5 tips for effective writing conferences

Conferring with writers

I’m often asked for tips on how to engage in effective writing conferences with students.

Conferring with writers can feel a bit overwhelming for some teachers, and for good reason- the best conferences require deep teacher content knowledge and skills. They’re also unpredictable- you can never tell where a conference will go or what exactly the outcome might be.

I’m sharing 5 tips for improving your capacity to run an effective writing conference in today’s blog. I’d love to hear any others you have.

#1 Put structures in place to enable you to confer

Let’s be honest- it’s become a luxury to spend one on one time with students in today’s busy classrooms. This means that when you do get the opportunity to sit down and confer with a student, you want to make sure you’re fully present for the occasion.

This can only happen if you’ve invested the time and effort in setting up clear routines and expectations for the students you’re not conferring with.

Before launching into writing conferences with students, be sure to practice your classrooms structures, routines and expectations as well as talk through the importance of having uninterrupted conferring time.

Ask yourself if your students understand:

  • what they should be doing while you’re conferring?
  • where to go for help while you’re conferring?
  • where to go for more paper?
  • what to do if they need spelling assistance?
  • what to do if they finish their piece of writing?

Every student in your class needs to understand that the precious minutes they have with you will be protected and uninterrupted.

(Click here to read more about setting your classroom up for success in writing).

Conferring with young writers
When you get tapped on the shoulder 100 times while trying to confer…

#2 Follow a predictable routine

When conferring I find following a consistent structure takes the pressure off me and gives my students confidence to know what to expect when we meet. Win-Win!

There are a few different suggestions for structures floating around the place, but the one I generally gravitate towards is Research, Name, Decide, Teach, Link.

ResearchAsk the student what they want help with or read some of their writing to ascertain their point of need.
NameUse the admiring lens to name something they’re doing well as a writer.
DecideMake a decision about where to take the conference. Will you leave it at a complement conference, or will you continue the conference to provide a teaching point?
TeachProvide a SHORT teaching point- something that will nudge them forward as a writer.
LinkCheck to make sure they understand the teaching point and have a clear sense of what they need to work on.

#3 Talk to the writer

Don’t get tricked into thinking you have to read a student’s entire piece of writing in a conference. The point of a conference is for you to work out what the writer’s current needs are and determine any supports you can provide to assist them (either right now or in the future).

One of the best ways to work out their needs is simply to talk to them.

Writing guru Don Murray suggests starting every conference with the question, ‘how’s it going?’ Author Carl Anderson (2018) suggests another three options for opening questions:

  • What are you doing as a writer today?
  • What’s up with your writing today?
  • Could you tell me about the writing work that you’re doing?

‘Students learn quickly that these questions are cues for them to talk in one or more ways about what they’re doing as writers.’

(Anderson, 2018)

A challenge here is to help students understand the difference between talking about their writing and reading their writing aloud to you. One offers insight into their thinking as a writer (including the problems they’ve faced and the strategies they’ve used etc.) and the other only provides you with the end product of their thinking (leaving you to make assumptions about the journey they took to reach their end product).

Don’t be surprised if your students struggle to answer these questions at first. The more you talk with them about their writing and about themselves as writers, the better they’ll be able to answer these open questions when they sit down to confer with you.

#4 The gold is in the feedback

The unpopular truth about effective writing conferences is that it’s not the structure, the checklists, the jellybean conferring table or the frequency of them that makes the biggest difference for emerging writers- It’s the feedback they receive in the conference that makes the biggest difference.

The gold in conferences comes from your ability to diagnose the students’ capacity as a writer and determine their next steps. The problem with this is that you sometimes have just minutes to perform this professional calculation.

Diagnosing and prescribing (which make up the Name, Decide and Teach parts of the conference) requires you, as the teacher, to have a deep understanding of the ingredients of good writing. It also requires you to have a broad knowledge of the various strategies writers can call on to improve their writing.

6+1 Writing traits online course

These ingredients and writing strategies need to extend well beyond a focus on the conventions of writing. You’re not the chief editor in a writing conference, you’re the writing coach. The person who provides relevant, supportive and timely feedback that can help broaden your students’ understanding of how to write well.

The true key to improving your ability to confer with writers is to improve your knowledge of all the ingredients that go into creating good writing. If identify strengths and next steps in student writing makes you nervous, or you’d like to deepen your knowledge in this area, I’d highly recommend checking out the Writing Traits Masterclass. You’ll finish this course with a much clearer picture of what you need to look for in student writing and have ideas on specific feedback you can provide.

#5 Keep it simple

Somehow despite all our best intentions over the years, the act of conferring has become unnecessarily complex, and its purpose muddied.

In some schools, conferring has become a pressure cooker of timers, checklists, evidence, compliance and documentation. (Afterall, if it’s not written down, did the conference really happen?)

You need only to look at the etymology of the word ‘confer’ however, to be reminded of its original purpose:

from Old French conférer (14c.) “to give; to converse; to compare,” from Latin conferre “to bring together,” figuratively “to compare; consult, deliberate, talk over,”

Compare, consult, talk over.

At its essence, the act of conferring is about having a conversation. It’s about talking things over- writer to (more experienced) writer.

If you’ve found yourself in a position where you’re avoiding writing conferences or challenged by their complexity, I encourage you to simplify your approach and see what difference it makes.

Put the checklists and goal sheets away for a while and simply converse with your apprentice writers.

Compare, consult, talk over.

You’ll be surprised how much more you learn about them as humans and as writers, not to mention how much more pleasant the whole experience will be for you and your students.

Bonus tip

I’m the first to admit that writing conferences can be hard. But they can also be incredibly informative and rewarding (for you and your students).

Perhaps my biggest tip of all when it comes to conferring with writers is to give it a go. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. The more conferences you try, the more confidence you’ll develop and the more effective they’ll become.

So, there you have it- my 5 top tips for conferring with writers. Do you have any more you’d like to share? Reply in the comments section below or join in the conversation on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group.

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