The following has been adapted from Jennifer Serravallo's forthcoming book A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences.
When you confer, you tailor your instruction to each student’s strengths and needs. But you do so much more than that. Conferring is where the magic happens. It’s the heartbeat of the literacy block. Conferring blurs the lines between teacher and student; you become a researcher as you learn about your students, and they learn from you (Morrell 2012; Freire 1998).
Conferring helps teachers do the important work of seeing the rich and beautiful variety of individual students in the classroom, and to honor and cherish where each student is with their learning (Paley 2000). When you work one-on-one or in small groups with students, it allows you to value each child's language and literacy practices, and their own literacy development (Ladson-Billings 2009; Souto-Manning and Martell 2016). In reading conferences, you give a student or group of students your undivided attention, and develop strong relationships with them.
There are a variety of types of individual and small-group conferences, each with a unique structure and purpose and consistent student and teacher roles. During conferences, students are expected to self-reflect, show what they've learned, ask for support, and practice strategies. Teachers offer new strategies or support for ones still being practiced, give feedback, and guide readers.
Where Do We Find Time for Conferring?
When you're conferring with your student or group of students, what is the rest of the class doing? The short answer? Reading. Sure, you could keep the rest of the class busy with other literacy-related activities while you confer, but the most meaningful (and enjoyable!) thing students can be doing is engaging with texts of their own choosing. Instead of spending time at the Xerox machine running off worksheets or spending countless hours creating materials for centers, get books in students’ hands and let them read. Once students are set up with books, comfortable reading spots, and uninterrupted time, you can be free to pull small groups and/or to work with students one-on-one.
In A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences, Jen recommends trying to check in with each of your students and support their individual reading goals twice a week, somehow. It could be in a small group and a conference, two small groups, two conferences. A good model to start with for a class of twenty-five students is trying to meet with ten students a day (25 kids x 2 times a week = 50 kids a week ÷ 5 days in a week = 10 students a day).
With this ten-a-day aim in mind (adjusted for class size) you'll be able to build students' stamina and set them up to read and practice their strategies independently for a sustained block of time, all in a time-efficient and student-centered approach.
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Jennifer Serravallo is the author of New York Times bestseller The Reading Strategies Book as well as other popular Heinemann titles, including The Writing Strategies Book; Teaching Reading in Small Groups; Conferring with Readers; and The Literacy Teacher's Playbook, Grades K–2 and Grades 3–6. Her newest book is Understanding Texts & Readers. She is also the author of the On-Demand Course Teaching Reading in Small Groups: Matching Methods to Purposes where you can watch dozens of videos of Jen teaching in real classrooms and engage with other educators in a self-guided course.
Jen began her career in education as a teacher in Title I schools in NYC and later joined the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. Through TCRWP and now as an independent consultant, she has spent over a decade helping teachers across the country to create literacy classrooms where students are joyfully engaged and the the instruction is meaningfully individualized to students' goals.
Jen holds a BA from Vassar College and an MA from Teachers College, where she has also taught graduate and undergraduate classes on urban education reform and children’s literature.