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Building Better Independent Reading: Building Relationships Through Inquiry and Conferring

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Howard Milner McCall Howard 2020 Quote1

Howard Milner McCall Howard 2020 Quote2As our classroom communities begin to coalesce and we turn our minds to curriculum and instruction, we need to continue to maintain strong relationships with all our students. These strong relationships are at the heart of our ability to develop engaged, motivated, and successful readers.

When students feel trusted, supported, and cared for, they are more likely to take an active role in their own learning, feel more engaged, and transfer literacy learning into independence. One way we can go back to better independent reading is to rely upon inquiry and one-on-one conferring. These two methods allow us to develop student-teacher relationships while also empowering students to co-construct relevant reading opportunities. Inquiry and one-on-one conferring send powerful messages to our students that their identities, abilities, and perspectives all have an important place in the classroom.

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Using Inquiry to Energize and Sustain Independent Reading

While inquiry works as an approach to curriculum, it is also a natural fit for centering the four key principles of independent reading (time, choice, talk and teacher support). Applying an inquiry approach to reading instruction positions students to build upon their strengths and to pursue next steps toward meeting a co-constructed instructional goal. 

If that wasn't enough, an inquiry approach boasts an almost too-good-to-be-true list of other advantages: they are time effective, naturally engaging, center what students already know making them inherently strengths based, and value curiosity, wonderings, and relevance. Does it get any better?

Murdoch 2015 Quote GraphicAn inquiry approach can be applied to curricular units that are typically framed around a genre (such as historical fiction) or set of skills (such as learning about characters or developing decoding strategies). By broadening possibilities for student-driven inquiry during literacy instruction, students and teachers develop other key aspects of a student’s reading life that extend beyond the reach of curriculum. Here are some examples of independent reading questions students can pursue through inquiry:

  • What does it mean to be engaged? How can I re-engage myself?
  • What is my identity as a reader? What do I imagine is next?
  • What do I want to work on as a reader? What are the possibilities?
  • What is feedback? How do I ask for it? How do I receive it?
  • How can I expand my book choices?

Any of these suggested inquiries can be repeated over the course of the year to reflect students’ evolving understanding and identities as readers. Be flexible with how many days to allow for an inquiry; this is responsive teaching at its best. Trust yourself to decide when these make the most sense to your class, resisting the temptation to plot them on a scope and sequence to take place at a predetermined time. Some inquiries make the most sense at the start of the school year as independent reading is just getting up and running; others are better served in between larger units of study as the need arises.

Regardless of how this work unfolds in your classroom, using inquiry as a method of reading instruction works to nurture and maintain the trusting relationships required to go back to better independent reading.

Using One-on-One Conferring to Energize and Sustain Independent Reading

Conferring allows us to move beyond labels. When we see the child as a whole, not as a single label, the child can grow as a reader. Specifically, conferring contributes to positive teacher-student relationships because it elevates student voice, makes conversations about reading more personal, and allows teachers and students to share experiences around books.

The reading conference is a powerful investment in time; it is filled with the potential for relationship building, agentive student learning and transformational teaching through feedback. In addition, one-on-one conferring:

  • Centers the student
  • Stems from and relies on each student’s reading identity
  • Allows teachers to provide relevant feedback to affirm reading identities
  • Allows teachers to provide relevant next steps

Miller 2019 Quote Graphic for TR BlogConferences can have different purposes. The purpose of the Discovery Conference is to learn about a student’s reading identity as part of the process of developing tailored next steps. You may already know quite a bit about your students through frequent kidwatching and other forms of data; however, the Discovery Conference gives students the space to tell us how they construct their reading identity, creating a clearer, more accurate story of the student as a reader.

Use the template below to guide your Discovery Conferences with students during independent reading. The suggested questions guide you through uncovering more information about each aspect of your student’s reading identity.

Discovery Conference Template Graphic for TR BlogDownload Discovery Conference Template

As is true with many parts of teaching (and life), the conference may not go the way we imagine or expect. Trust yourself to listen. Jot down as much as you can of what the student says. Maybe step away from your notes and come back to them with fresh eyes the next day. It is in these uncertain moments that we have to trust the power of taking our students’ lead, noticing and naming strengths, and building relationships.

Regardless of what our students reveal, all the information shared by students provides insights into how they construct themselves as readers. In order to go back to better independent reading, use this information as the starting place for instruction.

Howard Milner McCall Howard 2020 Quote3

Positive student-teacher relationships are key to going back to better independent reading. To build, maintain and nurture these relationships, teachers can rely on inquiry based approaches to instruction as well as one-on-one conferring focused on uncovering students’ identities as readers.

We have the ability to pursue what ought to be in classrooms, rather than feel compelled to work with current inequities. When we trust the power of centering our students, we can go back to better independent reading.

How will you trust yourself to go back to better independent reading?

Trusting Readers Small Drop ShadowTo learn more about Trusting Readers visit Heinemann.com.
Download a sample chapter from Trusting ReadersYou've just read blog #3 in a three-part blog series. 
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Jennifer ScogginDr. Jennifer Scoggin has been a teacher, author, speaker, curriculum writer, and literacy consultant. Jennifer’s interest in the evolving identities of both students and teachers and her growing obsession with children’s literature led her to and informs her work. Jen began her career teaching first and second grades in Harlem, New York. In her current role as a literacy consultant, Jennifer collaborates with teachers to create engaging literacy opportunities for children. She holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Teachers College, Columbia University and has previously published two books about literacy instruction and life in the classroom.

Hannah SchneewindHannah Schneewind has been a teacher, staff developer, curriculum writer, keynote speaker and national literacy consultant. She brings with her over 25 years of experience to the education world. Hannah’s interest in student and teacher agency and her belief in the power of books informs her work with schools.

Hannah began her career as a first grade teacher at P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, New York, and her classroom was used as a model classroom for teachers around the city and country. The trust the administrators placed in her along with the culture of collaboration in the school formed her beliefs in the power and possibilities of schools.

Together, Jen and Hannah created Trusting Readers, a group dedicated to collaborating with teachers to design literacy opportunities that invite all students to be engaged and to thrive as readers and writers. You can connect with them on Twitter at @TrustingReaders.

Topics: Independent Reading, Jennifer Scoggin, Hannah Schneewind, Trusting Readers, NCTE23

Date Published: 08/19/21

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