How to Have Awesome Student Writing Conferences

Without a doubt, conferring with students is one of the parts of workshop instruction teachers are most nervous about.  This is because there’s no clear cut answer to the question “what should I say,” so conferring can seem daunting.  But it’s also one the very most important parts–so important, you don’t want to short-shrift it.  This special, 1:1 time to capture in-the-moment insight into your students is in fact what drives much of your instruction…so conferring is worth the effort.  It’s also a key way to ensure targeted, differentiated instruction.  You can learn to have awesome student writing conferences–keep reading for pro tips!

Teacher helping student with writing.

In a previous post, I shared what a typical conference structure might look like.  There are many books written about this, and any You tube or Google search of the masters like Carl Anderson, Jennifer Seravallo, or videos that showcase Teachers College staff developers will be a goldmine of a resource for you to learn what conferring might look and sound like. 

I’ve been a workshop teacher for going on 20 years now, so I myself have been a beginner.  I’ve also worked with many, many teachers as colleagues and as coachees who are both newly learning it and learning to refine it.  Over the years, I’ve come across some very common questions around student writing conferences, so this post will be a Q/A to help guide you  in getting the most from them!

Q.  How do I know what to say in a conference?

A. First, always start with your “research” question.  A version of Carl Anderson’s how’s it going? is the kickstart question.  I like to ask What are you working on as a writer? or How’s it going as a writer?  Or Tell me what you’re working on. Or What part do you feel a little stuck on?  And then it’s time to be quiet and listen.  Hard.  What they’re working on is your clue to what you might teach them.  

It takes a little time to get kids used to this kind of question, but once they understand that you will be having conversations like this, they will more than rise to the occasion. 

Here’s a bonus tip:  as they’re talking, take a quick glance over their work to help you get oriented.  You will likely see some more areas for improvement.  If the child’s own ideas about what they might need help with aren’t very fruitful (it takes time to train them to have these conversations), you might point something out that would strengthen their writing from that quick-once over.

The most important thing here:  stick to ONE teach point.  Jot yourself a note or two about what you might want to look at another time, but for this one brief moment, focus on just ONE THING.  

Q.  What’s the format that I should use?  

A. There are several.  But one of the most powerful format for student writing conferences is the research, compliment, decide, teach conference.  It’s the one I’d most recommend that every teacher knows how to do.  This is a predictable structure that you can come to know well.  When you know the structure well, it gives you built in sentence starters to lean on…which makes it much easier.  And, kids come to know the structure well, too.  This is helpful to them, so they know the cues that help them know when you’re giving and explicit teaching tip–so they can really focus on that part.  

Q.  How often should I confer?

A. As often as you can.  What you jot on your conferring notes is one major way to learn what you’ll teach in your next small groups.  So you’ll need to continually and regularly gather this information.  Otherwise, you’ll arbitrarily determine what kids need, which will not move the needle nearly as much.  Fitting conferences in is a juggling act at first, but in general, I’d always prioritize time spent conferring over small groups.  I love this free tool for helping teachers parse out their time in order to balance small groups and conferring.  Teachers I work with have also found this to be a favorite planning tool.

Q.  How long are student writing conferences?

A.  Short!  Aim for roughly 5 minutes per conference, and no more than 7 minutes.  This will take practice, so don’t get discouraged.  You’ll improve your technique over time, but definitely using a timer or at least checking your watch will help you get there, especially if you stick to the research, compliment, decide, teach structure.


Q.  How many kids should I see each day?  

A. While I’ll always say “as many as you can,” you do have to balance it with small groups, too.  My favorite pattern is to do a couple of conferences, a small group, and then another conference each day.  I’m usually able to fit in an additional small group or a few more conferences on a given day with this general plan.  Sometimes, I might spend the whole time conferring, often on a Monday and a Friday, so I have lots of notes to help me determine small groups the rest of the week.  Then Tuesday through Thursday, I’m heavier on small groups.  I might even take the time to conduct an engagement inventory every few weeks, too.  This gives even more valuable data that’s super helpful in forming small groups!  

Q.  What if I don’t get to see everyone each week?

A. You won’t.  Let that unrealistic expectation go. Aim for a 1:1 conference with each child one every two weeks.  You’re also going to look over their work throughout this time, too.  You might collect the girls’ writing one day, the boys’ on another, or look through table 1’s work on Monday after school, table 2’s work on Tuesday, etc. Look with very specific lenses according to what you’ve been teaching, and be sure to jot yourself notes as you do.  I often write a quick compliment and suggestion on a sticky note for kids when I do this. My students have always appreciated the “sticky note conference,” because it shows them that I really do value their work. Looking over their writing periodically will also help you tailor your next whole and small group lessons to better fit your students’ needs.  This move very much helps your teaching stick!  Speaking of…

Q.  How can I ensure my teaching will stick?

A. A couple of ways.  First, be sure you aren’t just telling your kids what to try next.  Teaching is not telling.  Actually have them apply it to their writing right then and there, while you’re by their side, acting as a coach.  If you just tell them a tip and walk away, you’ve wasted your time.  Another tip?  Jot a key phrase and/or draw an icon on a post-it to remind them of what to remember after you’ve had them practice that move.  Leaving a visual reminder helps reinforce your teaching.

Third, keep your language consistent throughout.  If you say, for example, that “writers paint a picture in the reader’s mind by _____,”  then make sure to say it that way again, especially at the end.  Something like “Awesome!  You’ve really painted a picture in the reader’s mind by ____!”  Or, “writers always help the reader paint a picture of the story in their mind.  Every time you write, remember to ____.” 

And finally–FOLLOW UP!  Be sure to check back in a day or two and ask how ____ is going.  Ask to see where they’ve done that work in their writing.  This will tell you if they’re on their way or if they need more teaching.  

Teacher conducts student writing conference.

Q. What are the other kids doing?

A. Writing.  You will need to teach this right from day one.  Presumably, you’ve taught them how to go through the writing process so they aren’t dependent on you.  In a writer’s workshop, there is no “today this is your job” mentality.  You are always one step ahead of the kids, always giving them more to strive for.  And you’ve taught them how to generate ideas when they’ve finished a piece.  There is never “I’m done.” This means the rest of the class is independently writing.   There’s no hand-raising where you’re just going from kid to kid putting out fires.  That’s very inefficient and ensures that you’ll continually miss a lot of kids.   But you’ve got to get them there through clear, modeled expectations first.

Q.  Who should I see each day?

A. As long as you’re keeping track so that you see everyone, not just the same kids over and over–which is an all-too-easy trap to fall into–you’ll just move through the class.  One key tip for student writing (and reading) conferences:  do not have kids come to you.  Go to them.  Why? 

1.  It’s far less disruptive to everywhen when you go to them vs calling students over to you.  Calling them over is a huge interruption for everyone else. 

2.  Criss-cross the room as you confer.  This makes your presence known in all parts of the room and sets the tone that your eyes are watching.  (And be sure your back is never turned to the class!) 

3.  Other kids around you will listen in.   This is good!  When you confer 1:1 with a student, the students nearby will want to hear what great tips you’re giving out, and will want to try it out themselves, too.  More teaching bang for your buck!  

Q.  How do I keep track of my conferences?

A.  This is highly individual.  Whatever you do, be sure you take notes, and in a way that most makes sense to you.  It took me a few trials to figure out what I love, but in the end, I always revert back to my super simple go-to one-pager on a clipboard. My favorite kind is the one that opens, so I can keep conferring tools right at my fingertips (checklists, exemplars, my own writing, mentor texts, post its, etc).  At a glance, I can see who I’ve met with and who I haven’t, and the way I write them helps me instantly see my next steps in  whole-group and/or small group instruction.  And bonus–the same form is perfect in reading and in math, too!  Extra bonus–it costs NOTHING to make this form.  

Q.  Should I use a checklist?  

A.  Conferences are not assessments.  Yes, you are taking note of things that they are holding on to from your teaching, but this is not a time for quizzing kids to see if they have included a checklist of items.  This should never feel like a “gotcha” or an assessment.   This is a time for you to help nudge a child nudge  forward as a writer– not just on this piece, but on ALL writing.  It’s you and the child, writer to writer. 

This is the entire goal conferences.  We want to help students learn to be better writers of all writing, from here on out–not just improve this one specific piece of writing. 

Q.  How do I know if I’m ready to take this on?

A. You’ll never feel ready.  But you’ll also never get there until you give it a try.  Every time you do a conference, you’ll get better at it, and your confidence–and skills-will improve…right along with your kids’ writing!  So, in the wise words of Nike’s advertisers…just do it.

Soon you’ll be well on your way to awesome student writing conferences!

Want some help getting student conferences underway or guidance on how to conduct them? Contact me to set up a coaching call, so we can think it through together.  The initial call is always free. And,  join my private FB group for immediate support from like-minded educators!

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Related posts:   Getting to Know Your Readers and Writers to Save Time Later, How to Quickly Assess Student Writing, Easy Method for Teaching for Transfer in WritingOne [Paper] Stone, Many Birds, Anatomy of a Reading or Writing Conference, Sending Subliminal Messages to Students 

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