big picture · conferring · jen serravallo · lucy calkins · tcrwp

Back to Basics: Conferring (Part of TWT’s Big Picture Series)

This is the fourth of seven Back to Basics Posts.
This is the fourth of seven "Back to Basics" Posts.

I consider myself fortunate to have learned more about the art of conferring with young writers from some of the best folks out there: Carl Anderson, Lucy Calkins, and Jen Serravallo.  As many of you know, I spent a week of my summer studying more about conferring with Carl Anderson at the TCRWP Summer Institute on the Teaching of Writing.  I walked away from the week feeling more knowledgable, but still longing for more time listening to Carl talk about how he confers with writers. (Luckily, he recently published a new book about conferring, which includes videos of Carl conferring with lots of different kids.)

Since this week’s theme is “Back to Basics,” I’ve tried to synthesize what I’ve learned about conferring from Anderson, Calkins, and Seravallo for you.  It’s by no means a comprehensive guide to conferring with young writers.  If you want that, then I highly suggest picking up one of their books and learning more from them since they’ve been teaching Writing Workshop a lot longer that I have been.

Who: You and one other student.

What: A “Research-Decide-Teach” Conference (R-D-T) allows you to research what the child is doing as a writer, decide what to teach him/her, compliment the student on something they’re doing well, and then teach them something.  A “Coaching” Conference can stem from a R-D-T Conference; it allows you to set the child up for some kind of success by the end of your time together.

When: During the independent writing/practice portion of your Writing Workshop.

Where: I like to pull-up next to a student wherever they’re sitting in the room.  By doing this, it allows other kids who are close-by to listen-in to what we’re saying.  Some teachers confer at a conference table, which I do (on occasion).

Why: To lift the level of a student’s writing at any point in the writing process.  The conference, especially the “research” part of a R-D-T- Conference allows you to understand what’s working for the child, to see what is important to the child, and to allow you to give the child some kind of charge that will help him/her become a better writer.

How: I like to start off with one of two phrases, “How’s it going?” or “What are you working on as a writer?”  I let my students know, in the fall, that I expect them to lead the first part of the conference so I can decide what I’m going to teach them.  Many kids often need a gentle reminder about this several times before they come to realize that “How’s it going?” doesn’t mean, “Whatcha doing?” and “What are you working on as a writer?” doesn’t mean, “What are you writing about today?”  Other questions you can ask your kids during the “research” stage of a conference are “What are you trying to do as a writer?” or “What are you planning to do next and how will you go about doing that?”

I’ve created “conferring menus” (an idea I picked up from Serravallo in 2006) for most of the units of study I teach so I have a bunch of teaching points at my fingertips.  I often deviate from these and create new teaching points on-the-fly, but I still like to keep these handy.  If you’d like to see what one looks like, just leave a comment below and I’ll send it to you via e-mail.  (Make sure to put your e-mail address when you fill out the comment section.  Your e-mail address will NOT be published online.)

Finally, as with all of the posts Ruth and I are doing this week, we hope veteran Writing Teachers will comment on these posts so we can continue to learn from each other.

29 thoughts on “Back to Basics: Conferring (Part of TWT’s Big Picture Series)

  1. Hi, Stacy!

    If it isn’t too much trouble, I too would love a copy of your conferring menu. This is next on my list of things to learn about and I am excited to add the Carl Anderson book set to my “to order” list. Thank you for your suggestion.


  2. Thanks for your kind words folks. As of Sunday morning at 9:20, everyone who has already posted a comment should have a copy of the menu in their email inbox. 🙂


  3. As another writing teacher who is constantly trying to find new ways to improve my students’ skill, I applaud your efforts in this blog. I read it regularly and have gotten both great ideas and encouragement. I’d appreciate receiving a copy of your conferrring menu. thanks for all you do!


  4. Another tip I use. I have a small rolling chair that I got from IKEA and I slide one of the chair packs my mom made onto the back. That way I have a large pocket for mentor texts as well as any supplies I might need. I just roll around the room conferring with kids at their desks or on the floor as the case may be.


  5. I’d like to jump on the conferring menu bandwagon.

    I carry a clip board, but underneath my notes I have several pages of language for conferring pulled from various sources. I have a hard time knowing what to say to kids sometimes and having the language there at my fingertips really helps me.


  6. I would really appreciate seeing your menu. We are in the process of studying Carl’s work and would love an idea on how to begin putting together something like this. Thanks so much for sharing.


  7. I would also also like a copy of the conference menu. Carl Anderson and Jen Serravallo and Lucy Calkins are an unbeatable combination. I’ve learned so much from them — and this site keeps me reflecting on what I learned.

    I have found that to teach children what writers of mentor texts “work on,” helps them identify what they are working on. I sometimes frame it as “paying attention to” (it seems Cynthia Rylant is really paying attention to…) in a mentor text, and then talk about how we as writers work on doing this, too.


  8. What has helped me is having all of my supplies handy when conferring. I have a plastic art box with a clip on the top. I keep all my materials (mentor texts, post its, pens, etc) in the box and I have my conferring notes on top. Having all the supplies on hand helps me stay focused on what’s important…that one-on-one time with the student.

    Stacey, I would love a copy of your conferring menu…thank you for sharing!


  9. I would love a copy of your conferring menu. I’d love to share it with my teachers. We’ve been trying to get conferring off the ground with both reading and writing. Do use a lot of whole class share (We’ve studied Routmans’s Writing Essentials where she models some of this)?



  10. I’ve emailed everyone who’s responded thus far. That being said, a couple of emails got returned to me. Therefore, if you didn’t get the conferring menu from me yet, please comment again so I can resend it.



  11. I would love to see a conferring menu! Just a brief plug for Carl Anderson’s new book set: it is awesome, very user-friendly and a great resource for teachers new to conferring like myself. Thanks for being so willing to share.


  12. I would love to see a copy of your conferring menu. I have been playing around with creating them after attending a workshop with Jen Serravallo at TCRWP last spring – love the idea, but struggle with what to include for each unit.



  13. The conferring menus sound like an excellent tool. I would love to see one. I too have noticed the benefits of moving to the students’ work areas during conferring. The others nearby often benefit as much as the targeted student, and I am able to strategically place myself for behavior management purposes as well.


  14. I also would love to see your conferring menu! (

    I find that the other big benefit to conferring right next to the student is that it more often puts me in the middle of the room which does wonders for behavior management! I have a very difficult group this year and on the occasions when I feel the need to have a conference away from the larger group, it often results in more off-task behavior and wanderings.


  15. I would love to see your conferring menu.

    I wish I could say I am an expert at conferring, but this year due to behaviors that are in my classroom it doesn’t always go as planned. Anyway, this week was awesome. I took your idea of the conferring scarf and used a stuffed animal instead (A cat in the hat). I have him out at the table that I confer with students at and that really seemed to help. Less interruptions. I usually start with “So show me what you are working on.” They will either explain their issue or read it. I ask them what their current writing goal is. We discuss whether the piece is meeting the goal.This usually sounds like “Show me where you feel your piece meets your current writing goal.” I always say what I like best about the piece and then hit the teaching point. I really watch body language and then I ask them what they are going to do next after I leave and what questions they have of me before I move on. This unit of study, I have started a sign up on the white board if you wish to confer with me. I usually meet with them in-between the others. This has worked really well. Some have started leaving me notes beside their name so I will know what we are meeting about. I thought that was really great initiative on their part.

    Happy Conferring,



  16. It’s so funny that you posted about this today- I just dropped a new conferring notebook off at Staples this evening to be bound. Each student has about 5 f&b pages of a chart divided into sections (date, research, compliment, teaching point). I added a new section for the second half of the year- each student has a page of conventions that I check off and date as they’ve mastered it. In the front I also have a weekly “planning page” so I can coordinate small group lessons with those who could use them.

    I found what you said about having a list of possible conference topics ready very true. In the past two weeks, now that my students are knee deep in fiction, I have had countless conferences that I feel are just damage control… students confused about a revision strategy or what to do next. I’m trying to get back on track with my traditional conference format (hence the new conferring notebook). If you’re still willing to share, I’d love to see one of your conference menus for fiction.




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