Young Writers
Conferencing lies at the heart of effective writing instruction. Why?
Because, unlike math or even spelling, writing offers no single correct
answer. In some ways, it is like playing a sport. You have to put a
variety of skills together to hit the target. As teachers, we
demonstrate the “rules of the game”and then guide our students in
strengthening their “performance.” It’s a step-by-step process. Like the
coach who offers personalized advice to help each athlete improve, we
give individualized feedback that helps students discover their power as
Here are the most common conferencing challenges we hear about when coaching grade-level teachers on professional development days:
Now let's look at some solutions to each of these.
The Old-Fashioned “English Teacher Mindset”
I’m Not Sure What to Conference About
My Class Gets Too Loud on Conference Days!
The Old-Fashioned English Teacher Mindset
Don’t take this the wrong way –
English teachers aren’t the problem! The problem occurs when a teacher
mistakenly corrects every single error on a child’s paper. Redlining
papers like a high school English teacher does not serve K-5 writers!
Just imagine this scenario.
You are learning to play tennis. You’re a beginner who’s trying hard,
and you’re proud of your efforts. Your coach offers feedback on your
progress, and reports that you’re doing many things wrong. You need to:
(1) follow through on your serves (2) use two hands for your backhand
(3) adopt a different grip on the racket (4) plant your feet before
every stroke, and (5) anticipate your opponent’s moves so you can hustle
to the ball better. Sound overwhelming?
Solution — Don’t Try to Correct Every Mistake!
learns to play tennis like Serena Williams all at once. By the same
token, children have a hard time maintaining motivation for the long
haul if they’re faced with a long list of mistakes every time the
teacher gives them feedback. In conferences, stick to one or two teaching points.
That’s all. Anything more, students will not absorb.
Tip: Your teaching points address writing weaknesses –but be sure to honor strengths, too! Just
as none of us likes to hear a solid stream of criticism from colleagues
or family members, students need their efforts acknowledged. When
conferencing, compliment at least one specific
strength for your two teaching points. WriteSteps students learn to
analyze anonymous student writing samples this way, too, by looking for glows (what has the writer done well?) and grows (what could the writer improve?). The two must go hand-in-hand.
I Don't Know What to Conference About
Solution — Use Organizing Tools to Stay On Top of Student Progress
Keeping good notes for each student conference will help you choose teaching points wisely. WriteSteps provides a conferencing sheet you
can staple to the inside back cover of each student's writer's
notebook. This is a handy way to record the date and teaching points for
each conference. Checking these dates regularly also helps you ensure
that you're conferencing with each student regularly.
Also, consider what kind of conferencing you need for this lesson. WriteSteps teaches two kinds of conferencing:
is informal and very brief. After demonstrating a teaching point – say,
adjectives – you circulate while students write. This is a time for
looking over shoulders, making sure each child is on-task, giving some
structure to one who needs help getting started, and ensuring that
students have understood the task correctly.
Formal Conferencing takes
longer and begins several weeks into the school year. Classroom
management and expectations are already well-established (more on this
below). Now you can conference formally with a handful of students individually while the rest of the class is writing independently. This is a time to individualize instruction.
You can see both kinds of conferences in this 10-minute demonstration video.
students are very young, it’s easy to spot your teaching points by
glancing at their papers. If I notice that Jeremy’s paper is covered
with backwards “C”s and misspellings of the word “dog,”these are my
teaching points! I simply take a few moments to set Jeremy up practicing
forming C’s, and review how to “stretch out”sounds (or locate sight
words on the WriteSteps privacy folder).
It is common to conference more about spelling and
conventions in kindergarten and first grade, since
younger children have more to learn in order to make their
writing readable. WriteSteps lessons support more complex,
age-appropriate skills in grades 2-5, as do
the Common Core writing standards.
Since older students write longer, more complex pieces, you’ll need
time to read their work ahead of time to absorb what they’ve written and
choose your teaching points.
Tip: Keep a list of the focus skills (Common Cores) you have taught the class so far. If you are working with a child who has a good grasp on the grade-level focus skills, introduce something more sophisticated: figurative language, synonyms, or word choice, for example.
Class is Disruptive During Conference Time
Solution — Re-Teach Routines & Display Guidelines
behavior need not interrupt conferencing time. The early WriteSteps
lessons are intentionally short to allow time for establishing
expectations and classroom management techniques. If you’re dealing with
interruptions, noise, etc. after beginning formal conferencing,
re-visit the teacher’s Self Reflection Checklist in Unit 1. It provides 14 tips to help teachers prepare lessons, materials, and behavioral expectations. Be consistent.
Tip: Be sure students know what to do when they finish writing. Some teachers allow students to get up and get a book; others do not want them walking around. Whatever you decide, be clear. Display your class expectations using the WriteSteps poster or board to support good classroom management.
stretch your class’s capacities by overdoing it. Limit yourself to 3
students during a formal conferencing period (6 if you are teaching
kindergarten). Know in advance who you will be meeting with that day,
and post their names on the board or using this WriteSteps poster so students will be ready.
Tip: Be sure to teach students how to proceed when they don’t know how to spell a word! Practice
“stretching out”words to hear the sounds, and reinforce using the word
wall on the WriteSteps Privacy Folder. These habits will save you and
your students much time! Once you’ve established them, your students
will be comfortable not knowing how to spell everything right away.
Spelling can be corrected in the editing stage.
In conferences, we are coach and cheerleader. Our playbook includes not only lessons, but also valuable resources such as a list of the Common Cores taught so far (focus skills), record-keeping tools , and management posters. These resources, and the practices outlined above, will empower your students to play -- and write -- like stars.
"It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge."
~ Albert Einstein