There is a story often told about the writer Gertrude Stein. As she lay on her deathbed, a brave friend leaned over and whispered to her, "Gertrude, what is the answer?" With all her strength, Stein lifted her head from the pillow and replied, "What is the question?" Then she died.
I suspect Ms. Stein would have been a crackerjack primary writing teacher. The most insightful teachers I know often ask, "What are the best questions to ask in writing conferences?" The fact is, there isn't an easy answer, because the best questions evolve out of individual circumstances. One of the most effective ways to support children is by looking for questions as they work — questions that encourage more thinking and, ultimately, writing. These strategies and the questions will get you started.
Activity 1: Avoid Yes/No Questions
Purpose: To help students think more deeply about their work.
Asking students open-ended questions is one of the best ways to foster more talk about writing in your classroom. This simple strategy requires more discipline than you might think. Because we have a lot to accomplish in little time, and so many children require our attention, we tend to ask easy questions. But if we find the time to ask open-ended questions, such as "What will happen next?" or "How did you come up with that lead?", we'll push students to think more seriously about their writing and work habits.
Activity 2: Encourage Kids to Value Work
Purpose: To help students monitor their behavior.
If you're starting to feel less like a teacher and more like a hall monitor during writing time, you might want to consider changing how you respond to students who are having trouble staying on task. I used to ask misbehaving students, "What are you supposed to be doing?" In return, I'd receive mumbled excuses, a shuffling of papers, and, if I was lucky, a bit more work. By shifting my question to "Is what you are doing important?", I saw an immediate change in students' responses. Instead of making them feel ashamed or angry, I gave them a chance to explain their behavior. As a result, the responsibility for finding value in the work shifted to the students themselves.
Activity 3: Evaluate Many Pieces
Purpose: To help students see patterns in their work.
One of my most common ruts is focusing only on single pieces of writing. The student pulls out a draft, reads it to me, and I ask questions. When the same student shares all of her writing from the past couple of weeks, it generates better questions and responses. With the student's work spread out on the desk, I ask, "What do you notice about your writing over the past two weeks?" Sometimes students notice they have explored only one topic, or they are starting to try poetry, or they simply haven't written much. These observations are helpful to both of us, as individual writing styles, preferences, and problems emerge.
Activity 4: Refocus in Conferences
Purpose: To help you recapture momentum in writing conferences.
It happens to every teacher: You're with a student in a conference. The student is talking and then looks up at you, waiting eagerly for a response. And you don't have a clue what he just said. Writing conferences require an intense amount of concentration, and every teacher has moments when she spaces out — when her mind wanders to an earlier staff meeting, or the scuffle breaking out elsewhere in the classroom, or the coffee maker that may have been left on. When this happens to me, I have two responses that can salvage any conference. I simply say, "Tell me more about that!" or "What will you write next?" In general, primary students happily continue talking, and I regain the thread of our conversation.
Writing Conference Questions That Work
Getting kids to think of themselves as writers can be accomplished through careful questioning. However, too often conferences concentrate solely on the work itself — even if that work isn't worth revising. Here are some questions that lead students toward thinking about their overall development.
Instead of Asking:
- Is that all you're going to write?
- Do you think this is your best work?
- Can't you think of anything else to write about?
- Are you stuck again?
- What is your favorite part of this piece?
- Why did you write this?
- What will you add to your story?
- What did you do well in this piece?
- What do you do well as a writer?
- What are some other topics you might write about?
- Who are the good writers you know?
- What do they do when they get stuck?
- How is this piece like others you've written?
- How is it different?
- What did you learn about writing by writing this piece?