“Conferring…” writes author Jennifer Serravallo, “is where the magic happens.”
Jen says that while conferring with readers might seem intimidating or out of reach, it is attainable -and necessary- in every classroom. In A Teacher's Guide to Reading Conferences, Jen shows us the value behind the responsive nature of conferences, how to get started with a conference, and ways to improve your existing reading conferences.
Our conversation begins with Jen’s feeling about conferring…
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Jen: I think conferring is probably the most important thing that I do with children. It gives you a chance to build relationships with them. It helps you get to know them as people and get to know them as readers. I think sometimes when we're in a reading classroom it can be hard to know, is everybody really reading? Is everyone really understanding? Is everyone doing their work? Is everyone working on the goal that we said we were going to work on? I know no better way than to sit next to a child and talk to them about their reading.
I really think that conferring is something any teacher can do and should do if they're teaching reading. If you give your children time to read during the day, sit next to them. See how it's going. Talk to them. Nudge them along. Support them. Give them feedback. How else can you know kids as well as you can when you sit down and talk to them, right?
Brett: One of the things we were talking about was, your hope in writing this book is that this book is that this book on conferring is really for everyone. You don't necessarily have to have that pre-existing workshop knowledge. Anybody can approach conferring when they read this book. Is that right?
Jen: That's right, yeah. Some people might think that conferring is something that's done in a reading workshop structure, and it is. It's a really important part of reading workshop. But I really think it can be done in any kind of classroom. In fact, when I start working with new schools, when I take on a new client for a residency, let's say they're coming from using a Basal reader when I first arrive at their doorstep. The very first thing I focus on is getting kids books. Giving them access to books. Making sure there's interesting books. Books they're going to love to read.
Then the second thing I do is I teach the teachers how to confer. Before we get involved with changing the curriculum, before we talk about mini lessons, before we talk about even the interactive read aloud, my very first step is conferences. Because I believe it's that crucial to developing readers, and it's that important also to developing teachers' knowledge around reading. If you want to become a more expert reading teacher, sitting with kids and seeing how they develop as readers is one of the best ways to do that.
Brett: Speaking of development. Your opening dedication for the book is to Lucy Calkins. You have a really insightful interview with Lucy in this book. Why for you was it important to include Lucy as the dedication?
Jen: I would not be where I am today without Lucy Calkins. That's an understatement in so many ways. My first book which came out over a dozen years ago, which was also about this topic, happened only because Lucy turned to me one day in a meeting and said, "You should write a book about conferring". At the time I thought, "Are you kidding me? I could barely get through a 10 page paper in college". I was the person up all night with cups of coffee trying to write. How could I possibly write an entire book?
But the fact that she saw something in me. If Lucy Calkins tells you to do something, you do it. Right? The fact that she kind of gave me this assignment to write this book, and she believed in me and then gave me the support to make it happen, changed the entire trajectory of my career. Here I am returning to this topic over a dozen years later. Of course I have to dedicate it to Lucy. I'm really excited for people to read the interview I have with her in this book. Because as always, she just brings such insight and wisdom to the topic.
Brett: Really throughout the book you have a lot of call outs. You have mentor call outs. Talk a little bit about what those mentor call outs are.
Jen: Yeah, so the interview with Lucy is one of the mentor spotlights. There's a mentor spotlight in each of the chapters. Some of them are literal mentors like Lucy was. I spent eight years working with Lucy at the Reading and Writing Project. Some of them are just people I've read. I've read so much of their work that they feel like mentors to me. Like John Hattie for example.
Sometimes the spotlights are interviews. John Hattie and Lucy Calkins and Ellin Keene are interviews. Sometimes they're reviews of some of my favorite books by them. For example, let's say Richard Allington is an example there. Sometimes I pull out quotes that are really influential, and I sort of discuss why those quotes are important to me. Marie Clay is someone for whom I chose that format. They appear in each chapter in ways that connect to whatever the main topic of that chapter is.
In the chapter on reinforcing student strengths and providing helpful, positive feedback, my spotlight is Peter Johnston, who's taught me a lot about that. What I'm hoping these do, a really big part of this Classroom Essentials series was making sure that we give shout outs in a major way to the people who have come before us who have influenced our thinking. We're trying to bring, so Katie, Carl, and I who all have the books launching this series, we're trying to bring to everybody these really important researchers and practitioners, and make sure they're all really well known. We all have sort of our own ways of doing that. My way of doing this was to create these, sometimes spreads, sometimes single pages, focusing on these influential teachers and researchers.
Brett: I think one of the other things you've done here perfectly is you've sort of demystified conferring, and you've made it very accessible for anybody. One of the sections that I love is, very early on in the book you have a colorful call out of what conferring is and what it is not. One of the things you specifically mention is that conferring is a conversation. Say a little bit more about that element of conversation, and some of the call outs that you've got there.
Jen: That quote, "I actually think that conferring is a conversation", I think came from Carl Anderson.
Jen: It's possible. I'm pretty sure. I'd have to ask Carl. But when I was a teacher, I was still in the classroom, my school was about 10 blocks from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. We used to have these opportunities called leadership groups where we could go after school and learn from someone who was on staff at the project. I signed up to be part of Carl's writing group. He was at the time working on his book, Assessing Writers. We were studying conferring and we were studying assessment. Writing assessment. Every Tuesday I'd walk the 10, 15 blocks up to Teachers College, sit with him for hours with a group of colleagues. Many of whom turned out to work for the Reading and Writing Project at some point, or write books of their own.
Jen: So much of my thinking around what a conference is or the elements of good conferring I think have their roots with Carl's mentorship around writing conferring. I've sort of applied that here to reading conferring, and of course like I said already, really influenced by Lucy's thinking around the topic as well.
I think there's lots of ways to sit down and have a conversation with a child. But what makes a reading conference stronger is when it is, it's a conversation with a student. It's not just a chance to sit down next to them and just quiz them, making sure they got every right answer in their book. But rather that you really try to develop a rapport. Lucy always told me, "Get down at their eye level. Look them in the eye. Talk reader to reader". Conferring I think when it's done best is a chance to really individualize instruction. While we may have and we probably should have curriculum, something the whole class is learning about, this is our chance to say, "I know we're working on an historical fiction unit. But I know that this individual child still needs some fluency support. This is my time to give this child support with that".
I think that's most helpful rather than just taking your lesson of the day and going around and teaching it individually to each student. It's a chance to offer really clear feedback to kids and guide them with their practice. I try to not spend a lot of time modeling or demonstrating, so it's not like I'm taking a whole class lesson and just doing it with an audience of one. I'm really trying to make the child do the work here. The child's really center stage, and I'm more of a guide nudging them along. Prompting them, giving them feedback.
Brett: One question that tends to come up with conferring is, "What if I don't know the book?".
Jen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brett: How do we approach that?
Jen: I actually heard Penny Kittle once say that she's a better conferrer when she doesn't know the book. I totally agree with that. I think when you know the book, you end up getting involved in a very detailed conversation about that book. After the conference is over, the student probably can't apply what you just did there. Although once in a while having that kind of a book based conversation is fine. But what I'm trying to do in a conference is really help give the child strategies that then they can apply to other contexts.
When I don't know the book, what I'm focused on instead are the qualities of the student response. I talk a little bit about this in Understanding Texts and Readers. Looking at the qualities of response with regards to comprehension responses. I'm looking at the quality of the response. I'm looking at the skills the child's using. I'm looking at the strategies they're using. I'm offering them something that's generalizable. I'm going to offer them a strategy and feedback that they can not only apply today in this sitting, but they can apply again and again as they continue throughout the rest of that book, and they can apply to the next book that they're going to read.
Through that repeated practice they're going to transfer and become more automatic with the strategy. Then they're going to be able, it becomes part of their skillset.
Brett: You're right that it's important for us to find a goal early on. Usually through assessment. Can you talk us through sort of the goal finding process?
Jen: Yeah. This idea of targeting goals, I talk a lot about John Hattie's research and how he showed that we can bring huge growth to students within a year if we focus on goals and we provide feedback targeted to those goals. A long time ago this wasn't really how I approached conferences. I would sit down with students. I'd have a conversation. I would usually teach them a strategy. I wasn't teaching the book then. But it was random. If I looked back over my notes for that student over the course of a month, I might teach something about character one day, and then fluency the next day. Then I'd go onto a decoding strategy. It was sort of all over the map.
When I would sit down next to a child four days after having a conference and say, "How's it going? What have you done since the last time I met with you?", they'd look at me like, "What have I done? What are you talking about?". Nothing really stuck, and I felt like all the time spent conferring was just kind of poof going up in the air.
It also I think felt really hard. Because I'd sit down next to a child. I'd feel this panic of, "What am I going to teach this kid today?". I would ask them to read out loud. I'd ask them to tell me about the book. All the while I'm listening, listening, searching, hoping something would become clear. "Where am I going to go today?". When I shifted my thinking to make sure that conferring was more goal focused, it helped the student and it helped me.
Helped the student because they student knew what I was going for, so every strategy that I taught over the course of a month or several weeks all went back to that goal. The child knew why I was doing it. The goal was something we decided together, so they had investment and ownership of the goal. Then it helped me. I knew if I was working with a child who was, let's say, trying to more deeply understand the themes in their books, I wasn't going to start a conference asking them to read out loud to me. That wasn't going to help me learn enough to know where to go next. I would instead ask them about, "What themes do you have in your book? What big ideas are you having?". It helps focus the conversation. It helps make the conference be shorter. It helps it be more purposeful, and more likely that it's going to stick. Then the child will be able to approximate and practice even when I leave them.
Brett: Sometimes one of the hard things that comes up in those conversations is those off the cuff kind of moments. But you've given us a tool in the book to sort of prepare for that. What is that?
Jen: One of the things I developed is a note taking form, or forms. A series of note taking forms that go with each goal. One of the things I've noticed from working with a lot of teachers, in residencies and in workshops, is they watch my conferring. They're like, "Well how did you know to do that? How did you know that was the next step?". Remember, I'm often working with kids I've never met before, so I don't know them well.
Brett: Right, yeah.
Jen: What guides me is really an understanding of a progression of skills within a goal. For example, if I have a student working on a goal of fluency and I'm listening to them read out loud, I might notice that they're reading in two word phrases, pausing after every two words or so. I'm going to decide probably to try to lengthen their phrases rather than move on to expression. That I'm going to work on paying attention to punctuation within the sentence before I talk about punctuation at the end of the sentence.
I've got this sense of what comes first, and so on these note taking forms I share that with teachers. My thinking is that they can put this note taking form in front of them. If they've already figured out a goal for each student, hold in front of them the note taking form that goes with that goal, and get support right on that page with the questions they could ask and what they're looking for. To help make the decision making easier for them.
Brett: One of the other things I think is important for us to mention here is, you also have throughout the call outs, in addition to the mentor call outs, you also have bilingual support as well.
Jen: Yes. I used to teach at a dual language school back in the day, and so I've worked with a lot of students who speak two or more languages. It's very important to me. I'm not a specialist in this, but I've done a lot of reading and a lot of research. I thought, there's a lot of teachers in classrooms today who have students in their class who speak two or more languages. Not just ESL teachers, but teachers probably in every classroom in America. I wanted to make sure that I give them some special attention and some specialized advice for how they might support those readers during conferring.
Brett: The book is written for a K-8 audience. How does conferring change? How does it look different as we go gradually up grade level by grade level?
Jen: I think it's more similar than it is different. I mean one of the things that'll obviously be different is the content. If I'm in a kindergarten classroom I'm teaching strategies, or in a conference around how to read from the pictures. Then maybe more print work, and maybe some fluency by the end of the year. In an eighth grade classroom I'm probably doing much more around themes and ideas, or character analysis and things like that. The content's a little bit different. The structures I think can be the same. They're going to choose structures.
One thing that's maybe a little bit trickier in the upper, even starting in upper elementary school, is that kids are reading novels. We talked already about how sometimes that can panic people. "I haven't read the book. How will I know if they've gotten it right?". To rely instead on what you know about reading. What you know about these progressions of skills. Make sure that your teaching is generalizable. Whereas in a primary classroom you can kind of peak over their shoulder, quickly skim the page, and get a sense for what the book's about.
But no, I think it's actually more similar than it is different. There's videos that are included in the book.
Jen: Online you can watch videos of me working with kindergartners, first graders, fourth graders, eighth graders. I think you'll see if you watch these videos, compare a kindergarten and an eighth grade video, they're not that different. They're not that different, in terms of structure anyway. Content, sure. But not structure.
Brett: What about time? I know time is a question that we often hear. How much time should a teacher give to a student in conferring? Sort of that second question that comes with that is usually, "What is the rest of my class doing while I'm doing that with a student?".
Jen: Different conference types have different amounts of time you might want to devote to them. I offer teachers different structures or types of conferences. Compliment conferences, which are really quick opportunities to check in, give some positive feedback, move on. Those might run about 90 second. More complete research, compliment, teach conferences, more around five minutes. Book club conferences, around five. I do actually talk about strategy lessons, which are kind of group conferences. Those might be more like seven to 10 minutes. It depends on the type of conference. I give advice in the book about generally how long that takes.
The rest of the class ideally is reading. They're reading, which helps you and it helps the kids. It helps the kids because the kids now have time to read a book they've ideally chosen themselves, and to practice the last strategy you taught them in the least conference you had with them. They need time to practice. It helps you because the kids are engaged in an activity that they're going to be engaged with, so that you are freed up to give your undivided attention to one or two or a group of three or four students.
Brett: One of the things that you told me before which I think is really kind of cool is the design for this book, which, if anybody has seen the pages already or some of the stuff that we've shared online, it's a beautifully stunning, colorful ... The layout is just amazing. There's a lot of purple in it. You said you got a little bit of inspiration from a cookbook for the design for this when you set out to write this book.
Jen: Yeah, I did. Well I want to be clear, I didn't design the book really.
Brett: Right, yeah.
Jen: Vita Lane is the designer. She deserves some shout outs for the beautiful aesthetic that she's brought to the book. But people who have read my previous books know I like a good looking book.
Brett: Yes you do.
Jen: I like a book that's not only filled with content that's going to be helpful, but that looks really nice and is fun to hold in your hands and flip the pages. Katie Ray actually invented this series. She came up with the idea for the Classroom Essentials series. She said, "I want them to be slim books with a really stunning visual design, that are really accessible. Whether it's a new teacher or an experienced teacher, that take foundational principles and bring them to the modern age". She sort of described the book, or what she had in mind. At that time none of these books had been created. There wasn't even a designer onboard at Heinemann to do them yet. I was like, "Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). I'm listening". I said, "You know what? I'm thinking cook books".
I went to my town library and I just pulled all these cook books off the shelf, and just put them all out in front of me. I found all of these different interesting design elements in cook books that I wanted to bring to this book. I snapped pictures of pages that I thought were kind of cool. Actually, the idea for a mentor spotlight came from an Italian cook book I read, where the author of the cook book had interviewed famous Italian chefs. I thought, "That was kind of cool", right? I stole that idea.
The opening, you'll see the opening chapter has a huge photograph that spans one and a half pages. That came from a cook book. Some of the ways that tables are formatted came from cook books as well. I love a good cook book. I love a good beautiful engaging photograph. Really clear. Easy to follow. I even talk about cook books in my reading strategies. But I really, you could say I'm really into food. Really into cooking. I borrowed some of those elements and shared them with Katie and shared them with Vita, the designer. Then she just made it beautiful.
Brett: One other thing about this book, Jen. You mentioned it briefly a second ago. But the video support that comes with this book, and there's a lot of online resources with this book too. It's called out beautifully in the book as well. Talk a little bit about that.
Jen: You know, I just got my author copy in the mail, and I brought it to show my dad. He's like, "Oh, another one. This one's kind of thin". That's all he said. Thanks, dad. Yes, it's thinner than my other books. But there's a reason for that. We took anything that didn't need to be in the book out, and we've put a lot of things online so that they're sort of print as you go, and take what you need. You'd mentioned the video. There's video online. In the book you're going to see a little thumbnail of what the video looks like. Then I offer a few options.
The pages are called watch and read. One option is, you watch the video. Another option is, you download the whole transcript from online if you want to read the whole transcript, or maybe study it with a study group and highlight it, or notice things about it. Then the third option is that the video has some call outs in the book that are very brief, and just sort of shout out the essential information. You could do any combination of those, and we've pulled the ... Originally the transcripts were in the book, and the book was very long. Katie kept saying, "We've got to trim. We've got to trim", so we pulled those out. It was actually her idea to have these bullet point look fors in the video.
Jen: Which I think is both helpful, so that you're not just watching a video. It's almost like you have me as a coach there, showing you, "Here's what you should notice here. Here's what you should notice here". These sort of replicable moves that you want to use in your own conferences as well. You'll see during each video that I'm taking notes. One of the most common questions I get from people who watch videos are, "What are you writing down? What's going in your notes?". I provide online what my notes look like. They're in thumbnail in the book, but they're pretty small. You can download them from the online resources and get a closeup look at what I'm writing down. Compare it to what you've seen in the video or what you've read in the transcript. Or what you've read in the look fors within the book.
Other online resources, we talked about the note taking forms I think are going to be really helpful. There's the 13 that are by each goal, and then there's a kind of conference in the book called an assessment conference where you talk with a student through all the different possible goals. I've provided a note taking form to help you with the kinds of questions and prompts to ask to gather that information. Then there are also, because I introduce these different conference types that I talked about before, like a compliment conference, a research compliment teach conference, strategy lesson. Each of them has a slightly different structure, and so there's these table tents that you can fold and put on the table in front of you.
Brett: Oh wow.
Jen: If you want to follow along with the steps of the process, to follow along with the steps of the conference. Not that you have to follow these steps lockstep, and I don't want people to feel locked into these at all. But I really find that structure helps me to stay focused, and it helps me to stick to a finite period of time. Which then allows me to meet with more kids. These table tents are provided to help people to do that. The idea actually came from some coaches I work with. Their names are Jen and Lisa, that I work with in Connecticut, who used to make these table tents for their teachers when they were learning to confer. Teachers found them really helpful, so Vita made some really beautiful versions of them for this book.
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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.