How to structure reading conferences

reading conference structure

In my recent blog post on effective writing conferences, I discussed the idea of stripping these now complex meetings back to their original roots.

The most effective conferences (be they for reading or writing) are less focused on checklists and compliance and more focused on conversation and learning.

Caution though: There’s a big difference between having a free-wheeling, directionless, chin-wagging conference and having a structured but authentic conversation that serves to grow students as readers.

One support you can use to help achieve the latter rather than the former is to follow a predictable structure for your reading conferences.

Why follow a predictable conferring structure?

As discussed in my writing conference post, I recommend finding and following a predictable structure in order to reduce the overall cognitive load involved in conferring. (That’s your cognitive load and your students’ cognitive load).

When you follow a predictable structure you both know what is likely to happen each time you meet. Your students come to understand your expectations and they can focus on the conversation and their reading, rather than on wondering what might happen next etc.

Following a predictable structure leads to more efficient and effective reading conferences.

What is the best structure for conferring?

There’s no one perfect structure for conferring with readers (or writers).

There are many different suggested structures floating about, but the one I use the most is: Research, Name, Decide, Teach, Link.

This structure is actually based on Lucy Caulkin’s original suggestion of: Research, Decide, Teach, Link- I just added the Name step in order to remind myself to keep my hand firmly clasped around my admiring lens.

This structure is easy to remember and, most importantly, sets you up to engage in an authentic conversation about reading with your student.

Does it mean you’re not conferring properly if you’re not using this structure? No! This is just one suggestion for a conferring structure- there are plenty of others you could use as well.

Note: Whatever structure you decide to go with, make sure it is consistent across your school. Consistency is key!

Here’s a breakdown of all the steps in this structure:


Step 1: Research

Use this step to have a chat with your student and find out what is going on for them in their reading.

I’ll often start this step by asking a few questions and having a chat about the student’s book and their reading in general.

Be careful how you ask the questions here though- this isn’t a test or an interrogation! This is simply one genuinely curious reader (you) asking another reader about their book- as if one day you might actually read it yourself.

Sample book selection related questions:

  • What made you choose this book to read?
  • How did you come to read this book?
  • What did you read before this one?

Sample comprehension related questions:

  • What’s happened in the book so far?
  • What’s happened since the last time we caught up?
  • Who are the main characters?
  • What’s the big problem in this book?

Sample general reading questions:

  • How is your reading going?
  • Tell me about some of the things you’ve been working on in your reading.
  • Is there anything you want my help with?

After a brief conversation I often ask the students to read a small section of their text to me. You don’t need them to read pages and pages of the book- you just need them to read enough to help me make a diagnosis about where they’re at in the reading skills and what they might need help with.

Remember: the focus of this step is for you to research how the student is going with their reading. Sometimes you need to do a lot of research, sometimes you won’t need to do much.

Step 2: Name

The Name section is where you use the admiring lens to name something your reader is doing well in their reading. Try and be specific in what you are naming, so they’ll know to do more of this in the future.

Some examples:

  • I saw you try a different vowel sound when you got stuck on that word. That’s a great strategy to use to help you decode unfamiliar words.
  • Great work on gathering so much information about the main character as you’ve been reading- this will help you to predict their actions later in the book.

Step 3: Decide

This step in the conference is the part where you have to make a fast and responsive decision about where you’ll take the conference next. Will you teach something? If so, what will it be?

Decision questionsSuggested actions
Do I leave the conference at a ‘compliment conference,’ where we’ve chatted, I’ve noticed and named a strength and we leave it at that? (This is useful when you’re building their confidence as readers and/or when you need more time to identify their point of need.)Name the reader’s strength, encourage them to continue to use the strategy and thank them for conferring with you.
Is there an opportunity for a short and sharp teaching point I could execute in a couple of minutes?Move to the next step of the conference: Teach
Is there something this reader needs me to teach them that is too big for this short conference?  Record the students’ needs as a potential focus for an upcoming small group or whole class lesson. Leave the conference as a ‘compliment conference.’
Do I need to go back to the Research step of this conference to find out more about this reader’s needs?Return to the Research step of the conference. Ask more questions or listen to more reading.

There’s no sugar coating it- this is by far the hardest part of the conference.

The Decide step requires deep content knowledge about reading, combined with finely honed skills in diagnosing students’ strengths and weaknesses as a reader.

Don’t be turned off though-this is a skill that does improve with practice (but also one that doesn’t improve if you avoid conferring altogether).

Teach primary writing australia
Sometimes conferences don’t go where you thought they would- that’s totally ok! Pulling yourself back to the structure can help you stay focused.

Step 4: Teach

This is an opportunity for you to engage in a short sharp teaching point to help the reader move forward in their learning.

Avoid trying to execute a whole new minilesson here. Rather, you should stick to reteaching previous minilessons you’ve taught in the classroom. Remember when we I modelled ….? This is a great opportunity to apply it here…

If the concept the student needs to learn is too big for a 2-3 minute teaching point, it’s best to make a note of it and set is as a focus for a future whole class or small group lesson instead.  

As a part of the Teach step, I’ll usually demonstrate how I use the strategy I’m referring to and then get the student to have a go at it as well (where applicable).

Example: Remember when we did that lesson on working out the meaning of tricky vocabulary? Watch me as I use the strategies on the anchor chart we created… Now you have a go with this word…

After engaging in the Teach step of the conference it’s important to ensure the student leaves the conference with a clear reminder of what you want them to go away and practice.

If you’ve asked them to focus on collecting details about the main character for example, you want to remind them of this and state it as an expectation for your next conference:

Next time we catch up, I want you to let me know what you’ve learned about the main character as you’ve been reading.

It’s also a good idea here to ask the students to restate your expectations in their own words (so they’ll have more chance of actually implementing it). Can you just quickly remind me of what you’re going to work on between now and our next conference?

Sometimes here I’ll also remind them that they can use the strategy on this book and every other book they read in the future.

  • The most important thing to remember about conferring is the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
  • Be brave and throw yourself into conferring with your readers.
  • If you’re struggling to diagnose a students’ point of need in a short conference, give yourself permission to gather more information outside the conference and even seek assistance from your colleagues.

I’d love to hear the biggest challenge you have with conferring. Let me know in the comments below or join in the conversation on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group.

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1 thought on “How to structure reading conferences”

  1. I really love how it is broken into five steps; this makes it easier for our very full brains to remember what to focus on.
    Thanks for another insightful and well-researched post.
    I look forward to my weekly read.

    Reply

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