As a middle school teacher who is committed to making time for independent reading and helping students grow a lifelong love for reading, I’m often asked, How do you do it all? What does independent reading look like? How do you know students are actually reading? How do you get them to pick up a book, let alone enjoy it? What’s your secret for helping students fall in love with reading? While I don’t have any secrets (besides giving kids books, time, choice, and support), there is one powerful strategy behind my answers to all of the above questions: conferring.
Whether you call it conferring, chatting, conferencing, or something else, it’s really just a one-on-one discussion with a student. Conferring is a way to connect with your students, move them forward on their reading journey, and tailor your instruction to their needs and goals. It’s truly where the magic happens and all of the other pieces of choice reading come together.
If you’ve been struggling to make independent reading work in your classroom, conferring just might be the missing piece in your independent reading program. Conferring really gives you a chance to bring everything together for students in a powerful, focused, and meaningful way.
Curious about conferring or looking to maximize the potential of your reading conferences? Here are 5 reasons to confer with your readers in your middle or high school ELA classroom.
Conferring gives you an opportunity to get to know your students as readers and help them discover their unique reading identities.
Think of conferring as connecting. Each conversation you have with a student is a chance to get to know them as a reader and human. It’s an opportunity to build relationships and validate students’ experiences and attitudes toward reading. As any secondary ELA teacher knows, those attitudes are often negative, sometimes rooted in painful reading experiences from prior grades. Many students come to us already disengaged with reading, proclaiming to hate it and bragging about not having read a book in years. Others may be compliant but lack a strong sense of reading identity. Even voracious readers may not have had a chance to consider who they are as readers.
Through conferring, we can help students grow and discover their reading identity book by book. When we know where our readers are coming from, we can meet them where they are…which brings me to my next point!
Conferences allow you to differentiate reading instruction and plan lessons targeted to the needs of your students.
With large class sizes and little time, true differentiation can be a challenge. A one-on-one conference with a student is just about good as it gets! When you sit down with a reader, you can meet them where they are in a way that you can’t do with whole class instruction. In one round of reading conferences, you might be working on comprehension strategies with some students, asking others to make connections across texts, introducing advanced analysis to kids who need enrichment, and even focusing on the skill of selecting a text with those serial book abandoners.
Doing different things with different readers might sound a little intimidating, but it’s easier than you’d think. When you confer with readers on a regular basis, you will quickly notice what they need and become skilled at adapting each conference to each student. Trust yourself–you know your students, and conferring will help you get to know them even more.
Not only does conferring allow you to provide individualized feedback, but it gives you the data you need to plan lessons targeted to student needs. As you meet with students, you will notice trends, common issues, misunderstandings, and gaps in your teaching. With this data, you can plan more responsive, student-centered lessons. This is one reason why I highly recommend taking notes during or after each reading conference, as well as reflecting after each round of conferring. Keeping track of what you notice during these conversations will help you tailor your instruction (and your future conferences).
I keep track of everything in this one-stop-shop spreadsheet that functions as a conference log and independent reading tracker. With tabs for each student and specific categories to record data, this spreadsheet is a lifesaver, and it’s a great resource to show parents and admin, too. You can find my master spreadsheet HERE.
Reading conferences help keep readers accountable for independent reading in a natural but effective way.
By far, the biggest question I hear from teachers is “How do you know students are actually reading?”
The first answer to that question is to observe students during daily independent reading time. (Trust me, you’ll know who is reading, who is avoiding it, and who is faking.) The second answer is conferring. This is the way you’ll really learn who is reading, comprehending, learning, connecting, and growing. Students might be able to sneak a few minutes of fake reading in class, but they can’t fake their way through a conference. But conferences aren’t about “catching” students fake reading. They’re about helping readers grow.
Conferring can help you strike the balance of keeping readers accountable for growth and keeping independent reading rooted in joy. This song and dance is perhaps the most challenging part of it all. You want to give students the books, time, and choice they need to fall in love with reading, but you need to make sure that this time is translating into learning. What better way to do this than conferring? During conferences, you can see if students can connect the skills they are learning in class to their choice texts and vice versa. Sure, it’s great if students can analyze how the setting impacts the characters during a whole class novel unit, but if they can’t transfer that skill to other texts, then what’s the point? Conferring can help you bridge this gap and make sure you know that students are truly learning and applying their skills.
Conferences give students an authentic opportunity to talk about their reading and learn from a reading role model (you).
What do you do when you finish a 5-star book? I’d bet you probably don’t add it to a book log, take a comprehension test, or write a 5-paragraph essay about it. But you might want to immediately gush about how much you loved it, what you thought of the ending, and what questions are still lingering in your mind. Whether you’re chatting with a friend, meeting with a book club, or commenting on social media, you’re probably talking about what you just read. It’s what real readers do.
Our students need these kinds of opportunities to talk, too. Conferences are a great starting point for these authentic conversations about books. Modeling is one of the best ways to teach just about anything, and reading is no exception to this rule. During conferences, you are essentially modeling how readers think and talk about books. Over time, students will become fluent in the language of books and more confident in talking about their reading. After all, we are preparing students for a lifetime of reading. We need them to be able to talk about what they read: to have the conversations that lead to empathy, action, and change.
Through conferring, you can foster independence, keep reading rooted in joy, and nurture a lifelong love for reading.
When we are tasked with teaching so many standards and preparing students for standardized tests, it can be easy to lose sight of the real goal: setting students up for success in reading that goes beyond our classroom walls and the bubbles on the next state test. Our ultimate goal is to equip students will skills that last them a lifetime. We can’t do this if we are controlling what they read, asking all of the questions, tying everything to a grade, and doing all of the work for students. As teachers, we often do too much when we really need to take a step back and let our students lead the way.
Conferring lets us do just that: listen to our students, follow their lead, and let them discover the wonderful world of reading on their own terms. When we sit down with students, we can gently nudge them toward independence. We can offer guidance while honoring students’ goals and nurturing their often fragile identities. Conferences give us the chance to create these conditions in which students can grow.
As you can see, conferring with students is a powerful strategy that complements choice reading and whole-class reading instruction. If it’s not already a part of your independent reading program, I highly recommend working it in. You won’t regret it!
If you’re looking for more information on conferring with readers, stay tuned for a future post with tips and tricks for making conferences manageable. In the meantime, you can check out my independent reading conference spreadsheet, which contains helpful teacher tips on conferring.
For more blog posts about how to get your students reading and enjoying it, check out the following:
- Creating a Strong Classroom Library blog series
- How to Give Students Better Book Recommendations blog series
- Booksource: How to Manage Your Classroom Library blog series
- 5 Ways to Help Students Fall in Love With Reading
- 5 Ways to Use Overdrive (& Help Your Students Read More)
- 10 Reasons to Try First Chapter Friday
- Book Trailer Tuesday: How to Hook Students on Books in 3 Minutes
- 10 Ways to Use Book Recommendation Posters in Your Classroom
- 5 Engaging Ideas for Pre-Reading Activities