One of the hardest things for us to learn in improving our conferring skills was to truly get up, move about, and start conferring with children one-on-one. We were accustomed to guided reading groups — staying in one area, and having the children come to us. Getting up and moving to confer with students can be a little scary at first, but once you begin, it’s exciting. The first concern we had, and many teachers share, is about time. How long will each of these conferences take? How can we stay focused, given that there is so much we might tackle with each child? And what exactly is my role in the conference?
We begin with the goals from our assessments of students. To assess students, we begin each year by administering a DRA to those emergent readers who are just beginning to crack the code and read up to the end of second grade level. For those students who read at the third grade level and beyond, we administer the Burns and Roe IRI. Our whole class is given the Words Their Way assessment to guide our instruction with decoding and spelling patterns.
Once we’ve observed each child, talked with them, and gotten a sense of the child’s strengths and needs, we’re ready to set goals with them. The goals come from the assessments, and they become the focus of each conference with the child. One of the things we had to resist was focusing too much on a conferring form in the conference. What’s what we’ve become accustomed to as teachers – meeting with a child and filling in blanks in an assessment form as we listen to them read.
These conferring forms that are provided in many assessment systems or professional books are often loaded with questions: What are you reading now? What are your strengths as a reader? Let’s discuss vocabulary. What about fluency? Tell me why you chose this book. And on and on. It isn’t that these aren’t good questions, but there are too many of them. By the time you’ve conferred with two or three children, the reading workshop for the day may be over.
While keeping good records is one part of CAFÉ, we’ve found the best use of our time in the conference is to observe and listen well to the child, teach and/or reinforce their strategy, have the child practice the strategy, plan for the student’s next step and encourage them to keep going! This way, instead of long conferences with detailed notes that may have little impact on the child’s strategy work and immediate goal as a reader, we have continuous brief, targeted contact and instruction with all of student more frequently.
We are also teaching children to look more closely at where they are now as a reader, and where they might go tomorrow, or over the next week, in working on skills. So many of the conference protocols we’ve seen look at what the child is reading at the moment, or ask him or her to talk about their whole life as a reader. With CAFÉ, we’re looking at days and weeks, rather than moments and years, to help children become more independent in tracking their progress and taking responsibility for it.
One of the strengths of setting goals with children which they work on over a period of time is that it saves time in conferences. Instead of taking time each conference with a child to come up with a new goal or goals, the child begins from the starting point of knowing she is working on developing fluency. Or he is expanding vocabulary.
Focus in Advance
We have a focus for most conferences before we even meet with the child again. When the child sees us walking up to them for the conference, they mentally begin to sort through what progress they have made toward their goal, and what topics around the goal we might discuss when we meet. We’ve also found that it’s very hard for children to set meaningful reading goals without guidance or a concrete system. If you ask most children in the primary grades what their goal is as a reader, they are going to say, “I want to read chapter books.” That’s not really a goal that is going to move them forward in terms of understanding their strengths and needs as readers, and learning to monitor their reading growth independently.
One other important aspect of conferring with children is to develop a shared language around reading development. The language we use with students shapes their thinking about what reading is. We don’t want our students to say “I want to get farther along in the Accelerated Reader program.” We’re helping them become comfortable with words like comprehension, accuracy, fluency, and vocabulary as they think about what it means to read and make progress as a reader.
These experiences with language our classroom community shares as we talk about literacy are the glue that connect our lives to the books we are reading. After all, the main goal is for children to learn to read, love to read and choose to read. What better way to help them achieve this than to become proficient readers, well aware of the words in the environment around them?