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January 27, 2010 Reading and Writing Conferences: A Blended Approach By Angela Bunyi

    I have been utilizing the reading and writing workshop method for almost a decade now. As a former literacy coach and a current teacher of the gifted and high achieving, I most often have other teachers ask me for help or suggestions with regard to reading and writing conferences. The questions I am asked most often are: How do you manage meeting with your students? How do you organize conferences and/or do you have any forms or notebooks that you use? What do you talk about during a conference? How do you share this information with parents or use it for assessment?

    These are all great questions, and I think the easiest way to answer them is to take you directly into my classroom with a video virtual post. Get ready for a step by step look at a typical reading and writing conference in our room.  



    Virtual Post

    I have provided two versions of my post this week. Below is the virtual video post that takes you into my classroom as I talk about our reading and writing conferences. In addition to this, I have included a transcript of what I talk about in my virtual post.



    Scheduling Conferences


    So, before we begin, it is important to explain that I do not have separate reading and writing conferences with each student. After taking a blended approach a few years ago, I realized how relevant it was to blend the two areas of reading and writing; they are so dependent on each other anyway. I can really help make the connection between reading and writing using this blended approach, and I think it has made a significant impact in our room.

    Conferences last anywhere from five to ten minutes with each student. On average, I meet with two students during the reading workshop block and two to three students during our writing workshop block. I just move from table to table, and you may find me holding a conference on the floor, on the couch, at a student's desk, or just about anywhere around the room.

    Picture 3



    Organizing Conferences: Forms, Notebooks, and Tools


    Previously, I have used and endorsed Fountas and Pinnell's Reader's Notebooks. I still think they are fabulous and highly recommend them, but this year I opted for a simple, cheap alternative that requires no fuss or setup time. Each section of this book can be duplicated rather easily, and Beth has already done this with the use of her Reader's Notebook (and has this ready for uploading). I did this by doing the following:

    1. For the section that has the reading log, I simply placed a reading log in a plastic folder and used transparency sheets to allow other forms and activities to be utilized and stored here. Post-it notes, in particular, can be collected on a paper and placed in a transparency neatly. Students bring this folder to every conference.

    2. I ask my students to reflect on what they are reading once a week. This is NOT a book report at all. Students begin the year with thinking stems that help guide the way they write to me about reading. It is written in a friendly letter format and students use phrases like: "I am noticing . . . " "I am wondering . . . " "I used to think, but now I am thinking . . . " These thinking stems are modeled during our reading lessons and a copy is also placed in their reading folder for weekly use.

    Reading Log

    3. I formerly used the back of the Fountas and Pinnell notebook for guided reading notes (there is a tab), but I have opted for a section in the reading folder this year instead. It is a simple alternative. I sometimes just use anchor charts made by the students as well. You can find photo examples below.

    4. Regarding where to house your conference notes: I have tried every method known to man and have come to the conclusion that a simple
    composition book or three ring binder works just fine for me. A colleague of mine has an awesome form that she uses and places in a three ring notebook, but I have been doing this long enough that I don't need a form to know what to look for anymore. I honestly think you just have to use what feels right for you.

    Picture 5
    Photo: An example of one of the resources provided in our Reader's Notebook.

    Picture 6
    Photos: Guided reading notes, via our Reader's Notebook or an anchor chart.



    What Do You Talk About?

    Picture 4 As I said, typical conferences last anywhere between five to ten minutes. I spend the first minute responding to my student's reading letter while my student corrects a current piece of writing. For hesitant editors, I often hand over a pen so I can visually see the corrections made. The student is then given the option to have a reading or writing conference first. Let's say a student asks for a reading conference first. I then ask them to tell me a little about what they are reading and thinking, and I often flip through their reading log as they speak to make sure everything is up to date. If it isn't, I jot this down in my conference notebook. I then ask the student what page they are on and make a connection to the previous conference to give them an idea of their progress. It's easy to know who is reading at home, and who is not. If I notice that they're not, I address it at this time. 

    Reading Conferences

    Next, I remind the student of our conference suggestion from the previous meeting. Let's say, for example, we discussed using context clues or the replace the word method when encountering unknown words. I remind them to pay attention to this while reading out loud. I record the page number in my conference book and take an informal running record for a minute or so. At this time I offer my feedback, whether it has to do with pace, fluency, vocabulary, or trying new genres. I may even ask what they think they'll read next. It really feels like a conversation more than anything else. From here, it's on to a writing conference.

    Writing Conferences

    I usually begin by asking, "How's it going?" and use many of the suggestions provided by author Carl Anderson in the book by the same title. It's a great resource if you are wanting to know more, and I highly recommend it.

    Students are usually quick to point out their strengths and weaknesses, and I have noticed that if I use certain language with my students, they begin to use it as well. For example, a student may inform me that they are creating a double-focus poem, a suggestion by author Ralph Fletcher. Others will be happy to point out elements such as sentence fragments. On purpose. Like Jerry Spinelli. It's really a great feeling to see the depth that is possible. So, with all this said, don't be afraid to let your students do most of the talking or even to have awkward moments of silence. 

    So, when a student shares a selected piece with me, after they have checked for grammatical elements, what do I do? I actually use a pencil (or pen with permission) to go through one page in detail. I correct every error on the page, including misspelled words, which may go on their personalized spelling list for study buddies, depending on the importance of the word. 

    This is the first time that I have tried this, but I believe it has made a powerful impact for two reasons:

    1. Each week, one page of writing is being edited fully, showing weekly progress as we go through the year.

    2. It helps guide me towards a grammatical point of interest if something doesn't "stick out," although I try to balance my focus on content, conventions, and form. I usually end the conference by recording and informing students of two areas of strength and one area to work on for next time. 

    Here is the wording I often use: "Can I show you something writers do?" Or in the case of a student's attempt at using paragraphs, "Let's open up your chapter book and see if Paulsen can shed some light on how to paragraph a little better." All of this is jotted down and followed up with in the next conference. In total, a conference can last up to ten minutes, and that student earns a ticket to share during our reading and writing share time.

    Assessment/Parent Communication

    Picture 2
    The final note of interest may be in informing parents of progress or problem areas. I use a rubric form from Revisiting the Reading Workshop that allows me a space to jot down my conference notes. This goes home twice a month, and I keep it general. Some examples: "discussed vocabulary strategies . . . " "nice job on sentence variety . . . " "let's work on writing length or quality . . . "

    I avoid the educational jargon that we are accustomed to, and have come to the conclusion that conferences are more for me than for parents. It helps guide my instruction and lead to more personalized lessons because I am seeing and working with the students closely every day. With hundreds of one-on-one hours spent with students on their reading, writing, and math, I wouldn't have it any other way.



    Supportive Downloads

    Picture 1

    Download the thinking stem sheet referred to above.

    Picture 2
    Download the thinking stem posters that can be turned into a bulletin board (with supportive tangible items).

    Here is a PDF version of the above file. 

    Read an archived post on this subject.





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