Personalizing the learning for students doesn’t mean an instructional free-for-all. On the contrary, personalized learning demands structure such as frameworks to ensure effective instruction while students have access to authentic, meaningful experiences.
Conferring/conferencing can provide that structure when teaching and assessing. In her book So What Do They Really Know? Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning, English teacher Cris Tovani defines conferring as “talking to my students one-on-one” in order to “figure out what they understand and what they need next” with their reading and writing (105).
Conferring evaded me when I taught 5th and 6th graders. It felt too loose and lacked validity. My problem with conferring revealed my misunderstanding about formative assessment: it was for learning and not an audit of their learning. Conferring informs the teacher and student as any rich conversation might.
Still, I need structure. The relationships we forge with our kids around their reading and learning is an intentional process. Developing an informal plan can guide this process toward a more personalized learning experience. That is why I prepared a short series of questions to guide my recent conference with Finn, a 7th grader (also my son) about the book he is reading, Scythe by Neal Shusterman.
I loosely adapted A Framework for an Informal Reading Conference from Reading Essentials: The Specifics You Need to Know to Teach Reading Well by Regie Routman.
- What are you reading?
- Why did you select this book? Tell me about it so far.
- What are you enjoying about the book?
- What’s been a challenge as you read?
- What can we work on for next time?
These questions followed a sequence that embraces the authenticity of two people talking about a book while hopefully leading to new insights about the reader.
1. Preparing Questions in Order to Engage the Reader. The first two “softball” questions prime the student to feel comfortable talking about their reading. They also help form and sustain relationships.
2. Posing Questions in Order to Surface Thinking. The final three questions are more personalized for the student, general enough for any book yet guide the reader to share his/her thinking about the text.
For a conference to be authentic, a teacher also needs to be prepared with yet-unknown inquiries. These “probing questions” come up as teachers respond to what their students initially share.
3. Probing Question in Order to Improve Understanding. Unwritten questions as responses to what the student shares to show the teacher is listening and to examine and expand upon a student’s current understanding.
Next are two videos that captured my conference with Finn. Notice how the probing questions are weaved throughout the preparing and posing questions. Also, I tried to keep my notetaking to a minimum to be an engaged listener. (Some of my notes were written after the conference.)
At the end of the conference, I made sure to share the positives about Finn’s reading skills with evidence from my notes. My teaching point coupled with these commendations are an important combination, so students accept and act upon the feedback.
My own questions still abound. For example, can online conferences with readers via Zoom be as effective as in-person conferring? My son compared this experience with his reading teacher meeting with him, which is promising. Despite the sorrow I feel for everyone effected by the pandemic, I hope our curiosity will sustain as we explore new ways of teaching and learning from a distance.