But, in classrooms where student-centered instruction in valued, there is no substitute for the power of these few precious moments dedicated to one reader and one reader alone.
So, what are the teacher moves that will help you make the most of every conference?
First and foremost, smile, relax, and use a conversational tone. The conference is a chance to build a relationship between two readers. You and the child.
Start with a simple open-ended invitation for the child to engage in conversation about the text:
- “Tell me about what you’re reading.”
- “So, how’s it going?” (Carl Anderson, )
- “So, catch me up.” (Peter Johnston, )
- “Tell me about how you chose this book.”
Carry a list of sample conversation starters with you. While you’re conferring, you’ll want to carry a clipboard or tablet for taking notes, anyway. So, make it easy on yourself and clip a set of open-ended conferring prompts right onto your clipboard as a reference in case you get stuck.
Be patient and willing to tolerate some silence. If you’re new to conferring, your students probably are, too. Some students are initially uncomfortable with the kind of teacher attention they get in a conference. Others just need more processing time. So, after asking an open ended question, be prepared to provide some wait time. Bite your tongue and resist the urge to jump in with a different question before the first one is answered.
Be prepared to listen more than you talk. Your main task in the conference is learn more about this child as a reader. The best way you do this is to get them talking and then to listen reflectively, learning all that you can from what they say.
Give a compliment. No matter what else you do in a conference, make sure you identify and compliment a reader behavior that you want the child to repeat in the future. When you’re new to conferring, you may not always be able to quickly identify a teaching point. That’s okay. Some conferences are just a quick conversation that ends with compliment. You’re getting to know your readers and you’re working to build a trusting relationship with them. Giving a meaningful compliment is powerful way to do that.
Be patient with yourself. With every conference you’ll begin to develop a sense of confidence. Learning the knack of talking to any child about any book (even those you haven’t read yourself) will become more comfortable. And eventually so will identifying clear concise teaching points.
Start to look for simple teaching points. The teaching points you select for conferences are not full blown lessons. They are short and simple but powerful bits of differentiated instruction. The teaching point in a conference is usually something the reader can tryout or apply immediately with this text, but equally importantly can generalize to future reading.
Teaching points might be selected based on a on previous observation about the reader, or about something you have noticed during the conference. You might choose to reinforce or reteach something previously taught in a whole group or small group lesson.
Keep the conference concise. When conferring is new to you make an effort to keep your conferences short and focused. You might even want to carry a timer with you until you develop your own internal clock of what 2-4 minutes feels like.
Most importantly, stick with it. If you’re new to conferring, it can feel awkward at first. You’ll probably even wonder if it is truly worth the time you are spending. But like anything worth doing, conferring well takes practice and commitment. So above all, don’t throw in the towel. It will get easier, I promise.
When you’re ready to learn more, consider one of these great books: