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Writing conferences are the most organic way to differentiate your writing instruction. These one-to-one moments give us the opportunity to really see our students as writers and give specific instruction to them on how they can grow as writers. Giving our students’ feedback and direct instruction on their writing is the most impactful way to help them grow. But, it can be pretty challenging to making it happen. So, I wanted to share with you some things I’ve learned along the way to making writing conferences work – even when you only have 30 minutes of actual Writing Workshop. 

And here’s the thing I think a lot of teachers tend to forget. Yes, the writing conference is about helping your students grow. But they have an amazing side effect of helping YOU grow as a writing teacher. The more experience you have directly coaching and working with students, the deeper your toolkit becomes at teaching writing.

During the one-to-one conference, you’ll research specific student needs. BUT, I like to sweep the whole room first. I like the big picture, bird’s eye view of what is actually going on in my classroom. (I do that for small groups and planning – more on that next week! 💛) Over time, you get really good at this and you have that teacher “knowing.” You KNOW what is going on in your classroom without having to intentionally do it. It comes natural and part of what you do. But no matter how long you’ve been teaching, it’s ALWAYS a good idea to pause, observe, and reflect. So research the room, especially at the beginning of the year. 

Research the Room

While spending some time talking to students about their writing is essential and offers so many benefits, I find it especially helpful to research the room.  What does this mean? Initially, I do this at the beginning of the year and then sometimes once a week just to observe and note what my students are doing. Honestly, you could even do this at the very beginning of independent writing. The purpose is to simply observe what students are doing. It’s about slowing down and really thinking about what is happening in your classroom. Ask yourself: 

  • Who’s not writing?
  • What writing behaviors are you noticing?
  • What are they doing well?
  • What are they struggling with?

It sounds like a lot, but it doesn’t have to be. Take notes on what stands out. These notes don’t have to be fancy.  It could be a simple list of students who all seem to be having the same difficulty.  I like to use a big table/spreadsheet with student names so that I can easily see take notes for every student.  After I have a conference with this student, I highlight it or just put a big check through it. As you can see, I also use a plus (+) and deltas (Δ) to note what they are doing well and then what I think they could work on next/what I might teach them.  During this research, I also use this to look for trends. In my example chart below, I have several students that are not using transition words and several other students who have no paragraph structure.

Use an Engagement Tool

Using an engagement tool can also help you observe writing behaviors with your students. I like to use this tool to keep track of students’ behaviors during independent writing. This helps you decide if maybe you need to have a conference based on behaviors, rather than specific writing skills. For example, if you notice that a student has difficulty staying on task most of the time, then your conference will be more about what his/her next steps need to be. Or maybe they are having difficulty staying focused, so they may need to find a better writing spot. Oftentimes, when students are off task when it comes to writing, there is an underlying issue that can be addressed through a conference. 

Another way that I like to use this tool is to use it as an individual or class reward. This is really helpful when preparing for a standardized test. For example, when we practiced for the FSA (Florida State Assessment) for writing, I used this tool to observe my students during practice. They knew that I was using this tool for one purpose only – just to observe whether they were focused and working on writing. Since it was practicing for an end of year test, I made it a big deal and told them our assistant principal would reward them with ice pops if ALL of my students were on task. Of course, this can be adjusted for your group of students. You could even make it a percentage, just so it’s fair if one child isn’t on task and it hurts the rest of them. This tool is so simple, but so effective at keeping your students engaged. It also helps you really see which students aren’t making the most of their writing time. This is important so that you can then figure out WHY and HOW to help them.

What does a writing conference look like?

Okay, so now you’ve done some observations and research with what’s really going on in your classroom. Let’s talk about what a writing conference actually looks like. Writing conferences follow a basic structure: research, decide, compliment, teach.  

Research: This is isn’t as intensive as it sounds. Before you begin conferring with a student, you want to have an idea about what you might teach them. Spend some time observing the student with what they are doing as a writer. Sit next to them whether they are on the carpet or at a table. This is more comfortable and sets the tone that the conference is more of a conversation. You might use a rubric or checklist to help you make these decisions quickly or you might spend a day taking notes, collecting student samples, and then making a plan for conferences the following day. You have to do what feels right for you and your students.

You can have the student read aloud part of their writing to you. You can also just read over their shoulder and let them continue writing as you observe. During this time, you are simply observing what they are working on and what they are doing well. You might take some anecdotal notes to decide what your compliment and teaching point will be. 

Decide: Initially, you will probably think there are ten things you can teach your student. It can feel overwhelming to you. And if you teach all ten of those things – you’re going to overwhelm your students. Choose just ONE thing to teach your students. Don’t worry about it being the perfect thing to teach, but select what you think is the next best step. Trust your teacher gut and use a checklist if you need to develop that teacher gut. Think, “What is this student already doing well? What would be their next step?”

Compliment: Before you jump into teaching a new strategy, start with a compliment. Point out something the writer is doing well. Specifically name what it is they are doing well. This is important because if they know they are doing something right, then they will continue to repeat it. Here are some examples of what that might sound like:

  • “I love how focused you are on your writing. You’ve ignored all distractions around you.”
  • “Wow! Look how you have already organized your writing into paragraphs. Writers do that so the reader has room to think.

Teach: After you compliment what the writer is doing well, use that to lead into a teaching point. You can use language such as:

  • “I’d love to teach you something else that writers do…”
  • “You are doing ___ so well that I think you’re ready for the next step…”
  • “May I teach you something else that writers do…”

Link: Connect to ongoing work and remind them they can use this strategy forever. “So remember you can always chunk your writing into paragraphs to give your reader space to think.”

Because this is a one-on-one conference, it is very delicate and you want to really be careful about the language you choose. You want the writer to feel safe to try out new things in their writing. You want your teaching to come from a place of “you’re doing this well and here’s what’s next for you.” You DON’T want to come from a place of “you’re not doing this and you should be.” We don’t want our students to feel bad about their writing or that they’re not good writers. We NEVER want that. We want them to feel confident in their writing and ready to grow.

You can use this free template to help you with the structure of the conference and keep your teaching tight and focused. I like to think of a writing conference as an individualized minilesson.  As you continue to follow the structure and model of the writing conference, you eventually won’t need to use this cheat sheet. 

This is one of my favorite ways to keep track of individual student conferences over time. On one page, you have a snapshot of 6 different conferences that you have had with a student. This comes in really handy during parent conferences, data meetings, and just overall notes on your students. I keep all of these in a binder or folder. Each student has their own page and I copy these front and back, so then I have 12 conferences on one page for each student. And when it comes to conferences, it’s okay to embrace your inner doctor penmanship.  As long as you can read your notes, you’re good to go! 😆

This conference form has the same idea, but gives you a few cheat sheet teaching points at the bottom so that you can prioritize your process when teaching individually. You can grab all of these conference forms and checklists for free by clicking any of the images or boxes throughout this post. 

I also really like using this grid/calendar template because I can look at a glance and see which students I still need to meet with. It makes it really easy to take notes. It’s almost like a game because I want to fill up the grid with all my notes because that means I’ve met with all of my students and time to meet with them again.

The actual teaching in your conference can be done in several ways. You can use the following materials to teach:

  • a mentor text
  • your writing notebook
  • review what you used to teach the lesson
  • notebook chart

Keeping your notebook and/or conferring binder stocked with possible writing lessons and teaching points will help you be ready to individualize your instruction.

Compliment Conferences

Compliment conferences set the tone of positivity in your classroom and there is a subconscious connection that relates writing time with positive feelings. The more that students enjoy the writing process, the more motivated they become and as a result – they grow as writers. If that’s not enough to persuade you, here are 3 big reasons why you should start the year with compliment conferences:

  1. To build relationships with your students – If you start the year focusing on what they are doing well, then they are going to be more likely to listen when you teach them something new or coach them on a specific strategy. Also, instead of looking for what students are not able to do, you can focus on what skills they are bringing in with them. Think about this as a time to research and observe your students. You’re using this time to learn about them as writers.
  2. To focus on what they are doing well. – It’s so easy to focus on what our students don’t know how to do or aren’t doing when they come into our classroom. This can create a negative outlook on our teaching of writing and focus on our students’ lack instead of what they already know how to do. Even if it is below grade level. By focusing on what they already know how to do, you can then determine what to teach next. Train your brain to think, “Awesome! My students know how to ____. What can I teach them next?”  That sounds and feels way better than, “My students can’t complete a sentence.” or “My students don’t know how to create paragraphs.”
  3. Lets other writers around them know what writers do. Most likely when you are conferring with students, other little ears around them will perk up and pay attention. While you may be focused on what one student is doing well, 2-3 other writers around them may hear what you say. Whether they do it now or 3 months from now, they soak that in and they’re hearing you deliberately state what effective writers do.

What does a compliment conference look like? 

Compliment conferences are a MUST at the beginning of the year.  if you are also having a day where you feel stuck in WHAT to teach during conferences or small group, focus on compliment conferences so at the very least you are touching base with your students.

Structure of a Compliment Conference:

Questions: Begin with a simple open-ended question such as, “What are you working on today?” or “How’s it going?”

Research: Make notes of what the writer is doing well or almost well.

Name: Pick one thing to focus on and give it a name. Point to where the writer did this in their work. If you don’t know the name of what the writer is doing – just make it up. Generalize the strategy to all writers do this and explain why.

“I see you put some spaces in between paragraphs. That’s called chunking. Writers organize their writing into paragraphs or chunks to give the reader space to think.”

Link: Connect to ongoing work and remind them they can use this strategy forever. “So remember you can always chunk your writing into paragraphs to give your reader space to think.”

How do I keep track of it all?

Creating a weekly/monthly schedule can help you better plan when you will meet with students so that you can already have a plan. 

You can also use a checklist to simply keep track of who you are meeting with each week. I also like to code with C= Conference or SG=Small Group. This way I can keep track of who I’m meeting with whether it’s 1:1 or in a small group. (More about small group conferences to come!)

The questions that teachers frequently have about writing conferences are listed below and my response based on my experience and research. 

How long does a writing conference last?

A writing conference does not have to be long because you want your student to have time to apply what you teach them or be able to take action shortly after you have taught them. But you don’t want your conferences to be short and rushed so that you can meet with other students. In the book, “How’s it Going?” Carl Anderson recommends between 3-8 minutes. The average is 5 minutes per conference. 

How many students should I confer with each day? 

There is no magic number with how many students you confer with each day. What I will say is this: the more touchpoints and interactions you have with a student, the more of an impact you are making. And it won’t be immediately. You’re building a long runway of a relationship with each child. Every time you compliment them or offer them something new to learn, you are helping them take one step forward in growing as a writer. 

How many students you meet with depends on how much time you have during independent writing. A typical writing workshop is a 45 minute block of time. However, many districts have cut that back to 30 minutes. So teachers have to get pretty creative with the use of their time. So if you have 20 minutes of writing time, and each writing conference lasts about 5 minutes, then you can meet with 3-4 students each day. When this doesn’t happen – don’t beat yourself up over it! If you have only a few minutes left of writing – not enough for a conference, but too much time to waste- this is the perfect time for a compliment conference. 

How often should I meet with my struggling writers?

Meeting with your struggling writers is probably at the top of your to-do list. I do meet with these students more often – maybe 2-3 times a week. But remember, there are other ways to scaffold instruction besides individual conferences. Just like you would form small groups in reading, you can also use small groups in writing. One thing that I have always found helpful is to keep my struggling writers on the carpet with me after the minilesson so that I can help them get started immediately. I also will typically bring these students to my small group table. I might have conferences at the table with other students, but they are right next to me and it is simply the zone of proximity that helps them stay focused and positive. After some time

Another way to meet the needs of these students is by checking in with them frequently to compliment or support them in any way. It may not need to be a long conference, but just a quick check-in.   

When it comes to conferring with your students, remember that we are always learning. We are always trying to figure out how to best meet the needs of our students. The best way we can help our students grow is by growing ourselves! I’ve shared some of my favorite books for conferring with writers below. And don’t forget to grab your free writing forms and checklists by clicking the link below: 

Recommended Reads:

Some of my favorite resources when it comes to conferring with writers are the following: 

How’s It Going by Carl Anderson

One to One by Lucy Calkins, Amanda Hartman, and Zoe White

You might also like these other related blog posts: 

 

5 Ways to Differentiate for Stronger Writers

How To Tackle the Issue of Time in Writing Workshop

How to Bring Craft into Your Writing Instruction