Conferring: The Myth and the Reality

The room is quiet. The students are settled in their spots with their books. You sit down next to a child, clipboard in your hand, ready to confer. “How’s it going?” you ask. The child tells you all about their book and their  thinking, and suddenly, you panic. 

You realize that you do not know how to respond.

Teachers often ask us to work with them on conferring. We cherish the opportunity to focus on one student at a time, yet we are not sure what to do with that time. We know that students thrive with individual teaching. So what makes conferring so challenging?

Let’s start with the myth.

The myth is that in the moment, I can notice what the student is doing, reread my previous conferring notes and mentally review everything I know about the student, recall every strategy I know, and I can name the perfect strategy and have the perfect way to teach it. The student will then practice the strategy independently, with no further teaching. 

Now, let’s be real.

The reality is that I take time to prepare for each conference, just as I would a mini lesson or a small group. To prepare for conferring during Independent Reading, I reread my conferring notes and look at what I have already taught. I review the latest running record. I list a number of possible next steps. I might have a book ready to teach a new strategy. In the moment, I am listening to the student read and talk. Because I am prepared, I can be responsive. I know that I need to check back with a student 10 minutes after the conference and again the next day to assess whether they understand the strategy or whether they need more support.

Conferring is magic. The magic is in preparation and clarity.

How can your preparation make reading conferences magical for your students?

How can we help?

Commitments for 2023

I am forever on my way”

Maxine Greene

Embracing the possibilities inherent in being a teacher means embracing our roles as professionals committed to learning and growing alongside our students and colleagues.   

As we start back to school in January, we are thinking about our commitment to our own practice, to the teachers with whom we collaborate and the students with whom we are privileged to spend time. Based on what we have learned and experienced this past year, we are committed to:

  • Adhering to student-centered instructional practices
  • Advocating for teachers at the state, district, local and classroom level
  • Advocating for children and their rights as learners
  • Standing on the shoulders of sound research (not trends, nostalgia or convenience) when making decisions 
  • Letting go of practices that are not effective

As you head back to your classroom, what are your commitments?  How can you forever be on your way in 2023?  Here is some inspiration  from teachers with whom we work:

  • I commit to focusing on where my students are right now, instead of panicking about where they are supposed to be.
  • I commit to scheduling literacy instruction across a week.  No more trying to cram everything into one day.
  • I commit to taking an asset-minded approach to my students.  
  • I commit to letting go of practices. No more holding on out of nostalgia.
  • I commit to laughing with my students every day.

Teaching is a hard and serious job. And it is also joyful, exciting and fun. When we are having a bad day, it helps to remind ourselves of why we decided to become teachers in the first place. We can, for a moment, put aside test scores and teaching points. We can devote time to simply connecting with students. We can ask the students to select a favorite book, and read it aloud and laugh together. We commit to centering joy in the classroom.

What do you want to commit to for the rest of this 2023 school year? 

How can we support you?

Please share below in the comments!

Small Group Instruction that Focuses on Readers

There is a plethora of research (Duke, 2019) on the effectiveness of  small group instruction. Typically, we think of small groups as being based on the skills students need to work on. These are groups that typically focus on the work of reading.  We pour over our conferring notes, notice that there are students who are still retelling the entire book, and design a series of lessons on summarizing chapters. Or, our analysis of running record data shows that there are students who routinely ignore punctuation, and we prepare a series of lessons on fluency and why punctuation matters. These groups are an efficient way to reach multiple students, and students enjoy working together.  Most of us are familiar with these sorts of small groups and are already implementing them effectively.

What if we built on what we knew about the effectiveness of small groups and widened our vision of what small groups could address? What if we took all that we know about teaching readers and designed small groups on aspects of being a reader, such self-efficacy, agency, and book choice? 

So when we think about the reasons we gather students together with this expanded notion of teaching reading and readers in mind, new possibilities for teaching open up.  Here are some groups focused on the work of readers that teachers have tried so far this year:

  • What are different ways that readers choose books?
  • What do readers do when they get stuck?
  • Why do we read? What are different purposes for reading?
  • How can I get back into the book when I have forgotten what is happening?
  • How do I keep my brain in the book for a long time? What do I do when I get distracted?
  • How do I balance reading and writing about a book?
  • How do I try a new genre?

These groups thrive when we use a combination of inquiry and explicit teaching. Using inquiry as an entry point for the work of the group is a powerful way to intentionally start from a place of strength and provide time for students to share these ideas with others.  

Here are three ways groups could go:

You might begin with a general question to frame the work:

Teacher: What are the different ways you already have to pick books?

Student: I swap books with my reading partner because we like the same things. 

Student: I read all the books in a series.

Student: I sometimes pick books written by the author of a read aloud I liked.

Teacher: These are great! Let’s get them down in a chart. We can work together to build from there…  

You might begin by acknowledging what the students are already doing and teaching a new strategy:

Teacher: You have lots of different ways that you go about picking books. You often think about your favorite genre and your favorite series. Here is something else you can do. Think about the kinds of characters you like and find other books that have those kinds of characters. For example, Fatima likes strong female characters who do not act the way that girls are “supposed” to act. She found a lot of books with these kinds of characters. 

Finally, you might begin by inviting students to share their challenges, a move that also serves to implicitly teach students that sometimes the work of readers does not go smoothly.  

Teacher: As a reader, sometimes I find that I’m in a slump.  I go to the library or the bookstore and nothing looks good…I just don’t know what book to pick up. Does that ever happen to you?  Let’s talk about that a little bit to try to find out what is getting in the way…

Implementing small groups about the work of readers can also be an opportunity for students to reflect on their own identity as readers and use these reflections to make agentive choices.  Instead of putting students in  groups, you could introduce the topics to the entire class and invite students to sign up for a group that they feel would be relevant to their needs as readers.

How are you using small group instruction to teach readers, not just reading?

Reference: Turn Small Reading Groups into Big Wins by Nell K. Duke and Laura Varlas

Trust Conferring

As students are reading for longer stretches of time, and you have done more
assessments, you are probably preparing to start small group instruction. One of
the most common wonderings we hear is this:
“During Independent Reading, should I be doing small group work or conferring?
I value one on one conferring, but small group work seems more efficient.”

We get it. Here are some thoughts about the why you should continue to confer.

Focusing exclusively on small groups during Independent Reading sends an
unintended message.

If we are not sitting on the rug next to students as they read, we are
inadvertently sending a message that the work they are doing during
Independent Reading is not meaningful. This can lead to students being compliant
or becoming disengaged. Students do not magically know how to stay focused for
long periods of time; when we are physically present and actively teaching
students, they are more likely to make progress and find reading joyful.

Conferring gives us a window into students’ strengths.
You may be in the habit of using conferences to “check in.” Reflect on what
that means. It takes the same amount of time to just check in as it does to have a
strength-based conference. Ask a reader:

  • “How’s it going?”
  • “What is going well for you?”
  • “ Can you read to me or tell me about a favorite book or page?”

Follow up by naming a strength:

  • “Right now, you are the kind of reader who…”
  • “I noticed that when you read, you…”

Readers will smile, sit up a little taller, and read for longer when you tell
them what they are doing well. This is data that helps us imagine next steps
for them.

Conferring allows us to avoid making assumptions.

In a first grade classroom, the students were using reading mats to keep
track of which books they had read. A quick glance around the room showed that
all the students had stacked the books on the green side and were moving them
over to the red side. One reader, however, had spread out all of her books in front
of her. “I really like animals, so I picked all animal books.” she explained. “Now I
am putting the books together by what kind of animal the book is about.” This
child had made her own text set and had a purpose for spreading the books out.
She did not need the reading mat because she had a system that worked for her.
If we had not conferred with her, it would have been easy to assume that she
“wasn’t following directions.” Instead, we learned that she is intentional about
the order in which she reads her books.

Conferring gives us the opportunity to assess the impact of our teaching and be

Independent Reading is the chance for students to apply mini lessons, as
well as strategies from the Read Aloud and Shared Reading. This transfer does not
happen automatically. We need to coach the students as they try a newly taught
strategy to their own reading. We can pay attention to:

  • What patterns do we see across the class?
  • Which students would benefit from more support?
  • Which student could teach their partner how they used the strategy?

If we are not conferring, we do not know how much transfer is occurring.
And transfer is the goal.

Conferring includes conferring with partners.
In order to create productive reading partners, we need to explicitly teach
students how to work together. Sit down next to a partnership and watch what
are they doing. Tell them what they are doing well, and then model one way they
could make their partnership even stronger. For example, “I noticed that you took
turns reading the pages. Another thing that reading partners do is stop and talk
about every page.” For upper grades, model how partners can develop their ideas
together when they are reading the same book.

To be clear: small group instruction is a powerful method of instruction. (Stay
tuned for an upcoming blog post!) You may never find the perfect balance of conferring and group work. What you can do is be intentional when you confer so
that the feedback you give students is relevant and actionable. Trust conferring to
support all students during Independent Reading.

Tempting Readers Part 2

We trust that students come to our classrooms ready to be agentive about their own growth as readers.  Making choices about what to read  is a key part of that growth.  Choice motivates readers to engage with text, giving them the chance to  try  the skills and strategies we teach.  But choice also helps readers to understand who they are as readers, what their preferences are, and their varied purposes for reading.  

Choice is much more than simply picking a book to read for the next 20 minutes or the next week. By creating a choice-rich classroom environment, you are supporting students in cultivating an active reading life beyond the classroom. Sustaining a choice-rich classroom requires you  to have a tremendous amount of trust: trust in your students as readers, the alluring power of text, the learning that comes from mistakes and in yourself to support readers as they think through their choices.

As you begin to conduct running records to assess students’ independent and instructional levels, here are some thoughts:

False choice is not choice.  When Jen’s son was in kindergarten, she would often say, “blue pants or black pants?” when it came time to get dressed.  She gave him a false choice to speed up the process, letting him feel as if he had some control in the situation. ( Please note that “no pants” was not a choice as she  knew full well that that choice would be the winner.)  In the classroom, limiting a student to picking from only a certain basket is a false choice.

Choice is for all students.  Due to the logistics of the school schedule,  there are students who do not get Independent Reading in the classroom and who do not get to choose their books. They are “pulled out” during Independent Reading, and they are limited to reading what the teacher gives them. Meanwhile, students who are perceived as being “high” or “above grade level” are allowed the luxury of reading a wide range of texts. 

Choice is not something that has to be earned or is tied to a particular reading level. All students should have a say in what they want to read.

Choice means making mistakes.  As adults, we pick books in a variety of ways. We pour over book reviews and keep track of our favorite authors. We get recommendations from friends with similar tastes.  We grab a book from the library shelf because the cover attracts our attention. In all these cases, we sometimes find that a book keeps us up reading all night and sometimes we abandon a book after one chapter. Students do the same. Not every book they pick will be right for them. This does not mean that we should pick books for them. The experience of picking a book that is too long, too boring, or too confusing  is crucial because readers learn for themselves when reading feels right and what to do when it doesn’t.

Students deserve the opportunity and time to make those mistakes so that they can learn about themselves as readers.

Independent does not mean alone. You might have organized a schedule that allows one group of students to book shop on their own while you are working with another group of students. Although that might seem efficient, we suggest being actively involved in the classroom library. You might kidwatch to learn more about a student’s process of picking books. You might know that one student needs suggestions, and you have some books already ready for them. You might follow up on a conference with a student. And of course, students can recommend books to one another.

Choice means that we need to know the books in the library and we need  to be conferring around book choice.

How are you ensuring that all students get to choose books?

What do you see as your role in student  book choice?

Tempting Readers

We trust that students come to our classrooms already living their reading lives. At home, maybe they love to listen as family members tell stories. Maybe they have a bookshelf of their favorite books.  Perhaps they go to the library every week, or perhaps they have not had access to books over the summer. Maybe they spent the summer writing their own graphic novels, or maybe they love to draw pictures of their favorite characters. Perhaps they do not yet see themselves as readers, or perhaps they spend hours lost in books. We have the pleasure of inviting all of those reading identities into the classroom.

An invitation is a situation or action that tempts someone to do something or makes a particular outcome likely. As we start the school year, we consider:

  •  How does our classroom environment tempt all students to read? 
  • How does the classroom environment make it likely that all students will grow as readers? 

Although it might seem as if a well stocked classroom  library, with multiple baskets and full bookshelves, is invitational, we recommend starting with just a few baskets and some empty shelves. This sends the message: we are partners in the work of setting up our classroom space.

When you do your very first read aloud, show the students that you have an empty basket just waiting for that book. When you read aloud another book later that day and ask the students where to put it, they will likely suggest that you put it in the same basket and think about different  labels for the basket, such as  “Books our teacher reads to us” or “First Week of School Read Alouds.” Starting with day one, you are inviting the students to take ownership of the classroom library.

As soon as you learn about the students, you can honor their interests by finding books for them. Imagine spending the first week of school giving each student a book and saying, “Yesterday, you told me you really liked Dogman. This series is similar, and I thought you might like it.” or “You wrote a story about your dog yesterday, so I found some books about dogs for you.”  The students might decide to put these books in their personal collection of books to read, or they can figure out where that book goes in the library.

You can invite the students to build the classroom library with you. Put piles of books on the floor or the tables and ask the students to think about what books go together. With first graders, you might give them just a few books. With older students, you might give them more books. Eavesdrop on their conversations to learn about them as readers. The categories the students decide on are less important than the conversations they have.

How are you inviting your students into reading this year?

Creating a Narrative of Progress: Broadening the Definition of Reading Growth

Read the whole blog on CCIRA here.

This spring, we were kidwatching during Independent Reading in a first grade classroom. A boy with a huge pile of books in front of him beckoned us over. “Listen to me read!” he said gleefully. He read book after book, pointing out all the funny parts. “I’m a good reader!” he proclaimed. 

Later, his teacher confided in us, “I’m worried that no one will recognize his growth. No one will know how he felt about himself as a reader in September and compare it to how he feels about himself now.  They won’t see the joy that reading brings him or how he sees it as part of his life now, when in September he only occasionally picked up a book.  They will just see his level on the test and label him as a struggling reader.”

This encapsulates the ongoing contradiction between how reading growth is traditionally measured and defined by tests, and what teachers observe and experience to be a more complete concept of reading growth. Current policy and testing practices continue to reinforce the misconception that student reading growth encompasses solely the accumulation of skills and strategies (Afflerbach, 2022), thereby reducing the definition of what constitutes reading growth.  However, both the experience of teachers and an overwhelming amount of research tell us reading is more complex than that. What constitutes reading growth and how it is measured needs to better reflect this complexity (ILA, 2018), expanding to include aspects of reading such as engagement, motivation and self-efficacy. 

What we see as growth, and what students feel is growth is disconnected from what is officially recognized as growth.  At the end of the school year, reading growth is too often reduced to a grade on the report card or  a number or letter, or is defined by a set of discrete skills that can be measured by  standardized tests.  These measures do not capture the joy or the nuances of being a reader.

What data counts?

Data promises to inform and support the work of teachers, and yet data has become a burden.  In reality, many teachers are drowning in data, and not the sort of data they find useful.  Typically, the data teachers are directed to utilize is confined to big data such as standardized tests, universal screeners or benchmark data. That sort of data is often used to tell a story of “learning loss” or name who is “below grade level.”    A recent Hechinger report (February, 2022) asked “…  has all that time teachers spent studying data helped students learn? The emerging answer from education researchers is no.” This comes as no surprise to educators themselves. The big data that is valued by the system is not the data that supports the work of teachers in classrooms in meaningful ways, yet it tends to dominate our time, our definitions of achievement,  and the stories told about our students and our work.

An over reliance on this big data runs the risk of narrowing the vision of the role of the teacher.  When framed by deficit-minded data, the teacher turns into someone who fills gaps  and catches students up to the benchmarks that indicate grade level proficiency.  

Our role is to teach responsively, not to “fill gaps.”  Our role is to be asset-minded. Our role is to assume a stance of non-judgemental relentlessness in the pursuit of growing readers. Our role is to uncover student strengths and provide relevant feedback that will build upon those strengths. Our role is to center students. In our hearts, we know that big data often limits our role as teachers of readers and does not tell the whole story of our students.  When small data, such as kidwatching or conferring notes, is valued, we are suddenly presented with a more nuanced portrait of growth that indicates relevant next steps for each student.

Navigating the Contradiction

We urge teachers to harness their sense of agency and take control of the narrative by expanding the definition of reading growth to tell an authentic  story of progress. Maxine Greene, the great educational philosopher, believes that teachers have an obligation to choose to engage with struggle, such as the contradiction discussed above.  She states that by engaging in these struggles, rather than giving in to one side or the other, teachers can move toward a state of “wide awakeness” that welcomes the creativity and agency necessary to humanize and transform possibilities in education.  In Releasing the Imagination (1995)she writes, “…to learn and to teach, one must have an awareness of leaving something behind while reaching toward something new, and this kind of awareness must be linked to imagination.” How can we navigate this contradiction  and imagine new spaces of possibility for our students and ourselves? 

Here are some practical ways to navigate this contradiction:

  • Prioritize Independent Reading and the Read Aloud

Both Independent Reading and the read aloud are research-backed literacy practices that satisfy standards while meeting students where they are.  Independent Reading time has the potential to develop reading comprehension ability, vocabulary, grammar and spelling (Krashen, 2004), spark actions for a more just world, (German, 2021), improve reading fluency (Allington, 2014) … and the list of advantages goes on and on.   Every student has the right to Independent Reading; it is not an add-on or a luxury.  Similarly, the read aloud is an enjoyable and impactful time of day. Effective read-alouds increase children’s vocabulary, listening comprehension, story schema, background knowledge, word recognition skills, and cognitive development. (ILA, 2018).

During Independent Reading and the read aloud, teachers have the opportunity to engage in intentional kidwatching, to notice and name the strengths of students as readers, and to begin to build a broad understanding of reading growth for each child across the school year. During Independent Reading and the read aloud, students have the opportunity to be their authentic reading selves.

  • Honor, consider and follow the growth of the identity of each reader

 On this blog in March  of 2021, we shared our definition of reading identity (Reflection and Discovery: The Power of Reading Identity in Independent Reading ) We define reading identity as having five aspects: attitude, self-efficacy, habits, book choice and process.  If we use these aspects as a jumping off point for imagining what reading growth means, then reading growth becomes authentic and includes much more than a grade. Reading growth can (and should)  include:

  • Choosing different genres
  • Reading for longer periods of time
  • Having favorite books
  • Using a variety of strategies to decode words independently
  • Holding on to multiple plot lines and characters
  • Comparing and contrasting genres and books
  • Responding to texts in a variety of ways
  • Wanting to read
  • Knowing book preferences
  • Declaring: “I am a reader.”

As you  confer with students during Independent Reading, provide feedback on what you observe about their growth. Invite students in class discussions to reflect on how they have grown as readers. Ask: “What are the ways in which you have changed as a reader?  What made you change?”  Encourage students to tell stories about themselves as readers and how their reading life has developed. 

  • Reclaim Your Role

Regie Routman (2003) writes that “teaching with urgency means focusing relentlessly on what is most important every single day.”  Therefore, teaching with urgency means to teach responsively, to start with student strengths and to provide relevant feedback that build upon those strengths with clear next steps. Students are what is most important every single day.  It is through the lens of deep understanding of our students as readers and learners, that we must approach curriculum, assessment and methods of instruction.  To put students at the center, teachers must continuously reflect on the impact of their decisions, the curriculum and assessment opportunities.  It also means that as a result of this reflection, teachers feel a sense of agency to not only embrace and expand upon what is working, but to give themselves the grace to let go of those practices, routines or tasks that no longer invite positive or productive outcomes for students.

 In one classroom, a veteran fourth-grade teacher chose to abandon a read aloud text that had worked for years, because it no longer captured the attention of her class.  Instead, she presented the class with a variety of possible texts that fit the genre and purpose of her current instruction; when the students were involved in picking the read aloud, their engagement in class discussions soared.  In another classroom, a teacher realized that she never got to the read aloud, because it was at the end of the day. She changed the schedule so that she started the day with the read aloud. Students were actively involved in class conversations, and the read aloud became a jumping off point of instruction. 

  • Trust Small Data and Broaden the Definition of Reading Growth

We know that big data does not tell the whole story. Instead, big data measures such as state tests might show that students are “behind” or “at mastery” or “meet the standard.”  

In contrast, small data, such as kidwatching notes, presents a more nuanced portrait of growth and indicates relevant next steps for each student.  It provides actionable, in-the-moment data upon which teachers can take action.  Take charge of how time in data-focused meetings is spent. Shift team meetings to include analysis of small data; focus on naming strengths, and the natural next steps that build upon those strengths.  In tandem, these two moves can shift both the instructional and emotional climate to embrace a narrative of progress that is beneficial to the morale and growth of students and educators alike.

Final Thoughts

So how are you going to move forward? We urge you to focus on and imagine what could be, rather than feeling weighed down by what is, because imagining and expanding upon what reading growth can and should encompass is a step toward reclaiming a narrative of progress. 

We urge you to take the brave step of moving away from limited definitions of growth and advocating for all that counts when we consider the authentic reading lives of students in and beyond school. For teachers, a wider stance allows us the ability to center students and focus on teaching readers, not just reading. For students, this wider stance honors their authentic reading lives, their whole reading identities and their everyday reading successes.

As your school year comes to a close, know that your observations of students and students’ reflections  count as data. Encouraging your students to believe in themselves as readers, and supporting students to understand their identities as readers counts as growth. Broadening your students’ repertoire of strategies counts as growth. Nurturing your students’ sense of trust that they are and will continue to be readers counts as growth.  It all counts.  

Dr. Jennifer Scoggin has been a teacher, author, speaker, curriculum writer, and literacy consultant.  Jennifer’s interest in the evolving identities of both students and teachers and her growing obsession with children’s literature led her to and informs her work. 

Hannah Schneewind has been a teacher, staff developer, curriculum writer, keynote speaker and national literacy consultant. She brings with her over 25 years of experience to the education world. Hannah’s interest in student and teacher agency and her belief in the power of books informs her work with schools.

Together, Jen and Hannah are the authors of Trusting Readers: Powerful Practices for Independent Reading, published by Heinemann. They are the  co-creators of Trusting Readers (@TrustingReaders), a group dedicated to collaborating with teachers to design high quality literacy opportunities that invite all students to be engaged and to thrive as readers and writers.

Works Cited:

Afflerbach, Peter. 2022. Teaching Readers (Not Reading): Moving Beyond Skill and  Strategies to Reader-Focused Instruction. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. 

Allington, Richard L. 2014. “How Reading Volume Affects Both Reading Fluency and Reading Achievement.” International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education 7 (1):95-104.

German, Lorena. 2021.  Textured Reading: A Framework for Culturally Sustaining Practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Greene, Maxine. 1995.  Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts and social change.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hechinger Report. 2022. Proof Points: Researchers blast data analysis for teachers to help students.  New York, NY:

International Literacy Association (ILA). 2018.  Literacy Leadership Brief: The Power andPromise of Read-Alouds and Independent Reading.  No. 9445. Newark, DE

Krashen, Stephen. 2004. The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research.Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited.

Routman, Regie. 2003. Reading Essentials: The specifics you need to teach reading well.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.