The Need for Conferences
There are two major, among many other, reasons why a conference is important. Firstly, it provides students with an opportunity to work one-on-one with the teacher or in a smaller group to receive feedback and work on their individual requirements. This is a great way to differentiate writing lessons since students often have different goals in writing. Some students will be working on spacing their words while others will be working on adding details to their sentences. Considering these vast goals, the conference is the one place to work with students in small groups or one-on-one to address learning needs that are tailored to their specific levels. Secondly, it is useful in providing a mini-lesson to the student(s) on how to improve their writing based on the goal set by the teacher. For example, if we are focusing on adding details through show me, not tell sentences, the work that our students produce provide us with how to move forward in the upcoming lessons. For instance, Krulder (2018) explains, "Students were able to ask questions about writing that they were unable or unwilling to ask in front of the class. Because of this, I better understood how to improve my writing instruction."
Steps to Writing Conferences
This student, Vedant, has actually written six pages about a character that he admires from a story we have read in class already. Here is how I would go about sitting down with the Vedant one-on-one and having our conference. Using his work as an example, here is how I would structure the conference:
Goal Recap (30 seconds): Begin by asking the student his/her goal or remind him/her if he/she has forgotten the goal. Follow-up by asking how they are working on their goal. For example, Vedant's goal at this time was to add details to the story. One way of doing this involved using adjectives and the five senses.
Give Self Feedback (1-2 minutes): Then get the student to write down what he/she is doing well in the essay or story and what requires work. I make them to do this using a smiley face and sad face. This step is usually for the more advanced writers, but I try to push all our writers to try it out. I only step in when it takes them too long to think of something. As an aside, now is a great time to refer them to the menu to help them figure out what they are working on well and what they are struggling with. Once the student has given a list for both sides, I add to it as well if necessary. I often say, "You are really aware. I would add this other thing. I really love how you back-up and re-read to fix the capitalization mistakes. I am so proud of that. Let me add that to the list." This kind of positive feedback really helps the student build confidence in their writing.
Model the Goal (2-3 minutes): You then have to think about what to model based on the current goal and the writing work that is being reviewed. If the current goal is not met, then you have to re-teach it and allow them to practice it some more. However, if the goal is met and the student has mastered it then give them a new goal. You may decide to continue the goal and give the student an additional goal at the same time. I would only suggest this if the student is a bit more proficient or advanced. That is a call the teacher has to make. In the above writing, I see that Vedant is adding details. I would ask him to continue the goal because he has not fully mastered it, but he has definitely achieved partial mastery and then I would add an additional goal for him to work on. The reason why I want him to continue adding details is because he has been provided several different ideas on how to go about adding details. From those ideas, he has started to implement two of the three. He is only at 60% mastery on adding details. As a teacher, I see he is able to continue this goal and take on another one. In the second page, his personal experience is not very strong. I would start saying, "I am looking at the menu and want to share something new with you to make your writing even better." Then I would suggest he give a concrete example (e.g. I helped a friend once who was being bullied. I spoke to him and told him that he is special. Then we slowly started to become friends over lunch).
Practice It (2-3 minutes): Most students should be given an opportunity in the conference to practice what the teacher has modelled to them. Give the student a go at it and practice it right then and there. This avoids confusion when going back and working independently. It also provides a space for students to ask for clarification and support for anything else. I often ask, "Do you have any other questions or want to ask about something besides this goal?"
Close the Loop (30 seconds): Finally, close out by re-capping the loop and check-in with the student a few days later to see how the progress is going.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when conferring with students on their writing:
The conference can be anywhere from five to ten minutes. I prefer short and concise conferences because otherwise it becomes too much. And with the number of students I had, I did not have access to time.
Some students require more conferences than others. Vedant (student who wrote the above sample) writes in a more focused manner requires less conferences. I would meet him once a week or even bi-weekly whereas other students have more regular conferences. Alternatively, I can check-in with more advanced students in short, regular sessions and do longer conferences with struggling students. This also balances off the schedule so that all students get the support they require.
I keep notes on the all the students and their progress. I use Mrs. Bainbridge's Writing Conference Sheet. I take short-hand notes and maintain a binder for this. Each student has a tab with their name on it and I keep this conference sheet along with the menu. I tick off goals students have mastered on the menu. You can download the writing menu I have created as well; however, you can also use another menu or make one from scratch to suit your writing lessons.
Finally, as Reading Rockets explains, "Some teachers decide to create very focused conferences, for example encouraging kids to only react to a piece of writing. Other conferences focus only on editing a piece of writing. It may be difficult for young kids to parse apart the differences. Many conferences with young kids involve both reaction and editing." As such, the process that I have outlined above is not for everyone, but it is a great merge between the reactive and editing approaches.
- Krulder, J. (2018). 5-minute writing conferences. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/5-minute-writing-conferences
- Reading Rockets. (n.d.) Writing conferences. Retrieved from https://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/writing_conferences