I’ll admit that when I first started implementing Reader’s Workshop conferring was the most difficult aspect to grasp – not because I don’t like talking to my students but because it sounds like something more official, more structured than what it turned out to be.
I thought I had to know everything about the books that every student was reading. Is that even possible? I thought I had to know each character and the plot of every book, but what I quickly learned is that the conferences are not about the books at all! The reading conferences is about the student as a reader and what they are thinking and comprehending or not.
I realized I didn’t have to know the book in order to help my students with strategies for increasing comprehension or building stamina or challenging them to go a little further than they did last year.
In time (maybe a semester if I’m being honest), conferring with students became my favorite part of class. Every two weeks or so I was meeting with every student in class – a personal, intentional conversation with each student in my class. If that doesn’t build relationships with students, I don’t know what does.
What is a Reading Conference?
Reading conferences are a time for you, the teacher, and a student to sit together and have a real conversation about what they are reading. A one-on-one conversation with a student! When is the last time you were able to do that during class?
During our sustained reading time, I am conferencing with students. I meet with as many students as time allows each day. Some days I meet with five students and some days I meet with one or two. It becomes a natural part of class.
In general, reading conferences are short, usually around 5 minutes, sometimes longer, and focus on the individual student and their individual reading needs. I start each conference by asking an open-ended question such as How is your reading going today? Or What new information have you learned this week? This allows the student to opportunity to simply start talking about their book. Sometimes I only need to ask one questions and the student takes over from there – those are the best conferences!
While you should meet with every student don’t worry about creating a strict schedule or formalizing conferences so every student has the same questions. This is an opportunity to differentiate for each student. The purpose of the conference is for students to share their learning and struggles with you so you will be able to meet them where they are in their reading journey. Some students will need more time than others and that is okay.
How do I know what questions to ask my students?
A reading conference has to feel natural otherwise it becomes a chore, a task to check off. When I first began conferring with students, I asked every student the same set of questions. I thought it would be easier to manage if everyone had the same conference.
While it did make it easier for me to jump into conferences, I very quickly realized that each conference is as unique as each student. I may start conferences with the same open-ended question but what comes next depends on 1) the student answer to the question and 2) the individual needs of the student.
This does not mean I go into each conference without a plan. Through multiple activities (Getting to Know your Students as Readers – LINK POST) and previous conferences, I know my students and where they are on their reading journey. I keep records of our conferences so I can follow up with them at the next conference. I have a list of questions I can pull from if I need ideas.
There are different types of questions to ask depending on what supports the student needs:
|Conferences that monitor reading life|
What are you reading?
What are you thinking about reading next?
Would you recommend this book to a peer?
|Conferences that teach a reading strategy|
What does this make you think of?
What message is the author trying to convey?
|Conferences that challenge the reader|
What other books have you read by this author?
Tell me about a book you’ve abandoned this year. How do you know when it’s time to leave a book?
Do I need to keep track of everything?
The simple answer is no, you don’t need to keep track of everything that is said during a reading conference. While formalized, structured conferences are not my conference style, keeping records of student progress is. The notes I take during conferences help me in many areas of teaching. I use them to plan our minilessons, progress monitor students on IEPs and give more specific information to parents during parent/teacher conferences.
I tried many different styles of record-keeping until I found a style that works for me, I keep a folder for each class period. In that folder is a page for each student. On each page I have the students current Lexile level, a reading goal, a checklist of grade level skills for students to master and space for me to jot down additional notes (see picture below).
You have to find a system that works for you. I have worked with other ELA teachers who simply keep a spiral notebook of notes organized by day and other teachers who carry their computer around with them as they confer and type notes into a document. The format of your notes is not as important as the record-keeping itself, so find a system that works for you.
If the reading conference is what’s holding you back from jumping into Reader’s Workshop, I want to encourage you just to give it a try! Even if you start slow and asked each student one open-ended question that’s a start. Don’t feel like you have to do all the things. Just take the first step and when you’re comfortable with that add another layer. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Once the students see your interest in their books, they will want to talk about them. I promise you, if this very introverted teacher can do this, so can you!