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Helping Silent Kids Talk in a Conference

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Before I pulled up next to William, a first grader, to confer, I watched him for a few moments. He was drawing a picture containing three people (his older brother? a grown-up, himself?), each holding a long object (a bat? a fishing pole?). A swirl of lines surrounded the two characters. He paused, thought for a moment, and then added some small round shapes scattered among the feet of the three people.

As he continued to draw, I looked through his writing folder. It was a week into their opinion writing unit, and his folder was stuffed, overflowing with signs, letters, petitions. There were at least five separate pages with a large, octagonal-ish shapes with “SOTP” written in very large letters in the center, and then in smaller letters all around the edges. “DIR MOM, I WNT A PPPPY” read one letter. “NO RNN!” declared another sheet a paper, with a picture showing about ten people on the page.

I pulled my chair close next to William. “Can I stop you?”

William just kept on drawing.

I placed my hand on his paper. “William, let’s talk about your writing.” I said gently.

He stopped, and I gestured to put the pen down. He did–reluctantly.

Then, for the next five minutes I proceeded to ask questions, unsuccessfully trying to get William to say something (anything!) about the mysterious drawing with the three people, and the baseball bats/fishing poles.

Finally, William picked up his pen and continued to work. “DAD TK ME PND” he wrote.

“William, does this say, ‘Dad, take me to the pond?'” I asked enthusiastically. He stopped working, shook his head no, and was clearly annoyed with my presence.

I glanced at the clock. Writers workshop was over. It was time for me to go work with a different classroom. Argh.

When this scenario (in various forms) strikes me, I find myself grasping for ways to get kids to talk during a writing conference. Fortunately, I know I’m not alone.

Last week, I had a little brainstorming session with one of my favorite groups of teachers and we came up with a list of tried-and-true teaching moves to help the truly non-talking kids open up a little when it comes time to talk about the work they’ve been doing.

Our conversation had in mind English speaking students, as well as preproduction-stage English Language Learners. We were thinking about the kids who are indeed drawing and/or writing, but need lots of support with oral language. They are producing lots — but they have trouble articulating what they want to say out loud in conversation.

Here’s what we came up with:

1. Say hi! Imagine if any of your colleagues randomly walked right up to you and without as much as a ‘hello’ or a ‘how are you today’ started questioning you about your work. ‘So, what are you working on?’ works just fine for lots of kids (and adults), but some need you to put them at ease first–especially kids who are uneasy about the work they’ve been doing. Once warmed up a little, they may be a little more open to talking about their work.

2. Wait time. Many kids need at least five seconds (butterfly-one, butterfly-two, butterfly-three, butterfly-four, butterfly-five) to process what you have said, consider their response, and then articulate it. This is even more true if you are working with an English Language Learner, or a child who needs extra processing time. Five seconds of silence can feel like an eternity if you haven’t been practicing this. I have to count inside my head, and even sit on my hands to keep from saying anything or touching the kid’s pages!

3. Use the drawings. If you teach young children, chances are they use drawing to plan out what they want to say as writers. These drawings are great conversation starters. “Tell me about your drawing,” is more concrete than, “Tell me your story, in order, with detail, from your memory.” If you teach older students who have a hard time opening up in a conference, maybe sketching their ideas is a tool you might use to encourage more conversation about their writing.

4. Yes or No. When as student has drawn something, but either doesn’t know the words for the things in the pictures, or won’t talk about the pictures for other reasons, you can use yes or no questions as a starting point. “Is this you? Are you outside? No, so are you inside? Oh, I see… This is you and you are inside.  Are you playing? No? Are you eating? Oh! So your story begins One day, I was eating.” The student might even say the sentence back to you if you invite them. This is very helpful for English Language Learners who are still learning the words for the the objects and actions they’ve drawn.

5. Either/Or. Another useful strategy, similar to yes/no is to offer a few options. Point to the picture and take a good guess. “Is this you? Or your brother?” “Is this a building? Or a tree?” Often students will be able to figure out the right word once they hear it. Even if you can’t guess it, and the student is shaking their head no to all your guesses, we think that is still okay. You’re having a positive interaction that is focused on the student’s work, and it’s a chance to develop the student’s vocabulary.

6. A Head’s Up. Some students might need a minute or two (or more) to prepare themselves before they are ready to talk. If they know you’re coming, they might not feel put on the spot and might be more willing to say a few things.

7. A Friendly Partner. In some cases, a child might open up more if she is with another student. You can ask the two children the same questions, allowing the child to hear the other’s responses and use them as language models for her own responses.

The next time I’m visiting William’s classroom, I’m going to make sure to find him. “DAD TK ME PND” Hmm…Maybe it said, “Dad take me playing,” or “Dad took my pole.”  So hard to know!  That P could have been a reversal – maybe it’s a word that starts with d, or b?  I’m dying to find out.

Chances are you have one or two kids that you are dying to find out what they’ve got to say as well. If you have a strategy or two that works for you, please leave a comment to share!

BethMooreSchool View All

Literacy Coach, Consultant, Author, Graduate Course Instructor, and Mom. Passionate about fostering a love of reading and writing in learners of all ages.

9 thoughts on “Helping Silent Kids Talk in a Conference Leave a comment

  1. I just need to know what he was up to!

    It’s so interesting to me that the exact same techniques are used on language learners of all ages. I do the same thing with my high school kiddos. When they can’t answer a question, we go to yes or no, give them extra time to think about what they’re trying to say, partner work before public work, all of it!! Such simple little things to help kids express themselves.


  2. I teach gifted students and have recently had a new student join my class. This happens because the process of testing and qualifying goes on throughout the school year. It is so difficult to bring them in to an already well established writing classroom. For some, it’s like a breath of fresh air that they are finally able to write what they want to write. For others, they are frozen and intimidated. I say, “We were all exactly where you are at some point. Be patient. It gets easier.”


  3. My guess is that William was trying to say “… take me to the playground,” based on looking at lots and lots of samples of early writing from students. I think the suggestions you make for interacting with orally challenged students are very thoughtful, especially as they relate to ELLs. I was an ESL teacher for 22 years and often cringed when I watched colleagues interact with their ELLs. They would be well advised to try out some of your suggestions. Some students are also extremely shy so it is actually painful for them to interact with us Big People. Sometimes it’s a good idea to not even focus on the writing, but just have a small conversation for starters to build trust.


  4. Such wonderful ideas to think about when conferring! Love you blog and always share your posts! Wait time is critical. I have three children and the wait time for all three is different. We need to know our students and allow them the time they need. All points are great!


  5. The first item, saying hi, is something important those of us who don’t have classrooms anymore need to remember. Just because we feel comfortable pulling alongside a kid we’ve seen once or twice before doesn’t meant that child will be.

    Numbers 4 or 5 are going to be my big take aways from your post. Thanks!


  6. I truly believe that each child needs time to warm up or even have conferring time scheduled for those babies that don’t like to be interrupted during their writing and reading process. It’s essential for all of us to recognize the cues that our readers and writers give us, so we know how to proceed with each individual student.
    Thank you for a piece that truly pushes me to stop: take a look: and stop and think!!!


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